Luther Allison - Biography
On the short list of great blues singer-guitarists for close to three decades, Luther Allison only tasted real success near the end of his life. Allison was reared musically in Chicago’s highly competitive West Side club scene, which spawned an impressive group of head-cutting pickers. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, he appeared poised for massive success after his extravagant showmanship found favor with rock audiences, but fame eluded him despite a major-label contract and his incontestable live prowess. It was only after a relocation to Europe and years on the continental touring circuit that Allison found a winning formula and crafted a run of popular, award-winning albums that displayed him at the height of his abilities.
He was born on Aug. 17, 1939 in Widener, Arkansas. The second youngest of 15 children, he was exposed to music in church, and at the age of 10 began learning music the way many underprivileged bluesmen did: by picking at a primitive “diddley bow” of wire strung up on the wall of a shack.
Allison’s family moved to Chicago in the early ‘50s. It was there that he began playing music in earnest. A late bloomer, he acquired his first real guitar at the age of 18, and began playing with his brother Ollie’s band. In 1957 — by which time he had met Muddy Waters and other notables on the Chicago scene — he formed a band with the prophetic (and ultimately discarded) name The Rolling Stones. Rechristened The Four Jivers, the group became a popular attraction in the West Side’s blues clubs.
During the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, the West Side was the cauldron for a school of dominating young guitar players who worked head-to-head in the neighborhood’s rough-and-tumble clubs and bars. These performers would all soon become important influences on a group of English blues-rock players, including Eric Clapton and Peter Green. They included Buddy Guy (a star on Chess Records), Freddy King (an instrumental and vocal powerhouse at Cincinnati’s King Records), Magic Sam (who gained attention with his debut LP for Delmark Records), and Otis Rush.
Allison, who was the youngest of these musicians by a few years, quickly established himself as a flamboyant presence in Guy’s showboating mold. After King began touring regularly in the wake of hits like “Hideaway,” Allison assumed his regular gig at the West Side joint Walton’s Corner.
In the late ‘60s, the young white audience that had begun to gravitate to the blues was maturing rapidly, and some new labels started to tap into the new hunger for the music. One of these was Delmark Records, the label offshoot of the Jazz Record Mart, a North Side retail outlet operated by Bob Koester. Delmark issued Junior Wells’ Hoodoo Man Blues, the first blues LP aimed at white blues fans, and also found wider recognition for Magic Sam with his collection West Side Soul. In 1968, Allison was showcased on the Delmark anthology Sweet Home Chicago, which also featured Magic Sam, Louis Meyers, and Eddie Shaw. This debut was followed by a full-length LP, Love Me Mama (1969).
The album was clandestinely financed by Jim Fishel, who booked Michigan’s prestigious annual Ann Arbor Blues Festival. Allison’s 1969 appearance there (and his return engagements the next two years) helped launch his career with young fans. His extroverted style — which began to owe as much to Jimi Hendrix as it did to Buddy Guy -- and a sound that merged blues, soul, and rock influences quickly made him a potent presence on the scene. Allison found himself booked into such rock venues as Bill Graham’s Fillmores in New York and San Francisco.
Surprisingly, in 1972 Allison landed a major label contract — with Gordy Records, an imprint in Berry Gordy’s Motown empire. Unfortunately, the reigning soul label of the day knew little about producing blues records, and the three Allison albums Gordy released — Bad New is Coming (1972), Luther’s Blues (1974), and Night Life (1976) — were uncomfortable mixes of dog-eared blues standards and rock-styled jams. None of the albums managed to reach the pop charts. (A sampling of tracks from these LPs was issued in 1996 on the CD The Motown Years.)
Blues was on the wane commercially in the late ‘70s, so Allison, who had been living in central Wisconsin, decided to relocate to Europe, where he remained a very viable and highly popular touring act. He made a succession of indifferently received albums for such overseas blues labels as Black & Blue, Rumble, Paris Album, and Encore!, and thrived as a festival star.
In the late ‘80s, Allison began a fruitful professional relationship with Thomas Ruf, a German blues fan and booking agent. Ruf began handling the guitarist’s European tour dates, and soon took over his management; more importantly, he started an eponymous blues label, which he built around Allison, his first artist.
Many of Allison’s European recordings — like the 1992 Ruf acoustic session Hand Me Down My Moonshine -- were cut employing less sympathetic French musicians. Ruf determined that the best way to revitalize Allison’s recording career — especially in the US, where the blues had undergone a renaissance with the advent of Robert Cray and Stevie Ray Vaughan — was to record him in America, with American players.
This strategy bore dramatic fruit in 1994 with the release of a new album, issued in Europe on Ruf as Bad Love and by the top US blues independent Alligator as Soul Fixin’ Man. Recorded at Memphis’ top studio Ardent Records by producer Jim Gaines, who had worked on Stevie Ray Vaughan’s final studio album In Step (1989) and John Lee Hooker’s successful comeback album The Healer (1989). A pungent mix of blues and soul (with some appropriate guest work by Wayne Jackson and Andrew Love, The Memphis Horns), it garnered some of the best reviews of Allison’s career.
He topped that achievement with Blues Streak (1995), a powerful and focused set, again recorded in Memphis by Gaines, mainly comprising original songs by Allison and his longtime bandleader and rhythm guitarist James Solberg. The collection triumphed at the Blues Foundation’s 1996 W.C. Handy Awards ceremony in Memphis: Allison collected five trophies, including the blues entertainer of the year award. He repeated in the latter category the next year.
Allison was poised for another triumph with the release of Reckless (1997). Sadly, the album proved to be the final work issued during the musician’s lifetime. In July 1997, he was diagnosed with lung cancer and brain tumors; the disease took him swiftly, and he died on August 12, 1997, in Madison, Wisconsin. He was only 57. He received five posthumous Handy Awards, including Blues Entertainer of the Year, in 1998, and Reckless garnered a Grammy nomination as best contemporary blues album. He was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame in 1998. The barnburning Live in Chicago (1999), recorded in 1995 and 1997 at the Chicago Blues Festival and at Buddy Guy’s club Legends (and, title notwithstanding, the Nebraska venue the Zoo Bar), was issued posthumously.
Allison’s son Bernard, a singer and guitarist in his own right, carries on the family blues tradition.