HOW MANY OF YOU KNOW that Motown had a blues man on their books? Yeah that’s right, blues. Amazing, is it not? Luther Allison’s his name. He’s been with the corporation since 1972, and had three albums and two or three singles released on their Gordy label.
Mind you, they don’t seem to have been promoted very vigorously and they’ve never seen the light of a British day, but they’re hot stuff alright, particularly the first album Bad News Is Coming. That’s a killer.
De blooz backyard is a long way behind the glossy facade that Motown habitually present to the world, so maybe it’s just understandable that they’ve kept so quiet about Luther. At the same time, having bothered to sign him they might as well have done right by the man, for he’s totally unlike the other artists they keep around as foils for their star names. So why haven’t Motown brought him up to the front porch?
While you ponder that little mystery, regard the fact that all but a handful of you have just missed Luther’s one and only gig in Britain. I did too. He dropped in from the continent last Monday, guested at the 100 Club on Tuesday, flew back to the States on Friday. A fast mover.
By all accounts he was a gas. Hard gut blues, stinging guitar, powerful vocal, original material and traditional toons with a little rock’n’roll on the side for good measure. Just the kind of performance that’s made him a king on the Stateside college circuit. The word’s out that he’ll be back in the autumn, when you’re all urged to check him out. In the meantime he stayed around town just long enough for me to quiz him across a cassette and bring you a few facts.
He’s a lean lookin’ dude, or perhaps it’s just his six foot something frame that deceives the eye. Handsome too, in a world-weary kind of way. Like he’s old enough to know all about the blues, but young enough that he can still shake ’em off and get on down with the feeling. Born in Forest City, Arkansas, on August 17 1939, he’s one of the ‘new’ blues men.
Taken to Chicago when he was 13, he started street-corner doowopping like the rest of his generation, recreating local harmony hits. His folks were hard-core church people, and a bunch of brothers had already formed The Southern Travellers gospel group. But one black sheep of the family, his elder brother Ollie, was strictly into blues with a group called, wait for it, the Rolling Stones. Named after Muddy Waters’ hit, just like the later slightly more famous crew.
Luther plumped for blues too. He bought a 20 dollar box from a pawn shop and hasn’t looked back since. But he had a broader scope than most. For one thing, when he was a kid in Arkansas he’d been just as keen on the broadcasts from the Grand Ole Opry as the blues men on WDIA radio out or Mephis. For another, by the time he hit the Chicago clubs blues was no longer the dominant commercial sound, so he quickly caught on to rock’n’roll. And thirdly, most of the famous blues men were still based in Chicago, so he had to learn all their styles to be able to emulate whoever was away on tour when he got a gig.
His apprenticeship was alongside the different generations of Elmore James, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, Magic Sam, Hound Dog Taylor, Matt Murphy, Freddie King. At the same time he was playing stuff by Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bo Diddley. “Later on I did James Brown tunes, Wison Pickett, even Beatles tunes. I did it because I had to work.”
Result: Luther Allison is a blues-loving, blues-based performer who can turn his hand to just about any style you care to request.
On his latest album Night Life he gives his own special stamp to songs associated with B. B. King, Dr. John, Ray Charles, Albert King, Little Milton, Allen Toussaint, and Tyrone Davis (whose guitarist was taught by Luther). A couple of tracks don’t quite come off but most are excellent examples of the man’s diverse talent, expecially his versions of Charles’ ‘I Can Make It Thru The Day’ and Toussaint’s ‘The Bum Is Mine.’
Motown are obviously starting to take some notice of their unsung hero hero, for “Night Life” has been invested with a wealth of accompanists whereas the previous two albums on Gordy were cheaper productions — and closer to traditional blues.
His first album, Bad News Is Coming, is mainly a collection of his most popular stage numbers. Familiar blues like ‘Rock Me Baby’ and ‘Evil’ given new life by Luther’s powerful interpretations. I didn’t think I’d ever need to hear more versions of ‘Little Red Rooster’ and ‘Dust My Broom’, but this man has crossed the familiar with the unexpected and done it with such a forceful combination of hairy vocal and string-snapping guitar work…blues heaven right here on earth.
Right now, Luther’s beginning to get hooked withcontemporary soul acts, having recently appeared with Earth, Wind & Fire (ironically, the group whose leader Maurice White told me “The time is up for the blues”), and touring soon with The Commodores. At the same time, he’s recently been playing rock clubs, confirming his growing reputation outside of specialist audiences. In other words, things are looking up…for the blues, and for Luther Allison.
© Cliff White, New Musical Express, 7 August 1976