Blues singer, guitarist
At the time of his death in 1997, Luther Allison was at the very top of the blues world. The singer and guitarist had received a total of eight W. C. Handy awards over the prior two years, and was performing to sold-out audiences over the world. He had struggled for 40 years in semi-obscurity—many of those years spent in European self-exile—to reach that peak, only to have his career suddenly ended by terminal cancer.
Allison was born on August 17, 1939, in Mayflower, Arkansas, the fourteenth of 15 children. In 1951, fed up with life in the cotton fields of the South, the family moved to Chicago in search of better opportunities. The family was a musical one. Several of Allison’s siblings sang in a gospel group called the Southern Travellers. One of his older brothers, Ollie, soon began working as a guitarist on Chicago’s booming South Side blues scene. Seeking to emulate his brother, Luther took up the guitar. By the middle of his teens, Allison was skilled enough to sit in with his brother’s band on club dates.
Soon Allison was ready to front his own band, and in 1957 he formed a group called the Rolling Stones, named after a song by blues great Muddy Waters. The band also included another Allison brother, Grant. After changing its name to The Four Jivers, the band quickly became regulars on the Chicago blues club circuit. It was not long before Allison’s fiery guitar work caught the attention of Magic Sam, Freddy King, and other fixtures of the competitive West Side blues scene.
For the next decade or so, Allison toiled as a sideman for those and other bandleaders. It was Freddy King who encouraged Allison to start singing. He played supporting roles during this period with such other blues legends as Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. When King started touring nationally, Allison took over his band and his weekly West Side gig. By the end of the 1950s he was one of the bigger acts on the Chicago blues scene.
In 1967 Allison gained national attention when his playing was included on a compilation album released by Delmark Records, called Sweet Home Chicago. He followed that up with a Delmark album of his own, Love Me Mama, issued in 1969. By this time, Allison had been more or less tabbed as the “next big blues star” out of a generation of hot players coming out of the West Side. This collection of blooming blues stars, which included Otis Rush and Buddy Guy, found ways to incorporate a rock and roll sensibility into their music without sacrificing its blues authenticity.
Meanwhile, Allison had begun taking his band on the road outside of Chicago for the first time, touring with harmonica player Shakey Jake. Allison made huge
Born August 17, 1939, in Mayflower, AR; died August 12, 1997, in Madison, WI; married, wife’s name, Fannie Mae (separated); children: Bernard, Luther T.; seven stepchildren.
Formed first band, the Rolling Stones (name subsequently changed to the Four Jivers), 1957; accompanied several blues artists, including Freddy King, Magic Sam, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf, 1957-59; took over leadership of King’s band, c. 1959, and performed in various Chicago venues, 1959-67; appeared on first recording, the compilation Sweet Home Chicago, Del-mark, 1967; first solo recording, Love Me Mama, Delmark, 1969; headlined Ann Arbor Blues Festival, 1969, 70; recorded on Motown Records, 1972-76; moved to Paris in 1979, performed across Europe, 1979-93; returned to U.S. and released Soul Fixin’ Man, Alligator, 1994; recorded on Alligator label and toured worldwide, 1994-97.
Awards: Blues Foundation, eight W. C. Handy Awards, 1995-97, including Best Blues Entertainer, 1995 and 1996; Living Blues, ten Readers’ and Critics’ Awards.
splashes at the 1969 and 1970 Ann Arbor Blues Festivals in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and it seemed only a matter of time before he would become the biggest blues name in years. He signed a recording contract with Berry Gordy’s Motown label. It marked the first time that Motown, a giant in soul music, had signed a blues artist. Allison recorded three albums on Motown: Bad News is Coming (1972), Luther’s Blues (1974), and Night Life (1976). Unfortunately, Motown had no idea how to promote blues products, and none of Allison’s albums sold very well. In addition, Allison was unhappy with Motown’s propensity to “overproduce” his work. He preferred to record in a simpler, more “live” atmosphere.
Disillusioned by the failure of his Motown projects, Allison packed up and moved his base of operations to Europe, following in the footsteps of earlier blues expatriates Memphis Slim and Champion Jack Dupree. Settling in Paris in 1979, Allison set out to revitalize his career by concentrating on what he did best—namely putting on fantastic live shows, in which he exhibited boundless energy, usually exhausting the audience before losing any steam himself. He continued to record as well, turning out albums on European labels such as Melodie and Black & Blue, in addition to the occasional U.S. release on Blind Pig. By the middle of the 1980s, Allison had become arguably the biggest blues star in Europe.
As he gained stature in Europe, Allison continued to court younger listeners by incorporating elements of rock into his music, leading to inevitable comparisons to, among others, Jimi Hendrix. Allison never seemed to mind the association with rock artists, noting the historic connection between the two genres. By the late 1980s, however, Allison was delving back into his hardcore blues roots, combining the hot guitar licks he had honed over the years with a matured vocal style that captured the essence of the wise, world-weary bluesman. His 1984 release Serious caught the attention of the people at Chicago-based Alligator Records.
In 1994 Alligator released Soul Fixin’ Man, Allison’s first American album in nearly two decades. The album was a huge hit among blues fans, marking Allison’s triumphant return to his native turf. A writer in Guitar Player applauded the album’s “fever and chills performances,” and raved that Allison’s “ferocious solos combine the wisdom of a master storyteller with the elegance of B.B. King, the elasticity of Buddy Guy, and the big sting of Albert King.”
Allison followed up in 1995 with another Alligator album, Blue Streak. Blue Streak not only solidified Allison’s comeback, but put him among the elite few at the very top of the blues kingdom and earned him five W. C. Handy awards, the most prestigious in the business for a blues performer. A Washington Post writer called it “a sonic roar as soulful as his gospel-shout vocals,” and the album remained atop the blues charts for 19 weeks. Allison continued to tour tirelessly all over the world, astonishing fans in North America, Europe, and Japan with the sheer energy of his live shows. Well into his fifties, nearly 30years after he made his first recordings, Allison summed up his amazing reversal of fortune at the 1995 Chicago Blues Festival: “I’m not only back. I’m unstoppable.”
In 1997 Allison released Reckless, which would turn out to be his final album. During a July performance, Allison left the stage complaining of dizziness and a loss of coordination. He was taken to the hospital, where he was diagnosed as having inoperable lung cancer and had already spread to other parts of his body. Told that he did not have long to live, the two-time reigning “Blues Entertainer of the Year” canceled the rest of his touring schedule in order to focus on his health. Allison died on August 12, 1997, in Madison, Wisconsin. Although his life ended just as his career was reaching its overdue peak, Allison managed to live just long enough to see his singer/guitarist son Bernard make his debut album, Born with the Blues. Allison’s career was perhaps best summarized by Guitar Player’s Jas Obrecht, who observed that Allison “played the blues as if his life was hanging in the balance.”
Love Me Mama, Delmark, 1969.
Bad News is Coming, Motown, 1972.
Luther’s Blues, Motown, 1974.
Night Life, Motown, 1976.
Love Me Papa, Black & Blue, 1977.
Live in Paris, Buda, 1979.
Gonna Be a Live One in Here Tonight, Rumble, 1979.
Life is a Bitch, Melodie, 1984.
Serious, Blind Pig, 1984.
Here I Come, Melodie, 1985.
Hand Me Down My Moonshine, In-Akustik, 1992.
Soul Fixin’ Man, Alligator, 1994.
Bad Love, Ruf, 1994.
Blue Streak, Alligator, 1995.
Motown Years, Motown, 1996.
Reckless, Alligator, 1997.
Sweet Home Chicago, Delmark, 1967.
Arizona Republic, August 15, 1997.
Billboard, July 29, 1995; August 23, 1997.
Guardian (London), August 27, 1997.
Guitar Player, February 1995; December 1996.
Independent (London), August 14, 1997.
Living Blues, Autumn 1973.
Melody Maker, September 20, 1980.
Times (London), August 22, 1997.
—Robert R. Jacobson
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