The Return of Luther Allison: A Prodigal Son of the Blues Comes Back to His Native Land

GUITARIST LUTHER Allison, after a long apprenticeship in the clubs of Chicago’s West Side, first came to national prominence with electrifying performances at the Ann Arbor Blues Festivals in the late 1960s and early 1970s. His stinging guitar sound, ultra dynamic vocals, and muscular stage presence made him the fresh new player on the field who could keep up with Buddy Guy and Otis Rush.

He quickly found a big audience among both blues and rock fans and became a strong attraction on college campuses and at such rock ballrooms as the Fillmores that then dotted the nationscape. After cutting an LP called Love Me Mama for Delmark in 1969, he signed a long-term deal with Motown and recorded three albums as Berry Gordy’s only straight blues act. Excellent live material from one of his Ann Arbor Festival shows also came out on an Atlantic compilation.

However, when the audience for blues began to disappear in the late 1970s, moving on to funk, disco, punk, new wave, etc., Allison followed the well-worn path to Europe where a number of older bluesmen (Memphis Slim, Eddie Boyd, Champion Jack Dupree, Eddie Campbell, et al.) still found respectful audiences willing to pay well to hear “true” American music. Allison settled outside Paris and became a much sought-after performing artist playing shows all over the continent from Scandinavia to Turkey.

“I made my first trip to Europe in 1976 to play the Montreux Festival and discovered I could make three times the money in Europe and be treated as an a respected artist. I went back three more times in 1978, 1979, and 1980 before I decided to make it permanent,” he says.

The fallout of his relocation, however, was that his profile in the U.S. diminished because of his extended absence. A few import records found their way into store bins, along with an occasional U.S. pickup deal such as Blind Pig’s reissue of the Life Is A Bitch disc, retitled Serious (1987), but only the faithful remembered that Allison was still alive and working somewhere else. It was during this same period Buddy Guy went 12 years without a release and Otis Rush seemed to drop off the planet.

All that has changed thanks to the powerful resurgence of interest in blues in general and the acceptance, in particular, of the fever-hot guitar style that such West Side insurgents as Magic Sam and Freddie King pioneered and Allison, Guy, and Rush still practice. And like the latter two comrades with whom he used to share stages at Sylvio’s Lounge and Walton’s Corner, Luther the Expatriot is back in the spotlight, having signed with Chicago’s Alligator label and subsequently releasing two superb discs, Soul Fixin’ Man (1994) and the new Blue Streak, to strong critical and popular acclaim. His Motown material is also set for reissue.

To support the new discs, Allison has spent most of the last 18 months on nearly continuous tour, headlining at American festivals from the Poconos on the East Coast to Orange County’s annual extravaganza at Dana Point, and once again he is becoming a recognizable name on American shores.

Not that he’s altogether packed up his Gibsons and come home. Allison still has a place about 15 miles outside the city of the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe. And, though it’s taken a decade and a half, he’s learned to eat baguettes.

“I have a good life over there,” he says, “though I still don’t know what they’re saying half the time. They need to talk slow for me to understand what they’re talking about, and that’s something they never do. But I make myself understood.”

He also makes himself stay fit by watching his diet and getting a lot of exercise. Alcohol, now that he’s turned 56, is mostly just a memory. Instead Allison trains so he has the stamina to play long shows. “I like to give my audience two-to-three hour shows. They’re paying to hear blues, and I’ve got a lot of them.”

At his October 1995 show at Hollywood’s House of Blues, Allison was forced to cut his performance to a mere 95 minutes because he was sharing a bill with Little Milton. “I was still getting warmed up when it was time to quit. I didn’t like that.” But even in a shortened set, Allison was brilliant, bounding all over the stage and going out into the audience to give fans a full dose of straight blues, no chaser.

Backed by a four-piece band headed by long-time cohort James Solberg on second guitar, Allison awed the crowd with astonishingly raw, percussive guitar and even rawer vocals that sometimes ended with the man doing a leaping split far more agile than Pete Townsend ever pulled off in his prime with the Who.

But beyond the stagemanship, Allison played brilliantly, making every sustained, string-bending note speak without the self-tributizing of Buddy Guy or somewhat diminished capacity of Otis Rush who suffers from diabetes. As one rival guitarist says (off the record), “Luther knows how to fire up an audience, but with him it never seems as calculated as with Buddy or as hit-or-miss with Otis. Luther’s always playin’ in the moment.”

Allison says he is determined to win back the American audience, which explains the heavy touring and his eagerness to get back into the studio, despite the fact that his latest, Blue Streak, is still on the upswing in terms of sales and will probably catch a second wind as the 1995 Top 10 lists appear.

Produced by Jim Gaines, who also worked with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Albert Collins, Blue Streak offers 12 songs (11 either written or co-written by Allison) that range from smoldering to raging fires. The album’s major numbers, ‘Big City’ and ‘Move from the ‘Hood’, seem clearly to be the result of Allison’s return to his native land but observing its social disintegration through the eyes of an outsider. “I see things happening on the streets that scare me,” he says. And it’s reflected in his lyrics:

I live in a big city, I hear babies crying.
There be killing in the streets.
How many heartaches, how many years of pain?
How many funerals ’til the street be safe again?

Or as he sings elsewhere, “You gotta move… because your life ain’t good.” But rather than suggest everybody pack off to Europe, Allison is quick to explain that people in America, particularly people of color, need to take charge of their lives. “Who else is goin’ to do it?”

If he sounds a little like a streetcorner orator, it’s probably because Allison’s never been one to drift with the current. Born in Mayflower, Ark., he was the 14th of 15 children born to a musical family. He fashioned his first instrument at age seven, doing the old broom wire nailed to the side of the house trick. At 11, his family made the move north to Chicago, where various brothers started a gospel group called The Southern Travelers and another joined a band with Freddie King. He remembers family social gatherings being dominated by music.

Allison soon became friends with one of Muddy Waters’ kids and began slipping into the Great Man’s rehearsals and listening to a lot of blues. Before he opted to become a full-time musician though, he learned the shoemaking trade – hence the private joke of his Soul Fixin’ Man album. He formed his first band, named The Rolling Stones (getting a jump on Mick and Keith by several years) in 1957.

Soon he was working as a sideman for Magic Sam and Freddie King. The latter, though only five years older, had an almost paternal influence, encouraging Allison to start singing. He freely admits their influence but feels he has followed his own direction, even if it’s taken him far from his roots.

Now, more than three decades after he began, Allison has one of the most distinctive voices in blues, as fervent as Otis Redding or Fred McDowell at their testifying best. And his second voice, the electric guitar, speaks with a passion that may yet make him as revered in blues as Hendrix in rock or Joe Pass in jazz. As Allison frequently says, “I feel like it’s gonna be my time now. I’m ready.”

All he has to do is wait for the audience to catch up.

© Bill WasserzieherSouthland Blues, January 1996

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