Moonshine Blues: Luther Allison Revisited

THE GREAT blues guitarist and singer Luther Allison once told me about an incident from his childhood that he carried as close to his heart as a locket on a chain.

“I was seven years old, living on the cotton plantation in Arkansas. On a rainy day my daddy had to go down an embankment with two mules drawing a wagon, to fill it with wood. There was that man, with half a tree on his shoulder, slipping back down in the mud, pulling his mules with his other arm. Out in the rain.”

For the late Allison — who would have turned 60 this year and is the subject of a new concert video and reissue CD — that was an early warning that he had to get off the plantation. But when he was barely in his 40s — after struggling for more than 20 years to get a foothold on the slippery slope of the music business — this memory also became a metaphor for his career.

“I felt like that: I was fightin’ to get ahead and nothing was happening. I didn’t finish high school because the music got in my way. So I was ready to become a factory person and take my chances.”

But a fortunate opportunity to tour Europe came, and within a few years Allison moved out of the “hood” on Chicago’s West Side and relocated his family to Paris. Just when he thought fame and security would elude him, he found it abroad — as Memphis Slim, Louisiana Red, and other expatriate blues artists had before. The difference is that after becoming a sensation on the European club and festival circuit, where his soulful vocal declarations and incendiary guitar made him a hero, he was able to beam that success back to the United States. His hunt for a group to support his occasional US tours turned up Wisconsin’s solid James Solberg Band. And in Solberg he found a kindred sprit and songwriting partner.

Quickly their collaboration resulted in some of Allison’s best songs — ‘Bad Love’, ‘Soul Fixin’ Man’ — and his first domestic studio album in nearly 20 years, 1994’s Soul Fixin’ Man (Alligator). Allison’s star rapidly rose through relentless tours characterized by two-and-a-half-to-three-hour performances, as if he were trying to make up for lost time in America. There were also two more albums on Alligator: 1995’s Blue Streak and ’97’s Reckless.

When I last spoke with Allison, in April 1997, Reckless was about to be released and he stood near the apex of blues stardom, near B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, and Buddy Guy. Alas, two months later — as he was about to take his guitar on a Virginia stage — he became instantly disoriented and blind. Two months after that, brain and lung cancer killed him.

Allison — who won nine Handy Awards (the blues equivalent of Grammys) in his last two years — deserves a better memorial than the new video Live in Paradise (Ruf/Platinum Entertainment). This terribly edited tape was shot in April ’97. The pointless, quick cuts every few seconds make it literally eye-straining. Not a single guitar solo has been left uninterrupted, or a single one of Allison’s emotional vocal performances. The visual presentation is shameful.

Yet there are moments that rekindle the fires of Allison’s spirit. He took a half-hour to heat up that night, which left two hours of solid stagework. On numbers like ‘Bad Love’ and ‘Watching You’, his soulful testifying, his near-preaching of his lyrics, conveys not only the music’s church roots but how deeply he reached into himself to deliver his blues.

There’s also Allison’s usual guitar trickery. He quotes Hendrix on the intro to ‘Pain In The Streets’, plays with his teeth on ‘Watching You’, and breaks string after string as he worries notes throughout the set. But his European musicians lack the Solberg Band’s chops and gusto, so he’s forced to carry the entire weight of the show — like his daddy in the Arkansas rain. And the mix sometimes buries his guitar beneath the horns and keyboards. That’s a mortal sin when the horns are out of tune, which is too often.

Some day Allison’s proper memorial will come. Although he was not an innovator like Son House or Muddy Waters or Memphis Minnie, it seems he’ll eventually be inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.

Meanwhile, Hand Me Down My Moonshine (Ruf), in its first domestic release, treats him better than Live in Paradise. It’s a rare acoustic set, and his command of laid-back blues is obvious. Even on acoustic, Allison doesn’t spare the lengthy instrumental excursions that made his electric concerts legendary. ‘Lightning Bolt’, the title track, and ‘Meet Me in My Hometown’ all feature the kind of improvised flights that made his audiences jump like flushed pheasants; they’re full of slide guitar (provided by his son Bernard) and prickly single-note licks.

The back-country flavor of Hand Me Down My Moonshine also attests that though Luther Allison carried the bad memories of his childhood in the plantation land all his life, he always bore the heart and soul of its music, too.

© Ted DrozdowskiThe Boston Phoenix, 29 March 1999

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