Jimmy Rushing was big in 1942, so big that a song called “Mr. Five By Five” was written in his honor and went to No. 1 on the Billboard R&B Chart. The song described a man who was “5-feet-tall and he's 5-feet-wide,” but the biggest thing about Rushing was his voice, an instrument that could compete with the loudest horns in any band.
And from the 1910s, when his voice could be heard ringing out from nightclubs in Deep Deuce, to his death in 1972, Rushing maintained a mountainous presence in blues and jazz. When William “Count” Basie first heard Rushing, the piano legend was so impressed with the singer's powerful vocals that they spent the next two decades playing together.
“In 1929, we picked up a blues singer in Oklahoma City,” Basie told authors Nat Hentoff and Nat Shapiro in the 1966 book, “Hear Me Talkin' to Ya: The Story of Jazz As Told by the Men Who Made It.” “That was Jimmy Rushing, who for my money has never had an equal when it comes to the blues.
“In all the time he was with the band, Jimmy Rushing has been what I might call my right arm,” Basie said. “There were times in the early days of the band that I'd have given it all up but for Jimmy's urging to stick with it.”
Born in Oklahoma City, Rushing's actual birth date has long been in dispute and was called into question in 1994 when the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp with Rushing's likeness that listed his year of birth as 1902. Currie Ballard, who was then historian-in-residence at Langston University, said at the time that Rushing was born in 1899. The website www.jimmyrushing.com includes a copy of a 1938 Social Security Administration form filed by James Andrew Rushing, listing his employer as “Count Basie” and his birthday as “August 26, 1901.”
Rushing was born into a musical family. His father, trumpet player Andrew Rushing, steered his son toward violin and away from piano, the common instrument at the “sporting houses” in the red light district.
“He had bought me a violin, and he had forbidden me to touch the piano,” Rushing told Basie biographer Stanley Dance in 1963.
“When he left the house, he'd lock the piano and give my mother the key. We'd watch him go away, and then she'd give me the key. When he came back at night, he'd say ‘Get the violin out!' But I wouldn't know anything. It got to the stage where I just couldn't play it, and he told me, ‘If I ever catch you on that piano again, or dancing, I'm gonna run you away from home!' I had really tried, but I was gone from there in about two weeks! He lived long enough to see my success with Basie, and he agreed to it, although he never said so. But he'd have a smile on his face and say, ‘Well, I guess you're doing OK.'”
Rushing graduated from Douglass High School and attended Wilberforce University in Ohio before joining bassist Walter Page's Oklahoma City Blue Devils, one of the great territorial jazz bands. Rushing, along with Basie, spent time in the Blue Devils before Basie, Page, Rushing and other members moved over to Benny Moten's big band, and after Moten's death in 1935, they became the nucleus of Basie's orchestra.
“He was during that transition between the territorial band and the big band swing,” said “Hardluck Jim” Johnson, program director at KGOU/KROU and host of the “Weekend Blues.” “He was one of these guys who was at the cusp of an evolution to what we know as big band.”
During his earliest performances, microphones were not available. Fortunately for Rushing, they were not required either.
“There were no microphones in those days, and unless you could overshadow the horns, they wouldn't let you sing,” Rushing said in the Dance interview. “You had to have a good pair of lungs — strong — to reach out over the band and the people in those big dance halls. Later on, they brought in megaphones for singers like Rudy Vallee, but the crooners and sweet singers couldn't make it before that.”
Rushing distinguished himself on Basie recordings such as “Sent For You Yesterday,” “Harvard Blues” and “Goin' to Chicago Blues,” and when he split with Basie in 1950, Rushing continued to enjoy a steady career and loyal following. In 1959, he collaborated with Duke Ellington on the all-star recording “Jazz Party,” and recorded “Brubeck and Rushing” with the Dave Brubeck Quartet in 1960.
His final album, 1971's “The You and Me That Used to Be,” was chosen as “album of the year” by Downbeat magazine. After a bout with leukemia, Rushing died on June 8, 1972, in New York City, and was buried at Maple Grove Cemetery, Kew Gardens, in Queens, N.Y. Although he sang many styles, applying his powerful voice to standards and jazz ballads, Rushing's first and abiding love was always for the blues.
“I understand how fly-by-night things like bossa nova are introduced and promoted, but when they've gone, you've got to get back to the main source — the blues,” Rushing said. “I can sing anything I want, maybe two or three songs before the blues, but the minute I begin ‘Goin' to Chicago' or something like that, I hear the scream start.”