Muppet Gone to Heaven

Veteran bluesman Bobby Rush charms China, while B-Sides makes a mixtape for Elmo the Muppet’s life.

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Elmo has had a charmed life, even for a Muppet. He's been tickled by millions. He's testified in front of Congress. His best friend is a goldfish. He's been a star of the screen, and now he stars in Sesame Street Live's "When Elmo Grows Up." Let's examine the music that has defined Elmo through his stunning career.

The Fifth Dimension, "Puppet Man." When the Fifth Dimension sang "Baby, baby, you know it's true, I'm just a puppet for you" in 1970, they surely had no idea that Muppeteer Caroll Spinney was going to shove his hand up the ass of a puppet called "Baby Monster" that would eventually become one of the most-loved marionettes of all time.

Talking Heads, "Once in a Lifetime." Even though Sesame Street and The Muppet Show came from the same brain, they often feel like alternate universes. In the early '80s, Kermit the Frog was wearing a David Byrne-esque big suit and asking himself "How did I get here?" One parallel reality away, a little red monster was asking himself the same question after he was named "Elmo" and began sharing lines with Big Bird and crew.

Michael Jackson, "Wanna Be Starting Something." When puppeteer Kevin Clash took the reins in 1984, the red monster began starring in more scenes and becoming a more integral part of the show. The relationship between Clash and Elmo is not unlike that of Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson. While MJ wasn't exactly Quincy's puppet, he helped him come into his own, and one can only imagine Elmo's frail crimson limbs flailing to this Thriller-era gem.

The Pixies, "Something Against You." Life on the 'Street isn't all fun and insidiously educational games. In the late '80s Sesame Street purists had something against Elmo taking screen time away from older characters. Others feared that his habit of speaking in third person would teach children bad grammar. If Elmo were human, he'd be in his angsty late teens around this time. He would have certainly found comfort in Frank Black's distorted shriek, brought to you by the letters F and U.

Frank Sinatra, "I've Got the World on a String." Elmo became a household name in 1996 when Tickle Me Elmo became one of the most desirable Christmas toys of all time. The madness harked back to the days when Ol' Blue Eyes sang, "What a world, what a life, I'm pummeling other parents in KB Toys so my child will think I love him," or something like that. The Tickle Me Elmo craze even landed our red monster cameos on shows hosted by Rosie O'Donnell, Martha Stewart and other well-respected women.

Kanye West, "Stronger." It's 2008, and Elmo is on top of the world. That which hasn't killed him has only made him stronger. As a new generation of youngsters flock to their television sets to watch his antics, fans of yesteryear will flock to the Scottrade Center, progeny in tow, to laugh and sing along. Maybe Elmo has achieved such success and longevity because all of us, even the Kanyes and Quincys and O'Donnells, have a child inside that wishes to be three-and-a-half-years-old forever.

— Ryan Wasoba

Times vary, January 23 to 27. Scottrade Center, South 14th Street and Clark Avenue. $11 to $34. 314-241-1888 or

The Story of the Blues

Bobby Rush is huge in China. Or so his recent tour, appearance on the Great Wall and invitation to perform during the Olympics would suggest. But the bluesman (who was born Emmit Ellis Jr. in Jackson, Mississippi) has always dwelled just outside the Olympian heights of contemporaries such as Buddy Guy and Percy Sledge — even if he has few equals as a deep-fried soul-funk musician. On last year's Raw, Rush returned to his Mississippi blues roots and gave his hellacious band a break, by flexing his guitar muscle and harmonica chops. From his home in Jackson, he traces his blues journey.

B-Sides: Do you remember the first Chicago blues band you heard?

Bobby Rush: Jimmy Reed. And then Lightin' Hopkins and Lightnin' Slim, to Muddy Waters, then Howlin' Wolf, later in '57.

Did you see all those guys?

Yeah, yeah. I played on the same stages with them, 'cause I had my own band. I recorded four or five records with Muddy and Howlin' Wolf. I played second guitar with Jimmy Reed. It was a wound-down guitar that sounded like a bass. I always talk about Jimmy Reed. I made my first money with him. I was his runnin' boy. He'd give me a little money to get him gin. I'd get him two bottles, and I'd fill them half-full of water, and half-full of gin! I'd make three or four dollars every time on Jimmy Reed. That was wrong, but I was making more money than Muddy Waters!

Your father was a preacher. Did he ever see you perform?

No, no. I don't talk about it much, maybe I should. My father was my greatest influence. He never told me to sing the blues, but he never told me not to. That was a green light to me.

Have you ever recorded in this acoustic Delta style before?

One time, but this is where I started! When I was playing in the '50s, this is what we had. I'd go up onstage by myself, and then it escalated to the big band and the girls. I was trying to keep pace with the rat race. Now I'm setting the pace! I recorded this in my home studio. That's all it takes; just have good guts and be half-crazed. I'm both of them!

How did you end up performing on the Great Wall of China?

My manager recommended me. The money wasn't great, but I said, "I'll come if I can do what I want to do." And they said yes. What I wanted was to bring my film crew in and film it, and bring that out. But it's not the custom of China to let you bring that stuff out of China. But once they got to know me, when they looked at me, and found out how old I was, 74 years old, they said, "You're like the Great Wall. You've stood the test of time." Now they're negotiating a big contract for a movie about Bobby Rush and the Great Wall. And I'm a spokesperson for the Olympics. You have to know the customs of China. As a whole, they do not embrace you. But they embraced me. The older guys call me little brother and the younger guys call me big brother. I just fell in love with the culture and the people. — Roy Kasten

8 to 10 p.m and 11:30 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. Saturday, January 19. BB's Jazz, Blues and Soups, 700 South Broadway. $20 to $25. 314-436-5222.

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