James Andrew Rushing (August 26, 1901 - June 8, 1972) was an American blues shouter, balladeer, swing jazz singer, and pianist from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, best known as the featured vocalist of Count Basie's Orchestra from 1935 to 1948.
Rushing was known as "Mr. Five by Five" and was the subject of an eponymous 1942 popular song that was a hit for Harry James and others; the lyrics describe Rushing's rotund build: "he's five feet tall and he's five feet wide". He joined Walter Page's Blue Devils in 1927 and then joined Bennie Moten's band in 1929. He stayed with the successor Count Basie band when Moten died in 1935.
Rushing said that his first time singing in front of an audience was in 1924. He was playing piano at a club when the featured singer, Carlyn Williams, invited him to do a vocal. "I got out there and broke it up. I was a singer from then on," he said.
Rushing was a powerful singer who had a range from baritone to tenor. He could project his voice so that it soared over the horn and reed sections in a big-band setting. Basie claimed that Rushing "never had an equal" as a blues vocalist, though Rushing "really thought of himself as a ballad singer."George Frazier, the author of Harvard Blues, called Rushing's distinctive voice "a magnificent gargle". Dave Brubeck defined Rushing's status among blues singers as "the daddy of them all." Late in his life Rushing said of his singing style, "I don't know what kind of blues singer you'd call me. I just sing 'em." Among his best-known recordings are "Going to Chicago", with Basie, and "Harvard Blues", with a famous saxophone solo by Don Byas.
Rushing was born into a family with musical talent and accomplishments. His father, Andrew Rushing, was a trumpeter, and his mother, Cora, and her brother were singers. He studied music theory with Zelia N. Breaux at Oklahoma City's Douglass High School, and was unusual among his musical contemporaries for having attended college, at Wilberforce University. Rushing was inspired to pursue music and eventually sing blues by his uncle Wesley Manning and George "Fathead" Thomas, of McKinney's Cotton Pickers. Rushing toured the Midwest and California as an itinerant blues singer in 1923 and 1924 before moving to Los Angeles, where he played piano and sang with Jelly Roll Morton. Rushing also sang with Billy King (vaudeville) before moving on to Page's Blue Devils in 1927. He, along with other members of the Blue Devils, defected to the Bennie Moten band in 1929.
Moten died in 1935, and Rushing joined Count Basie for what would be a 13-year tenure. Due to his tutelage under his mentor Moten, Rushing was a proponent of the Kansas City jump blues tradition, exemplified by his performances of "Sent for You Yesterday" and "Boogie Woogie" for the Count Basie Orchestra. After leaving Basie, his recording career soared, as a solo artist and a singer with other bands.
When the Basie band broke up in 1950 he briefly retired but then formed his own group. He also made a guest appearance with Duke Ellington for the 1959 album Jazz Party. In 1960, he recorded an album with the Dave Brubeck Quartet, known for their cerebral cool jazz sound, but the album was nonetheless described by the music critic Scott Yanow as "a surprising success."
Rushing appeared in the 1957 television special Sound of Jazz, singing one of his signature songs "I Left My Baby" backed by many of his former Basie band compatriots. In 1958 he was among the musicians included in an Esquire magazine photo by Art Kane, later memorialized in the documentary film A Great Day in Harlem.
In 1958 Rushing toured the UK with Humphrey Lyttelton and his band. A BBC broadcast with Rushing accompanied by Lyttelton's specially organised big band was released on CD in 2009.
Rushing's performing career ended after he became ill with leukemia in 1971. He died on June 8, 1972, in New York City, and was buried at the Maple Grove Cemetery (Queens), in Kew Gardens, Queens, New York.
Rushing was married twice. He had two sons, Robert and William, with his second wife, Connie, to whom he was married from the 1940s until his death. Connie Rushing is credited with two compositions on her husband's 1968 solo album, Livin' the Blues.
Rushing was held in high critical esteem during his career, and this has continued after his death. Whitney Balliett, jazz critic for The New Yorker, wrote of Rushing that "His supple, rich voice and his elegant accent have the curious effect of making the typical roughhouse blues lyric seem like a song by Nol Coward". The critic Nat Hentoff, who ranks Rushing as one of the "greatest blues singers," credits him as a seminal influence in the development of post-World War II popular black music. Hentoff wote that rhythm and blues "has its roots in the blues shouting of Jimmy Rushing...and in the equally stentorian delivery of Joe Turner..."Scott Yanow described Rushing as the "perfect big band singer," who "was famous for his ability to sing blues, but in reality he could sing almost anything." In an essay about his fellow Oklahoman, the writer Ralph Ellison wrote that it was "when Jimmy's voice began to soar with the spirit of the blues that the dancers - and the musicians - achieve that feeling of communion which was true meaning of the public jazz dance." Ellison said Rushing began as a singer of ballads, "bringing to them a sincerity and a feeling for dramatizing the lyrics in the musical phrase which charged the banal lines with the mysterious potentiality of meaning which haunts the blues." In contrast with Rushing's reputation, he "seldom comes across as a blues 'shouter,' but maintains the lyricism which has always been his way with the blues," wrote Ellison. According to Gary Giddins, Rushing "brought operatic fervor to the blues," and of his time with Count Basie notes that "just about every record they made together is a classic."
During his career Rushing was honored with many awards by music critics. He was a four-time winner of Best Male Singer in the Critic's Poll of Melody Maker and a four-time winner of Best Male Singer in the International Critic's Poll in Down Beat. His 1970 album, The You and Me That Used to Be, was named Jazz Album of the Year by Down Beat.
With the Count Basie Orchestra