Remembering Jimmy Rushing, the 'Five by Five' man with the enormous voice

Jimmy Rushing, the well-known singer of Count Basie's orchestra, was born in Oklahoma City.
BY GEORGE LANG glang@opubco.com Modified: January 29, 2012 at 10:27 am •  Published: January 29, 2012

photo - Blues vocalist Jimmy Rushing of the Count Basie orchestra is seen in a 1936 publicity photo.  (AP Photo)
Blues vocalist Jimmy Rushing of the Count Basie orchestra is seen in a 1936 publicity photo. (AP Photo)

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.”

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