Cobra Records and Otis Rush

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By Bonni McKeown

The West Side's first record company, Abco, began in 1956 in a television shop at 2854 Roosevelt Road-- a partnership between Eli Toscano and a local Black entrepreneur, Joe Brown, who went on to head his own J.O.B. Records. They recorded songs by Louis Myers, Morris Pejoe and Arbee Stidham. Later that year, Brown dropped out and Toscano, working with promoter Howard Bedno, kicked off a new label, Cobra Records, with Otis Rush's song "I Can't Quit You Baby."

From 1956 through 58, Cobra recorded many outstanding artists, including West Side band leader Harold Burrage, Big Walter "Shakey" Horton, Little Willie Foster, Sunnyland Slim, Ike Turner and the Calvaes. The label boosted the fortunes of three strong guitarists: Otis Rush, Magic Sam, and Buddy Guy.

Otis Rush, a native of Philadelphia, MS, played and sang in a tortured, dramatic style that can send shivers up your spine. He performed songs including the beautiful minor blues ballad "My Love Will Never Die," written by the bass player Willie Dixon, the man behind the careers of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and other stars of Chess Records, But Rush also wrote some outstanding songs himself, including "Double Trouble" [see video above] which could just as well be a comment on today's economy:

"I lay wake at nights, just so troubled,

It's hard to keep a job, laid off, having double trouble

Hey hey, they say you can make it if you try,

Some of this generation is millionairees,

It's hard for me to keep decent clothes to wear."

After 20 years of bitter dealings in the music business, Otis Rush won a Grammy in 1998 for his album on the House of Blues label. Rush has performed very little since suffering a stroke in 2004. He insisted on keeping a December concert date in Japan that year. His voice was weak but the intensity of his emotions brought tears to many in the audience.

Another Cobra West Side guitarist, Magic Sam Maghett, became a symbol for the emerging urban blues generation before his life was tragically cut short by heart problems in 1969. Magic Sam recommended Buddy Guy, another fiery guitarist Louisiana, to the Cobra label. Guy still dominates the Chicago scene with his downtown club and rocks the international stage with his energetic guitar showmanship. All these guitarists gave Cobra, and the West Side, a reputation for raw but highly skilled, emotional music.

Toscano moved the Cobra moved office to 3346 W. Roosevelt in 1958. On a subsidiary, Artistic, Cobra recorded Magic Sam's uncle and first bandleader, Shakey Jake (James T. Harris). Jake got his name (shake the dice) from his 15 years as a professional gambler. Even though he knew his band wouldn't earn much playing in small clubs and lounges, Jake was only too happy to challenge the club owners to a game. Jake donated his harp playing on his first Artistic record "Call Me if You Need Me," but ended up winning $700 from Toscano. Jake told Mike Rowe, author of the book Chicago Blues (DaCapo Press 1975): "Eli was a crap-shooting fool!"

It could be that Eli gambled once too many. Cobra Records ground to a halt with the gangland murder of Toscano in 1959. His body was dragged out of Lake Michigan. But the mighty music he recorded, and the West Siders created, lives on.

Hear more about Cobra: Toscanos Blues - Abco Artistic and Cobra Pt. 3/2686832

West Side blues music and history is a buried treasure which shines up nicely to show off the community's identity and pride.

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Lorna Jean  

Posted: April 17th, 2017 1:15 PM

I appreciate this article. It's family history that I don't fully know about. Elias was my grandfather, Archie; his wife at the time is my grandmother.

Bonni McKeown from Chicago  

Posted: January 22nd, 2014 5:04 PM

Further info: a Cobra discography: from Robert L. Campbell at Clemson University:

Bonni McKeown from Chicago  

Posted: January 22nd, 2014 5:01 PM Bob Eagle reports: Southern Illinoisan of 22 September 1967, reports that Toscano fell backwards into the Fox River, near McHenry, IL while trying to restart his stalled motor boat the day before. They spent 2 hours dragging the river before they found the body. Dick Shurman reports that Patrick Roberts' biography of Richard Stamz who took over some of Toscano's businesses, that when he asked Eli's widow about Eli, a thi

Chris from Chicago  

Posted: January 15th, 2014 10:08 AM

It is so great to see some REAL history about some REAL blues! Chicago needs to reclaim it's heritage!


Posted: November 11th, 2013 8:55 PM

Awesome, Bonni, keep up the good work!

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