Jimmy Rushing

Jun 16th, 2011 | By | Category: Arts & Entertainment
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Jimmy Rushing1901?-1972  Jimmy Rushing lent his distinctive tenor voice to many of jazz’s great big bands, and he then emerged equally powerfully as solo artist. He personified the evolution of African American music from its blues roots to jazz expression, and brought a unique sensitivity and understanding to the lyrics he so joyfully sang.

Violin, Piano, and Theory

James Andrew Rushing was born sometime between 1901 and 1903 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and was himself the source of the conflicting dates. His parents were both amateur musicians: father Andrew Rushing played trumpet, and mother Cora Freeman was a church organist. Other members of the family played piano, and Rushing’s early environment was filled with music and instruments. He taught himself violin and then piano, sang in church choir and school ensembles, studied music theory at Douglass High School, and became a competent reader of music. During school vacations, he was known to “hobo” as far south as Texas and as far north as Chicago.

Following his high school graduation, Rushing attended Wilberforce University in Ohio for two years, after which he left school and made his way to Los Angeles, California. Supporting himself with non-musical “day jobs,” he also appeared at private parties with the likes of Jelly Roll Morton, and occasionally at private clubs, and in 1925 toured with the Billy King Road Show. He left Los Angeles in 1926 to return to Oklahoma City, spent a year working in his father’s café, and then traveled to Little Rock, Arkansas to join Walter Page’s Blue Devils in 1929. The band added a pianist named Count Basie the following year.

That group’s 1929 recording session for Vocalion Records in Kansas City was probably Rushing’s first recorded performance. More importantly, when Page broke up his group, he, Rushing, and Basie joined Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra in that town. Together they toured nationally, and recorded for Victor Records, until the leader’s death in 1935. Basie then assembled his own nine-piece big band from the best players left behind by Moten, including Page and Rushing. They performed seven days a week, for eight to 12 hours per day at the Reno Club in Kansas City for $15 per week. Speaking of this difficult time, Basie said that he would have given up except for Rushing’s encouragement to “stick with it.” The group expanded to 13 pieces in 1936, and ventured to New York City to seek fortune and fame.

The combination proved electrifying: Rushing’s deft tenor cut through the massive big band sound, and his emotional, plaintive renderings were powered by its swinging rhythm section. The group’s first recording in 1936 of “Boogie Woogie” made Rushing the vocal signature of Basie’s band; they would go on to record for Decca, Columbia, and RCA while performing and appearing in films for the next 15 years.

Under Basie’s guidance the band concentrated on blues-based tunes, and with Rushing’s added lyricism scored popular successes with “Evenin’,” “Good Morning Blues,” “I Want a Little Girl,” “Goin’ to Chicago Blues,” and “Harvard Blues.” Rushing was featured in 1938’s “From Spirituals to Swing” concert at Carnegie Hall. He was beloved by audiences for his always smiling and passionate exuberance, as well as his rotund figure: known as “Mister Five-by-Five” for his height and girth (which was also the title of one of his songs), he mastered and then transcended the blues genre.

Septet and Solo

The Basie ensemble disbanded in 1950, during a period of declining popularity for big bands. Rushing retired for a brief time, and then beginning in the early 1950s performed on his own and with his own septet at New York’s Savoy Ballroom. He continued appearing with Basie on occasion, including a television broadcast on the Tonight Show in 1954; Rushing also appeared on the televised “The Sound of Jazz” in 1957. But his solo live performing career took precedence, as did his recordings for the King, Vanguard, Jazztone, Okeh, and Columbia labels which accelerated throughout the decade. Notable collaborators during this period included Basie alumni Jo Jones and Buck Clayton, as well as Dave Brubeck, Colman Hawkins, and Benny Goodman. Rushing appeared with Goodman at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels and the Newport Jazz Festival that year, and recorded with the Duke Ellington Band on the Jazz Party label.

The pattern continued through the 1960s, when Rushing performed in many parts of the world with such luminaries as Joe Newman, Eddie Condon, Dave Brubeck, Thelonius Monk, and his older colleagues Benny Goodman and Count Basie. Major jazz festivals consistently booked him, and he appeared on both PBS-TV and the Mike Douglas Show. He sang and acted in a 1969 film called “The Learning Tree.”

Rushing’s voice was declining by the early 1970s, but his last recording session, which included the poignantly themed “When I Grow Too Old to Dream” and “I Surrender, Dear” showed an almost portentous depth. His health faltered in 1971, and he discontinued performing almost completely, save weekends at the famous Half Note in New York’s Greenwich Village. He died in 1972 of leukemia in New York City. Over 300 people attended his funeral, including Count Basie and Benny Goodman. He was succeeded by his wife Connie, and their two sons.

Rushing was recognized during his lifetime as one of the finest singers in any genre. Accolades included the Best Male Singer award from Melody Maker magazine’s Critics Poll for the years 1957, 1958, 1959, and 1960. Downbeat magazine’s International Critics Poll also selected him as Best Male Singer in 1958, 1959, 1960, and 1972, in which year the magazine also chose his “The You and Me That Used To Be” the Record of the Year.


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