Thursday, April 22, 2010

April 22: Otis Rush, "I Can't Quit You Baby"

Artist: Otis Rush
Song: "I Can't Quit You Baby"
Album: I Can't Quit You Baby (single)
Year: 1956

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (ORIGINAL) (will open in new tab)

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (1967 VERSION) (will open in new tab)

As has been proven by countless artists of the decades, simple because a song is slow, it does not necessarily mean that the song lacks in soul or intensity.  In many cases, it is quite the opposite, and the most moving and powerful songs ever recorded ten to be slower and less overtly aggressive at first glance.  Many of the songs of this nature come from the blues genre, and when one looks deeper into the source of the music and lyrics, there are a stunning number of occasions when one will stumble across the name Willie Dixon.  From Little Walter to Chuck Berry to Muddy Waters, Dixon's writing credits boast many of the most iconic songs in history, and though he was not the performer, he is often given "full" credit for the songs when they were covered in later years.  Though he worked with a massive number of artists over his years, there were few that so perfectly captured the true emotion and soul behind his words than the gray Chicago bluesman, Otis Rush.  A many who was unquestionably one of the most important figures in the formation of the so-called "West side" guitar style, and he has one of the most instantly recognizable sounds in the history of recorded music.  On pure talent, there are few artists from any point in history that even come remotely close to Otis Rush, yet in comparison, he remains a "second tier" blues artist, though his influence can be heard across the musical spectrum.  While one can make the case that Otis Rush never made a "bad" recording, there are few songs in history that can compare to the tone and power of his 1956 collaboration with Dixon, the iconic single, "I Can't Quit You Baby."

There are actually a number of different recorded versions of "I Can't Quit You Baby," as Otis Rush revisited the song on a number of occasions over the decades.  While the 1956 version is an absolute classic, in many ways, it is the slightly longer version he recorded in 1967 that became the "standard" for covers over the years.  This second version is far more clear, and features a different musical arrangement, centered around a rather unorthodox "turnaround," where the guitar goes from a tonic chord into a half-step up, which makes it an instantly recognizable musical progression.  It is within the guitar playing of Otis Rush that one can hear influences on everyone from Jimmy Page to Stevie Ray Vaughan, and in the case of the former, the comparison goes further.  On their 1969 debut album, Led Zeppelin put their own spin on the tune, and yet it is nearly an exact copy of the later Rush version.  The Zeppelin version is without question one of the bright spots of their album, and yet the fact that the band often gave credit to Dixon only, raised a bit of controversy over the years.  Regardless, none of the covers compare to the original Otis Rush masterpiece, as the balance between the instruments and vocals are truly perfect, and the addition and placement of the horns on the 1967 recording truly makes "I Can't Quit You Baby" a blues recording like no other.  The amazing, unique sound, combined with the unparalleled amount of emotion coming from each musician drove the recording into the top ten on the charts, and the number of times it has been covered over the decades cements "I Can't Quit You Baby" as one of the most significant recordings in music history.

Yet as extraordinary and unique as the music on the recordings is, there is simply nothing that can compare to the sound and power of the voice of Otis Rush.  From the startling yell that opens the 1967 version to his slightly gritty, yet overly emotional voice that dominates both of the main recordings, Rush displays more soul and pure power than nearly any other singer in history.  Even with the occasisonal gruff in his voice, one cannot deny the fact that Otis Rush possesses one of the finest and most pure voices ever in blues history, and it is this unguarded, raw sound that makes his songs so different than those of his peers.  At times singing in a different key than the music, the way in which Rush almost harmonizes with himself is a truly uncanny talent, and one of many reasons why his voice remains so iconic.  Yet as good as Otis Rush's voice is, one cannot deny the fact that he was given an amazingly moving set of lyrics with which to work.  Without question one of Dixon's finest pieces, "I Can't Quit You Baby" strikes a unique balance between tragedy and comedy, and the opening line of, "I can't quit you, baby, but I've got to put you down for a while..." perfectly displays this duality.  While one can take the song at face value, as a man who needs a break from his woman, one can similarly read the lyrics as a mans struggle with drug abuse, and nearly every other line in the song can be read with this double meaning.  Rush pushes Dixon's lyrics deeper into this ambiguous meaning when he sings, "...when you hear me moanin' and groanin', baby, you know it hurts me way down inside..."  Simply put, "I Can't Quit You Baby" makes a quick case for the combination of Otis Rush and Willie Dixon as one of the most powerful and important musical pairings in history.

The connection between blues and rock music is simply undeniable, and it is within the countless covers of Otis Rush's "I Can't Quit You Baby" that this link is cemented.  With everyone from Little Milton to John Mayall to the aforementioned Zeppelin version, the song is one of the most iconic blues-rock compositions ever, and yet one can experience everything great about the song within the original 1956 recording.  Otis Rush's sharp, hey crying guitar style is nearly as important as his singing, and the influence that his approach had on later guitar players is equally as important as the song itself.  His fingers almost dance around the fret board, giving a fantastic contrast to his singing in terms of both tone as well as the "open" spaces that are left on the recording.  Taking all this into account, "I Can't Quit You Baby" follows the standard twelve-bar Chicago-blues style, and it proves that nearly all of musical greatness is not "what" you are playing, but "how" you are playing.  The song overflows with soul and heartache, and the multiple interpretations of the lyrics offers the song a wider audience, and the range of artists who covered the songs solidifies this broad appeal.  Yet even with all of the fantastic covers, there is nothing that comes close to the original, and the sheer power and soul behind the voice of Otis Rush is something that must be experienced to be properly appreciated.  Though history has tragically relegated him to a "second tier" status within the names of great bluesman, one cannot deny the extraordinary sound and unparalleled impact of Otis Rush and his 1956 recording, "I Can't Quit You Baby."

1 comment:

Dusty Burton said...

Brilliant .Thank You. I played with Otis Rush . It was at a club on the north side of Chicago.It was a game of 8 ball before the show . He lost then he left, got on stage and started playin" I was shocked . A Master ....!!!