BluEsoterica *** Jim O'Neal


April 29, 2018

In honor of Otis Rush’s birthday, although we aren’t sure how old he actually is (see notes below (Otis' Birth Date) with more discussion on this) , here is a short article I wrote, with assistance from Dick Shurman, for the 2018 Blues Festival Guide. There is much, much more to the Otis Rush story, of course, and I hope to write as much of it as I can.

September 29, 2018:  Otis Rush passed away in Chicago. Rest in Peace, Otis. A celebration in his honor was held at Space in Evanston, Illinois, on April 24, 2019.

Otis' birth date

April 29, 1934, is the usual birth date cited for Otis in his biographies and on his passport, but family members have told him it was 1935, and when he was enumerated for the census on April 5, 1940, under the name Junior Boyd, his age was listed as seven, which would indicate a 1932 birthdate if April 29 was his birthday. An old file card from the Chicago musicians' union shows it as 4-29-32.The first address for him on the card has xxxx's typed over it, but it's 4801 S. Indiana Ave., which many may recognize as the South Side apartment building that housed Theresa's Lounge in the basement. Only one of his several addresses, by the way, was on the West Side, even though he is hailed as a creator of the West Side blues style--which has more to do with the locations of Cobra Records and many of the clubs he played in the 1950s and '60s.


(Revised 4-30-2024)

After conversations with his family and continuing genealogical research, I believe that Otis was most likely born in 1932, based on the date he gave when he joined the Chicago musicians union, census entries, and the fact that although the state of Mississippi has never been able to locate a birth certificate for him, they did find one for his younger sister Odie Mae from 1934. She and Otis always said he was two years older than her (also confirmed by the 1940 census). The confusion may have started in 1956 when Cobra Records billed him as a 21-year-old sensation.

Otis most often cited 1934 as his birth date. This is the date that was on the passport that he was issued in 1986 under the name Otis Boyd (the family name is Boyd in the 1940 census, where is he listed as Junior Boyd). My ex-wife Amy and I helped him obtain this passport by going to the passport office in Chicago and filling out the forms including those he needed to verify his birthdate (by affidavits from family members, as I recall, since no birth certificate could be found).

Otis’ wife Masaki says his previous passport under the name Otis Rush Jr. cited a birth date of 1933.

When Masaki and I were trying to determine what birth date to put on his Mississippi Blues Trail marker in 2007, she talked to some family members and decided that it should probably be 1935 although all the previous years back to 1931 came up as possibilities. We talked about this again in May of 2018 and she said she was still not sure even after more conversations with family and a trip she made to Philadelphia, Mississippi, to take care of some matters, including Otis’ marriage there on Dec. 31, 1949, which apparently had not been legally ended since no divorce papers were filed. Masaki later told me that Otis had to go back to Philadelphia from Chicago for the marriage, which was a double ceremony arranged between the Boyd/Rush and Clemons families. Otis signed his marriage license as Otis Junior Boyd and gave his age as 21, which would have meant a 1928 birthdate! His brother WIlmon was married at the same time, and their sister Odie Mae later married the brother of Otis’ and Wilmon’s wives.

In the 1950 census, taken on April 12, his name was mistranscribed as Odis Bush Jr., an easy mistake to make if you look at the handwritten entry, which may look like Bush but is really the name Rush written above Boyd (so Otis may have given his name as Boyd first and then said it should be Rush). “Odis” may have been the way the enumerator assumed his first name was spelled. Otis and his wife Mary L. are both listed as 18 years old, living on Old Philadelphia-Meridian Road in Mogalusha, Neshoba County, Mississippi. Otis’ occupation was “farmer.” Likewise, his brothers Eugene and Leroy living in the same area were also farmers.

If Otis was 18 and his birth date was April 29, he would actually have been born in 1931 by this census dated April 12, but maybe he--or his wife—we don’t really know who gave the enumerator the information—said he was 18 since he may have been just 17 days shy of 18.


In 1988 when I booked Otis to headline the Sunflower Riverbank Blues Festival in Clarksdale, Mississippi, Otis wanted to go see his older brother Leroy Boyd and his family in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Patty Johnson and I drove Otis to Philadelphia. During the visit Leroy told Otis that he wasn’t born in town, but out in the country in Neshoba, about 10 miles away.


Jim O’Neal

Oct. 3, 2018/Aug. 3, 2019/Apr. 30, 2024