Friday, August 3, 2012

My Favorite Things - Soul Fixin' Man

Soul Fixin' Man was Luther Allison's triumphant return to the U.S. nearly two decades of self-imposed exile in Europe.  In the late 60's and early 70's, Allison's rock-fueled Chicago blues and deep soul vocals had achieved a fair measure of popularity with critics in the U.S., based on his appearance at the 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival, his 1969 Delmark release, Love Me Mama, and his three well-received albums for Motown in the 70's, but critical success didn't necessarily translate into sales and show dates at the time, at least in the U.S.  European countries (Holland, France, Switzerland, Germany, Denmark, and France) actually hungered for the blues that the frustrated Allison's home country largely ignored, so during the 70's, he moved his base of operations to Paris, where he enjoyed celebrity status and toured non-stop.

The end result of this move was that even though Allison toured endlessly and recorded nearly a dozen albums throughout Europe for the late 70's and all of the 80's, none of this reached the ears and eyes of his American fans, so Luther Allison's career basically came to a standstill in the U.S.  The only album of his that really saw the light of day here in the 80's and early 90's was the impressive Serious, which was recorded in France, but released domestically by Blind Pig in the mid 80's.

1994 saw the release of Soul Fixin' Man, Allison's first domestic release in over 20 years.  The album shows that Allison displayed a remarkable amount of musical growth during that time span.  Like his Motown releases of the early/mid 70's, there was plenty of soul and rock mixed with Luther's blues, but now Allison also incorporated elements of funk and reggae.  However, with Allison, it was first and foremost the blues.

Allison's agent and longtime friend, Thomas Ruf, formed the Ruf Record label primarily to record Luther Allison and Soul Fixin' Man was the label's first effort (Alligator Records handled the American distribution).  Allison recorded the disc with right-hand man, guitarist James Solberg, and Solberg's band, in Memphis with the legendary Jim Gaines producing.

The songs were all top notch....Allison wrote most of them.  The opening cut, "Bad Love," is one of his all time best.  B. B. King was a big influence on Allison and it really shows on this track.  The Memphis Horns (Andrew Love and Wayne Jackson) are a huge asset on this tune.  Allison's son Bernard performs this track live and recorded it on his first CD after his father's death.  He does a fantastic job on it whenever he plays it, really capturing the spirit of his father's original, but he knows that this is, and always will be a Luther Allison question.

The title track, also written by Allison with James Solberg, is an autobiographical track with some blazing fretwork.  Allison trained as a shoemaker and repairman before taking up music).  Allison penned several other noteworthy tracks, including "I Gave It All," a bare-bones soulful number with understated guitar and an emotional vocal.  "You Been Teasin' Me," is a loose-limbed funk rocker.  "Nobody But You" allows the guitarist to show off his slide work, an underrated facet of his music.  "Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is" mixes soul and jazz and showcases keyboardist Ernest Williamson.

The cover tunes are really strong.  Allison borrows two tracks from the Malaco Records songbook, both written by Sam Mosley and Bob Johnson ("She Was Born That Way" and "Love String").  He also covers the Bob Geddins/Sugar Pie DeSanto tune, "I Want To Know."   Most of these tracks are soul-based and they show that if Allison had decided to go the soul route, he would have been just fine.

But the real show-stopper on Soul Fixin' Man is Allison's stunning version of the Guitar Slim standard, "The Things That I Used To Do."  Accompanied only by Williamson's churchy organ, Allison gets to the very heart of the song, a tune of regret and renewed hope, with one of his best vocals ever.  I get goosebumps on my goosebumps even now when I hear it.

I can remember when Soul Fixin' Man hit the record stores.  I had only heard Allison via his Blind Pig release and a live recording from Ann Arbor of Percy Mayfield's "Please Send Me Somebody to Love" on one of the Atlantic Blues volumes of the mid 80's.  I was immediately hooked by the raw, rugged rock-based guitar of Serious and those strong vocals that were reminiscent of the Stax era.   I didn't know the whys and wherefores about his long absence from recording, but then there wasn't a lot of new product coming from blues artists in the late 80's anyway.

Allison in 1974
That's the sad thing about Luther Allison's career to me.  If you listen to his work for Motown done shortly before he moved overseas, you will realize that what he was doing in 1974 was not that far removed from what he was doing in 1994.  Basically, Allison's U.S. audience was out of luck for twenty years because they didn't buy his albums or see him perform.  By the time he returned, his days were numbered.

Frustrated as that might make you feel, think about the man himself......having to relocate across the world to ply his trade and to achieve success.  While it had to be great to have such a following as he did in Europe, you know it would have meant even more to have that level of fame and popularity in his homeland.  Then, when he finally starts reaching that level in the U.S., he's stricken with cancer and gone within a few weeks.

That being said, I really don't think Luther Allison spent a lot of time being bitter about what might have been.  He loved what he did too much for that.  Obviously, he left everything he had on the stage every night, regardless of the number of people watching, where he was performing, and regardless of how he felt that night.  He gave those marathon four-hour shows until he literally couldn't do it anymore.

On August 12, fifteen years ago, Allison left us, but fortunately we've been blessed with an abundance of recordings that have been issued and re-issued since his death, both live and studio.  The best place to start with Luther Allison is with Soul Fixin' Man.  By no means should you stop there though.  He had some fantastic recordings on either side of this masterpiece.

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