"I didn't realize his potential to become a great artist. One of the things I did know, though, was that he could sing........(Luther) could deliver a song and really make the lyrics speak. He had that gorgeous kind of Memphis soul voice. His voice reminded me of Otis Redding. Played like Freddy King and had a voice like Otis Redding." - Bruce Iglauer on Luther Allison
The first time I ever heard Luther Allison was on the Atlantic Blues: Chicago album (which was one of four excellent compilations of blues from the legendary label). Side Two of that collection consisted of live performances from various eras of the Windy City blues from various artists like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and Koko Taylor. Allison's contribution was from the 1972 Ann Arbor Blues Festival, a scorching cover of Percy Mayfield's "Please Send Me Somebody To Love."
What blew me away about Allison's performance was his incredibly soulful vocals and his powerful guitar. He was the first blues man that I had heard that really had the "soul" aspect in his vocals. What I didn't know at the time (around 1987 or so) was that Allison had been living in France for several years because he was frustrated at his prospects in his home country. I could understand his frustration at the time because it was next to impossible in the late 80's to find any of his recordings.
Guitar World magazine had featured him in an article about a "Who's Who" of blues guitarists. From that article, I learned that he had issued several recordings during the late 60's and early 70's, including three with Motown, but I couldn't find any of them. The Motown trio was long out of print and a lot of his other recordings were done on labels in France or Germany that were pretty hard for me to track down during the old mail-order, allow-six-to-eight-weeks-for-delivery days.
Finally, I was able to find his recording for Blind Pig Records from the 80's, Serious. By then, I found out that he also packed a rock-edged punch on guitar as well as those great soulful vocals. This was basically the sound that I had been looking for when I first started listening to the blues. Soon after I picked up Serious, Delmark issued Love Me Mama, Allison's solo debut from 1969, on cassette (my chosen format at the time), and I snatched it up. Though it was a bit uneven, and maybe a bit dated in it's sound (it was almost twenty years old when I first heard it), Allison sounded great singing and playing.
As time passed, I began to find out more about this great artist. Luther Allison was born in Widener, Arkansas on August 17th, 1939, into a family of cotton farmers. He was the 14th of 15 children. He first became familiar with the blues from listening to the radio, via B.B. King's show on WDIA. When he was in his teens, his family moved to Chicago. Even though he was a talented baseball player and even learned a trade as a shoemaker, he was also teaching himself how to play guitar, focusing on the blues he heard while hanging out in blues clubs and listening.
Allison and his family lived on Chicago's West Side and he was surrounded by blues guitarists....Freddie King, Magic Sam, Otis Rush, and Jimmy Dawkins, who Allison grew up with and in whose band Luther later played bass for a time. He learned his lessons well, soon backing legends like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, James Cotton, Elmore James, and others. Freddie King began working with Allison and the young guitarist soon took King's house band gig after King signed with King Records.
By the mid 60's, he was able to make a few records. He cut the album, Underground, produced by Bobby Rush. Allison played in Rush's band in the late 50's and had appeared on one of Rush's first singles. Allison recorded the album for Rush's Wonderful Records, and sold it from the bandstand at his club dates. It consisted of several classic blues tunes and shows the influence of guitarists like Magic Sam and the Three Kings (B.B., Albert, and Freddie). While Allison was still a work in progress, the potential was there and it's a very good effort.
Around the same time, Allison cut a couple of tracks for the Delmark anthology, Sweet Home Chicago (which was discussed by FBF a few weeks ago), and subsequently recorded the complete album, Love Me Mama for the label. Combining these two releases with his acclaimed appearances at festivals like the Ann Arbor Blues Festival resulted in people beginning to notice Allison. His gritty vocals and his rock-influenced guitar (reminding many of Jimi Hendrix at times), gained attention, as well as his marathon live performances, which were so long and so intense that they left audiences as exhausted as the performers upon completion.
In 1972, Allison signed with Motown Records on their Gordy label, one of the few blues artists to ever do so. He cut three albums for the label between 1972 and 1976. Two of the three albums, Bad News is Coming and Luther's Blues, rank with his finest releases, as Allison tore through some fine Chicago Blues that showed both a traditional and contemporary feel. When Allison began to hit his stride in the 90's, this was the sound that his recordings had. Quite simply, he was years ahead of his time with his vision of the blues. Unfortunately, no one bought his Motown releases at the time, but he did get more exposure as a result of his tenure with Motown and was able to tour overseas in Japan and, most importantly, Europe.
He recorded Love Me Papa while touring in France in the late 70's and also released several live albums, including a pair recorded in Paris (later combined into one CD, Live In Paris) and two recorded in Peoria, Illinois for the Rumble label. His music was well-received in Paris and in most of Europe, especially France and Germany, while at the same time, his popularity, and the blues in general, dwindled in his home country. By the mid 80's, he had settled in France, spending 2/3 of his time in Europe and returning to the States for the occasional blues festival.
During his time in Europe, Allison formed a close friendship with Thomas Ruf, who became his manager and formed the label Ruf Records to help promote his career. Allison recorded extensively for the German label during the latter part of his life and was able to launch a comeback of sorts in the U.S., when Ruf teamed with Alligator Records to release his Soul Fixin' Man (a playful nod to his early years as a shoemaker) on the Alligator label in the States (as Bad Love on the Ruf pressing in Europe). Iglauer had worked at Delmark while Allison was with the label and Allison played a big role in Iglauer becoming involved in the blues business. The two actually had a falling-out when Allison left the label and didn't reconcile until the early 90's. It was fortuitous for both men, and for blues fans everywhere.
Soul Fixin' Man was the real deal, winning Allison four W.C. Handy Awards in 1994, and it remains Allison's best release in my opinion. It takes the musical vision started by Allison during his Motown days, mixing blues, soul, R&B, and funk into a perfect concoction. For his part, Allison seemed to realize that this was his big opportunity and gave his best performance. You hear that B.B. King influence on the opening track, "Bad Love," some incredible slide guitar (an underrated aspect of his guitar playing) on several tracks, and those fantastic vocals, especially on the nearly a cappella version (accompanied only by Ernest Williamson on organ) of the Guitar Slim classic, "The Things That I Used To Do."
In July of 1997, in the middle of a summer tour behind his Reckless album, Allison began to experience dizziness and loss of coordination. He was diagnosed with lung cancer that had metastasized to his brain and was given four to six weeks to live.
I can remember when I found this out. It was on the old Blues Access message board. It was like being hit in the head with a 2 x 4. From reading the message board, I was not alone. It was just devastating. There was absolutely nothing that could be done. Over the next month, blues fans heard bits and pieces about his condition, how the treatments affected his vision, how he lost the taste for his favorite foods, and finally, how he drifted into a coma, eventually passing away on August 12, 1997.....five days short of his 58th birthday.
Less than a month before, he seemed so vital and full of life. It was a tragic end to one of the most satisfying comebacks in the blues.
Fortunately, for music fans, there was still plenty of great music to be heard. Thomas Ruf has released several albums of Luther Allison music, including a reissue of Underground, a CD/DVD (Songs From The Road) of one of Allison's final performances in Canada, plus an interview, just days before his diagnosis, and a DVD of an amazing performance recorded on La Reunion Island (Live In Paradise) recorded in April of 1997. Alligator released an excellent double CD of some of his best live performances (Live In Chicago).
Motown also reissued a pair of Allison's releases and Evidence Records reissued Love Me Papa around the same time. In addition, there also continues to be an Allison in the blues world. Bernard Allison, Luther's son, has developed into one of the blues' finest performers, often covering at least a couple of his dad's tunes in concert (notably "Bad Love") and carrying the blues into the next generation
"Leave your ego, play the music, love the people." - Luther Allison
Bad News Is Coming (Motown/Gordy): This is my favorite of Allison's earliest recordings. It just seems like he was hitting on all cylinders here, just brimming with confidence and energy. If this had been released in the early 90's instead of the early 70's, I think he would have been a star then and there. As it was, like his other Motown releases, it was virtually unnoticed and Motown really didn't do much to get the word out either.....their focus was on the hitmakers, of course, so
Love Me Papa (Evidence Records): This disc features some of Allison's best performances. It's a bit heavy on cover tunes, but it's a pretty versatile set of tunes that covers a lot of ground. Plus there's a lot of his slide guitar on here as well. He recorded this one in France and it's just amazing that he was making music this good and no one in the U.S. was hearing it.
Soul Fixin' Man (Alligator Records): All of Allison's Alligator albums are great listening, but this one, his first, is just a little bit better to me for the reasons I listed above. There's not a bad track on the disc....all killer, no filler. I can just remember being so excited when I saw it in the record store because I knew how great he was, just based on what little bit I had heard previously. This album pretty much confirmed everything.
Where Have You Been? Live in Montreux 1974 - 1994 (Ruf Records), Live In Chicago (Alligator Records), Songs From The Road (Ruf Records): Allison released several great live recordings and you really could include Live In Paris (Ruf Records) in this list as well. The Montreux set covers the twenty years that he performed at that festival and really shows his development over that time span. The Alligator set collects his best moments during several Windy City performances (plus a couple from Lincoln, Nebraska for good measure), and the second Ruf set (with accompanying DVD), recorded just a month or so before he died in Montreal, shows that he was a force of nature up until the end. The marathon Live in Paradise DVD is also worth seeing, too.