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.'”Stories of the Ages: Endangered Black History