Spring for the blues

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Blues music has had its ups and downs over the years. Record labels featuring blues artists have come and gone and surfaced again. Yet the music will probably be around forever, declares a man who has been singing the blues for more than 40 years.

Blues star Little Milton is just one of the many artists who will be performing at the third annual Chesapeake Bay Blues Festival this weekend at Sandy Point State Park outside Annapolis. Other acts include James Brown, "the Godfather of Soul," the Robert Cray Band, Roomful of Blues, Debbie Davies and Taj Mahal.

Little Milton's singing has been described as "stylistically set somewhere between the soul blues of Bobby 'Blue' Bland and the refined urban blues of B. B. King," according to an Internet site that describes blues singers.

Little Milton, 65, was born in Inverness, Miss., and now lives in Tennessee. His recording career began in the early '50s. In 1988, he was inducted in the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame.

His songs include "We're Gonna Make It," If Walls Could Talk" and "Baby, I Love You."

It makes no difference to Little Milton if people refer to him as a soul singer or blues singer or rhythm and blues singer or whatever kind of singer. "Call me anything you want. Just don't call me late to dinner or late to the bank!" he jokes.

Little Milton spoke from his home about the music industry, the blues and his long career. He has a hard time understanding the popularity of today's music -- specifically that of hip-hop and rap artists whose message is one of vulgarity and violence.

"I am not kicking anyone's success," says the man who was born Milton Campbell. "But I have no respect for the vulgar, racial stuff and the disrespect for women. These people are getting rich, filthy rich, but principles should have been looked at. People are buying these records; we are living in strange times."

For Little Milton, who taught himself how to play the guitar, blues makes so much more sense. "I think it's very meaningful music," he says.

However, his career choice hasn't always been an easy one. "I've had my ups and downs," he says.

Yet he reflects that things haven't been too bad. "It hasn't really been difficult," he says. And he never thought about leaving the business, even when it was tough making ends meet.

"What made me continue doing this is that I enjoy what I do and I do it my way. Fortunately, my way is something other people enjoy as well."

His inspiration comes from that place inside of himself that has felt the pain, joy and heartaches everyone experiences.

"It comes from within my soul. I have got to feel it and to project it to the audience," he says. "I am the tool to get the audience to feel it."

And when they do?

"It is most certainly very gratifying," he says.

Blues singer and guitarist Otis Rush has also had his ups and downs, but he enthusiastically says, "I'm still around!"

He certainly is.

Rush won the Traditional Blues Album Grammy Award in 1995 for "Ain't Enough Comin' In." It was a high point in a long and rewarding career.

"I'm not bragging," the blues man says from his home in Chicago.

Rush co-produced the album and arranged it. "I've been having other people produce and arrange stuff for me, and I never won anything," he says. "I did it, and I won a Grammy," he says proudly of his accomplishment.

Rush, 66, was born in Philadelphia, Miss., but moved with his family to Chicago as a teen-ager. He played clubs in Chicago along with well-known bluesmen Freddie King and Buddy Guy.

There are plenty of musicians who inspired Rush, including Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and Howling Wind.

Rush's songs include "I Can't Quit You Baby," "So Many Roads" and "Homework."

His style of contemporary blues hasn't changed much since he began performing. What has changed is the faces of those who come to see him in concert. New audiences are discovering him, and he is gratified. "I see quite a few young people and people of all ages," he says.

Rush looks forward to continuing to perform. "I'm still playing the same thing," he says. "But I'm still learning, and I practice trying to learn new songs."

Although Bobby Rush shares the same last name (stage name, anyway) with Otis Rush, the blues of Bobby is quite different from that of Otis. Bobby Rush was born Emmett Ellis Jr. in Homer, La. He is known for his sexually charged performances that also include quite a bit of humor.

A 1998 profile of Rush in Blues Review magazine calls him "The quintessential entertainer ... in the most sexually charged and riotous stage show in contemporary blues." For instance, one of Rush's acts includes his holding up a pair of 5-foot-wide panties and asking, "Has anyone seen my woman?"

Rush says it is all done in good humor.

"I can get away with a lot of stuff now that I could not before because I'm an old man now!"

And anyway, he says, sex sells.

"People may say they don't like it, but they look at ads with girls selling cars, and the girls are in shorts," he says.

By today's standards -- with younger performers pushing the sexual envelope -- Rush's act is comparatively tame.

A 1988 review of Rush's music in the Maine Blues Society newsletter noted that his "lyrics and subject matter were risque ... not exactly X-rated but not ready for prime time either." Rush doesn't like to tell his age but with a little urging admits to being "under 65 but over 63!" The Mississippi resident adds that his 40-year career has been a struggle sometimes.

"It got so bad financially for me. But what kept me going was my spiritual upbringing," says Rush, who is the son of a minister.

"I always thought tomorrow would be a better day. But tomorrow wasn't always better," he says. Looking back on those lean years, Rush is philosophical.

"It's been a struggle, but it's been a spiritually good struggle," he says. "I see the blessing in it now."

Times are much better for the blues singer and entertainer, and he prefers to dwell on the present.

"I don't want to talk about the sad things," he says.

Rush is thrilled his audiences are growing and becoming more diverse.

"I am beginning to cross over, but I am not trying to cross out," he says.

What he means is that although his audiences include many more white people these days, he is doing his same act.

Rush is the recipient of many awards, including the B. B. King Blues Hero Award and the Critics Choice Award for Best Live Performer. He is also known for his charitable acts.

He is an active member of the NAACP and participates in voter registration drives in Mississippi. He and his wife also volunteer for a prison ministry.

After being around for so many years, Rush has some advice for young people just starting out in music careers. First of all, he cautions, stay away from drugs.

Then there is this: "Be good at what you do. Be the best. And don't let people tell you you can't do it."

But also, take a good, hard, honest look at yourself and your talents. "Make sure you look into the mirror. Don't think you can play guitar music when you can't."

He says that although there are some things one can learn musically, such as how to play a guitar, he believes there are other things that cannot be taught. "You can't teach a man how to be an entertainer," he says. "You either have it in you or you don't."

The Facts

What: The third annual Chesapeake Bay Blues Festival, featuring James Brown, the Robert Cray Band, Debbie Davies, John Hammond, Taj Mahal, Little Milton, Bobby Rush, Otis Rush and others.

When: May 20-21 rain or shine. Gates open 10:30 a.m. both days. Shows run from 11 a.m. until 8:30 p.m.

Where: Sandy Point State Park, U.S. 50 at the Bay Bridge east of Annapolis.

Tickets: One-day pass $30 in advance, $40 at the gate. Two-day pass $50 in advance, $60 at the gate. Children 10 and under free with an adult. $5 parking fee at the Naval Academy Stadium. A free shuttle will run from the stadium parking lot to Sandy Point.

Miscellaneous : Lawn seating; bring low chairs and blankets

Call: 301-780-5720 or visit the Web site, www.bayblues.org

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