James Andrew Rushing was born in Oklahoma City on August 26, 1901. Born into a musical family, he studied music theory at Oklahoma City’s Douglass High School, and furthered his studies at Wilberforce University. Jimmy worked mainly as a pianist in the Midwest and in California until, as he remembered it, the featured singer at the club invited him to do a vocal. “I got out there and broke it up. I was a singer from then on,” he said.
In 1924 Jimmy Rushing moved to Los Angeles where he played piano and sang with Jelly Roll Morton. After a stint in vaudeville, he joined Walter Page’s Blue Devils, a legendary Kansas City band which also included William “Count” Basie, Eddie Durham, and Oran “Hot Lips” Page. Bennie Moten gradually hired away all these luminaries for his famous Kansas City Orchestra by 1930.
Rushing’s recordings with Moten reveal an accomplished vocalist who excelled in both blues and popular songs. Bill Basie suggested Rushing “never had an equal” as a bluesman, while Jimmy considered himself more of a ballad singer. When Bennie Moten died suddenly in 1935, Jimmy joined Basie in assembling a band from the remnants of the Moten organization that was to achieve remarkable and lasting fame as the Count Basie Orchestra.
Jimmy Rushing stayed with Basie from the band’s inception until 1948, during which time he grew famous. Owing to his physical stature, he acquired the moniker of “Mr. Five by Five” and was the inspiration in 1942 for a hit song of the same name. Rushing “shouted” the blues, but with an eloquence and elegance that complemented Basie’s own style. Gary Giddins said, “just about every record they made together is a classic.” According to New Yorker critic Whitney Balliett, Rushing had “the curious effect of making the typical roughhouse blues lyric seem like a song by Noël Coward.”
After his years with Basie, the versatile Rushing worked and recorded with such disparate musicians as Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, and Humphrey Lyttelton. He appeared in a feature film, The Learning Tree, in 1969, and continued to record until 1971.
Jimmy Rushing died in New York City on June 8, 1972. —Andy Senior
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