Short and squat yet blues singer Jimmy Rushing’s voice soared above trumpets and trombones

Michael Eli Dokosi April 17, 2020
Jimmy Rushing and a team of players via Terry Cryer/CORBIS

By the time James Andrew Rushing passed on June 8, 1972, he had established himself as an American blues and jazz singer, as well as, pianist. Some jazz experts even considered him the greatest of the male jazz singers.

He was held in high critical esteem during his career and after his death. Critic Nat Hentoff, ranked Rushing as one of the “greatest blues singers.”

Scott Yanow described Rushing as the “perfect big band singer” who “was famous for his ability to sing blues, but in reality he could sing almost anything.”

The Oklahoma City native made a name for himself as the featured vocalist of Count Basie’s Orchestra from 1935 to 1950.

Aside his music gifts, Rushing also known as “Mr. Five by Five” thanks to his plump figure, as well as, being vertically challenged, so much so that he was described in a song by Harry James as “he’s five feet tall and he’s five feet wide.”

According to Rushing, who was born into a musical family, the first time he sang in front of an audience was in 1924 when as he played the piano at a club, the featured singer, Carlyn Williams, invited him to do a vocal. Mr. Rushing taught himself to play the violin.

Rushing’s father, Andrew Rushing was a trumpeter while his mother, Cora and her brother were singers. He studied music theory with Zelia N. Breaux at Frederick A. Douglass High School in Oklahoma City and Wilberforce University, which gave him an edge over his peers.

Rushing toured the Midwest and California as an itinerant blues singer in the early 1920s before moving to Los Angeles, where he played piano and sang with Jelly Roll Morton.

He joined Walter Page’s Blue Devils in 1927 and then joined Bennie Moten’s band in 1929. With Moten’s death in 1935, Rushing joined Count Basie for what would be a 13-year job. He was a proponent of the Kansas City, Missouri, jump blues tradition exemplified by his performances of “Sent for You Yesterday” and “Boogie Woogie” for the Count Basie Orchestra.

After leaving Basie, his recording career soared as a solo musician and a singer with other bands. From 1950 until 1952 he led a seven‐piece band that played at the Savoy Ballroom. He traveled widely in the United States and in Europe and, in 1964, to Australia.

Rushing had a range from baritone to tenor and although sometimes classified as a blues shouter, he could project his voice so that it soared over the horn and reed sections in a big-band setting. Basie claimed that Rushing “never had an equal” as a blues vocalist, though Rushing “really thought of himself as a ballad singer.”

Among his best-known recordings are “Going to Chicago“, with Basie, and “Harvard Blues“, with a famous saxophone solo by Don Byas. He sang the blues in an intense, high‐pitched voice that gave an unusual sense of urgency to his performances.

Steel bright in its upper range and, at its best, silky smooth,” novelist Ralph Ellison said of Mr. Rushing’s voice, adding, “It is possessed of a purity somehow impervious to both the stress of singing above, a 12‐piece band and the urgency of Rushing’s own blazing fervor.”

Jimmy Rushing was a four-time winner of Best Male Singer in the Critics’ Poll of Melody Maker and a four-time winner of Best Male Singer in the International Critics’ Poll in Down Beat. His 1971 album The You and Me That Used to Be was named Jazz Album of the Year by Down Beat. He received the 1971 Grammy nomination Best Jazz Performance by a Soloist.

Rushing was one of eight jazz and blues legends honored in a set of United States Postal Service stamps issued in 1994.

Rushing died on June 8, 1972 in New York City and was buried at the Maple Grove Cemetery in Kew Gardens, Queens, New York. He was survived by wife, Connie, and two sons, Robert and William.

Last Edited by:Kent Mensah Updated: April 17, 2020


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