He dropped out of school at age 11, lost three children to sickle cell anemia, suffered burns in a fire at his BBQ restaurant, walked away from a bus crash that killed a bandmate, did a prison stint for unwittingly transporting a promoter's cocaine, endured COVID at age 86 and admitted in his new autobiography that he cheated on his wife.
If inveterate bluesman Bobby Rush survived all these challenges, he won't be fazed by January in Minnesota.
"It's just another winter's day for me. I lived for 48 years in Chicago," Rush said this month from his home in Jackson, Miss., where it was 71 degrees.
Although known as the King of the Chitlin' Circuit, Rush returns to the spiffy Dakota in downtown Minneapolis Friday and Saturday with his acoustic show, not his legendary revue with dancers and full band.
"I love the acoustic dates 'cause I get close to 'em [fans] and I can talk to 'em. I can almost touch 'em with my hand. Put my kneecaps on 'em. It's one-on-one," said the 88-year-old motormouth, a singer/guitarist/harmonica player with the energy of someone one-fourth his age.
"I do the same kind of songs whether it's a big band or a small band. I still tell the same kind of stories. I got my two big feet — that's my drum — and my thumb is my bass, and my fingers are my guit-tar.
"So, you have me, myself and I."
The show will be reflective of his 2020 recording "Rawer Than Raw," which won Rush his second Grammy for best traditional blues album. He grabbed his first in 2017 — after decades of performing.
His autobiography, "I Ain't Studdin' Ya: My American Blues Story," is a modest, plain-spoken yet compelling account of a hardscrabble life in the Deep South.
He picked cotton as a kid; built himself a single-stringed "diddley bow" to play music; painted a mustache on his face with a burnt match so he could perform in clubs at age 13, and has been a lifelong sober-by-choice, fiercely independent entertainer with just one bona fide hit ("Chicken Heads") but dozens and dozens of stories to tell.
"I'm just an old country boy," he said proudly, "and I'm so blessed to be around for 80-odd-some years and to do what I do and still love it, and still learning."
Along the way, Rush got lessons from Elmore James, Big Joe Turner, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Ray Charles, who were eager to impart tips to the talented teen with the flashy clothes.
"Maybe they was looking out for me or to protect [me]," he said. "Maybe I was good at what I do. I was a standup comedian kind of guy. I couldn't compete with what they were doing, man."
"I Ain't Studdin' Ya," named for a 1991 Rush song, tells only part of the story of Emmitt Ellis Jr. — his birth name — an enduring entertainer who was still performing 200 shows a year before the pandemic.
Whether growing up in Louisiana, launching his career in Arkansas or aiming for the big time in Chicago, Rush has dealt with racism without animus. One example is when he was offered a contract in 1967 with prestigious Chess Records, home of such Black stars as Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters. Even though he was a grade-school dropout, Rush could read and write. And he understood what the contract said, so he raised questions with the white record-label executives.
"I wasn't trying to be smart about it," Rush said. "I was too green and too dumb to know that I wasn't supposed to be reading around white people. Bo Diddley and them a little bit older laughed at me. I could discern if the contract was good for me or not."
Rejecting that contract cost him in his career. But he doesn't regret it.
"I think it affected me very much in me not being a bigger artist than I am now," he said. "But what does it matter to gain the whole world and lose your soul, and lose your license of what you own. I lost financially, but I gained respect for what I'd done.
"I'm so independent and I didn't want to use management and give away all my publishing and give all my rights away. So I missed a lot of boats.
"[But] I don't have no ring to pay for. My house is paid for. You can't take nothing away from me. I'm my own man."
Crossing over on TV, film
Rush is proud of his roots on the chitlin' circuit — the nightclubs and theaters that welcome Black entertainers and audiences in the South, East and Midwest.
"I'd be sick if I made a superstar of myself and Black people didn't know who I am. I crossed over but I didn't cross out. I'm still just a Black man. When you see the whole show with the ladies beside me, that's the Blackness in me. I record this [way] because it's what I think Black people will like."
Along with 85-year-old Buddy Guy, Rush is the last active bluesman of his generation. He appreciates that he's found a broader audience in recent years, thanks to being featured in the 2003 Martin Scorsese-produced PBS documentary series "The Blues" and the 2019 Eddie Murphy film "Dolemite Is My Name," in which he plays himself.
"It's better late than never. I'm not bitter. I'm just grateful. I don't have no chip on my shoulder about anything. It's just a blessing to get old."
Having played the Dakota a few times, Rush is aware he's coming to the city where George Floyd's murder became a flashpoint in race relations.
"The foot been on my neck all my life. The foot meant lack of opportunity, not giving me the chance. When they found out I could read and write, that's a foot on my neck. But then, by me not having an education, I put the foot on my own neck. Not doing what I should have done when I should have done it."
In his book, Rush expressed his appreciation for Minneapolis music icon Prince, who once came to see Rush at the Dakota. The veteran bluesman was fond of Prince's song "Kiss."
"It seemed like the music was going one way and the vocal was going another way. When he put it together, I went, 'Now I understand.' I loved his rhythm, loved his singing, I loved his approach to music."
"I Ain't Studdin' Ya" is filled with drama, comedy, tragedy, philosophies, observations and one colorful story after another, involving famous folks like B.B. King, Little Richard and Ike Turner as well as intriguing nobodies you wish you knew.
It's not surprising that Rush's story has attracted the attention of Broadway producers.
"In three or four hours, I got guys from New York flying in to talk about a little bit. The contract been signed. They're going to do my life story in a play on Broadway. They've been here a couple times. They have some tall investors.
"They've come to the agreement that it's going to take five people to play me. I changed so many times throughout my career.
"I don't want to go down in history being this Black man who try to be something else. I want to be a Black man who was proud to be a Black man, proud to be who I am."
With: Jontavious Willis.
When: 7 p.m. Fri.-Sat.
Where: Dakota, 1010 Nicollet Mall, Mpls.
Tickets: $40-$50, dakotacooks.com.
Twitter: @JonBream 612-673-1719