Luther Allison spoke with true blues by phone from his home in France.
Luther Allison raked in the following Handy Awards in Memphis last month:
Date: June 7, 1996
If you didn't know better -- a lot better -- you might think Luther Allison was an overnight success. That's what they call people who mysteriously appear at awards shows and walk off with an armload of hardware. When Bonnie Raitt cleaned up at the Grammys five years ago she was suddenly everybody's darling. Conveniently overlooked in the heat of the moment were her two preceding decades of grunt work.
For Luther Allison it's been more like four, and that's a long time to wait for vindication. A core figure in the Chicago blues scene of the late Sixties and early Seventies, Allison has fidgeted in his sideline seat as many of his contemporaries have vaulted to some degree of fame. A tireless performer and inveterate showman, he's continued to grind out a seemingly endless string of one-nighters, attacking each gig as if it might be his last. His raspy, rough-edged voice rips through tough lyrics like a chain saw with a bad attitude. The heat from his searing guitar work can be felt two counties away. He's left more sweat on stage than James Brown.
And finally --finally-- somebody noticed.
For Allison, his recent sweep of Handy Awards was bittersweet. As surprised and elated as he was to be chosen top blues dog, he remains ever cognizant of how long it took the blues community to throw a few good scraps his way. He's not quite sure what to make of the T-bone steak.
"I knew I had a good record," he says, "but knowing how things have been going the last few years..." His voice trails off, then he ponders aloud over the lack of recognition for Soul Fixin' Man, his cutting edge 1994 Alligator release. The disc won critical acclaim everywhere but at the Handys.
"I was a little disappointed," he says politely. "But I said, okay, let's see what happens with the next one. I'm just going to drop back and go into the story of where I'm really coming from. You talk about what the blues represents. I said, 'I'm gonna do it this way and see what happens. If I miss this time, then I don't know what these people call the blues.'"
There no longer seems to be any doubt. Blues oozes from every pore of his Blue Streak CD. Bouncy shuffles, gut-churning ballads, horn-punchy R&B, nail-biting slide work, all pushed to the brink of nuclear meltdown by Luther's relentless energy.
"I'm really very happy with the CD," he allows, sneaking in under the radar. "It gave me an opportunity to look inside of myself.
"I wrote some things throughout the years. And you play every day you can, you look at everybody's trip, you look at your own trip, and you find yourself running a marathon with everybody else. Seems like you're drifting backwards. But I'm always in the game, you know? I still hold up my end as far as performance is concerned, but it's very difficult to say I'm really going to write a new song these days with all of the other stuff going down."
From his earlier niche in relative obscurity, Allison watched as his peers became established names in the blues and pop worlds. Blue Streak gave him his chance to climb up there with the rest of the big-timers. Now he can afford the luxury of waxing philosophical.
"I've been very visual in the States as well as Europe," he says, "but you get caught up in the same old bag if you're not in the right place at the right time. If I'd have gotten the opportunity to go in and have a good producer like Jim Gaines, for instance. (Gaines produced Blue Streak.) And the musicians...you've got great musicians all over the place. It's just a matter of locking in with the right people who give you a chance to do what you do. And that's what happened with Blue Streak."
Some might argue it was Allison's move to Europe in 1983 that led to his benign neglect by American blues audiences. In a culture whose common denominator is collective Attention Deficit Disorder, it's hard to recall what you ate for breakfast, let alone who that guy was on stage at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival in 1972. (Luther -- in the afro and black dashiki, carving his Strat a new consciousness.)
He protests, "The truth is, I really didn't come to France to stay. I really didn't. But when you leave home and you figure out where you're headed, the further you go the more steps you take away from home.
"I didn't leave because I wasn't working enough," he says. "I got an opportunity to go to Europe, just like many people did before. I went to Los Angeles, California and got stranded there, but I didn't get stranded in Europe. And things began to happen."
Concurrent with his mid-Seventies European successes, the domestic music scene took a nose-dive. Disco bumped out live music, and the grittier blues groups were the among the early casualties.
"I couldn't live that way," says Allison. "The musicians wanted more and more money, they weren't being positive, and I said, 'Wait a minute. I've got a family to raise, I've got a day job I've got to do because I can't support myself on music alone, and I can't afford to pay the musicians I want.' So, the greatest thing that happened to me was to get the opportunity to go to Europe."
For good reason, Allison firmly believes his constant touring in Europe opened the minds of Europeans and the doors for other blues performers. "When I showed what I had, especially to young people, things started to change. I brought in the old blues, all the way down from Lightnin' Hopkins, all the way up to Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. When you talk about Nimes and Nice and all that Riviera stuff, the young people who sat through so many jazz festivals were glad to see a person like Luther Allison. I was doing something they could move to."
Luther was on hand when Robert Cray debuted at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1985. A Montreux veteran since 1976 (his first European gig), Allison watched approvingly as Cray received thunderous ovations.
"Robert Cray was needed badly in the States," he says. "A good-looking black man young enough to reach out there and grab that college generation. I did that in earlier days, before the college circuit was wiped out by disco."
The news of Cray's European conquest spread quickly back home, where he had management in place waiting to capitalize on the moment. Allison, conversely, was still relying on himself and his wife, Rocky, to do the important things managers, agents and publicists usually do. Eventually, he eased across the Swiss border into France, supporting acts like Big Voice Odom and John Lee Hooker. In 1983, he made the move permanent.
Would he like to come back? Of course he would. But only under the right circumstances. He ticks off a list that reads like a virtual mantra for any musician who's ever enjoyed the European experience:
"If I came back to the States, the first thing I'd have to figure out is where I want to stay. I'm on the road over here (Europe) just as much as I was over there. Financially, I'm about 95% better off over here. I don't work as hard, even though I might pull off a four hour show every night for a solid month. But I don't work as hard because the people come and support me here. There, you know, you might play a night, and one-third of the people come to hear the music and another third come just to hang out. At the end of the night you're lucky if you've got $15 to put in your pocket after you pay the band and expenses. I don't have that problem here.
He also wants a nice home in a respectable neighborhood, where it's safe for his family, his friends and his instruments. He'd like a steady work schedule that's not quite as insane as his August 8 gig in South Dakota, his August 9 gig in Oslo, Norway, and his August 10 gig in Duluth. But he's content with taking things as they come.
"That's how it's gonna have to be until enough people pick up more on Luther Allison to straighten my pattern out a bit. But I'm so proud to have these gigs. Hopefully, the added recognition will get me to another level where I'm able to help more people."
Whoa. Didn't see that curve ball coming? You should have. He burned two right across the plate on Blue Steak, with tunes like Big City and the Handy-nominated Move From The 'Hood.
"I want to come back home and work more in the 'hoods," he says, "like Chicago, Detroit, New York. As long as I can go inside and help some kids out of trouble. That's my thing. I do that right here. I teach kids. I know what the 'hood is. That's why I wrote about it. And I've been successful -- I brought my son through, as you can see."
If there's anything that will bring Luther Allison back to the 'hood, it's the positive jolt he received from his homies in Memphis. In a matter of hours he was hard-wired into the mainframe of the blues elite. He's still pinching himself.
"It was like the Outer Limits," he bubbles, his voice climbing an octave. "It was like, 'this ain't real, this ain't happening to Luther Allison.' Number one, I'm in B.B. King's club, where everybody in the club loves Luther Allison. Everybody across the street, everybody at Rum Boogie, everybody at Blues Alley...it's like, 'Who's Luther Allison?' All the musicians I played and jammed with at B.B.'s... you talk about top Stax-oriented musicians, they're still there. And they're talking about Luther Allison!
"We jam, we talk, and they say, 'Hey, man, if you need a musician to come to Europe with you, we ready.' That's the way they talk. They know what I've tried to do."
But not even the full throttle acceptance of his peers and fans could quite prepare Allison for the one big happy blur that became his night of redemption. Nominated for six Handys, two of which were in the same category, he took home five, including Blues Entertainer of the Year.
"Man, I never did get back stage," he recalls. "They seated me down in front, and I was sitting there in the brand new suit I'd just bought in London. It was hot, so I took off my jacket. I'm sitting there in my vest and tie, and the next thing I know I hear one of my songs called out, then my name. I gotta go straight up from the audience to the stage and accept this award. From then it just kept going on and on and on and on.
"I said, 'Wait a minute! What's happening here?' And Ruth Brown was just flabbergasted, talking her crazy talk, 'Luther Allison, we don't wanna see you back on this stage no more.' Holy moly!
"I had no dream, man, believe me. I figured maybe I would have won for Blues Album of the Year because of Cherry Red Wine or Move from the 'Hood. But Entertainer of the Year? Blues Artist of the Year? All of these categories? I couldn't believe it was happening. All I could think of was how mad I was in the studio finishing Blue Streak, how disgusted I got with this record, telling people 'It's as far as we're gonna go. We ain't gonna do no more to this record. Ain't nothin' else left to do to this record. I don't want nothin' else done to this record. Y'all can do what you wanna do with this record. You know? Take this record and shove it!'
"But after all that I decided, 'It's great, man. I love this record.'"
Luther thinks back on his early days in Chicago, and tries to find the overview. "We knew we were into something," he reflects. "The only thing we didn't know was where we were going. We still don't know where we're going.
"All I know is I hope more people will know about Luther Allison now, or more people are going to be reminded that they did know me -- like those people who come up every time I'm in the States and say, 'I saw you 15 or 20 years ago, and you haven't lost nothing. In fact you've gotten great.' This makes me proud. this gives me something to live for. This makes me want to come back home and really lay it out. Not come home to prove, but come home to say, 'This is what you had, and this is what you got. I'm like Santa Claus.
"I come back every year if you're nice, child."
Back To Photo Archive Page
Back To Main Page