Allison, Luther (1939-1997)

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Allison, Luther (1939-1997)

Luther Allison was one of the most popular and critically-acclaimed blues guitar players of the 1990s, combining classic west side Chicago guitar with rock and soul in a unique style that appealed to the mostly white blues festival audiences. Record company disputes, false starts, and a prolonged residency in Europe kept him from attaining a large popularity in America until late in life, and his untimely death from cancer cut that success short.

Allison built a world-wide reputation with his intensity and stamina, often playing three or four hours at a stretch and leaving audiences decimated. "His urgency and intensity was amazing," long-time band leader James Solberg said in Living Blues magazine's tribute to Allison after his death. "I mean, to stand next to a guy that was 57 years old and watch him go for four and a half hours and not stop … I've seen teenagers that couldn't keep up with him … He just had to get them blues out no matter what."

Allison was born the fourteenth of 15 children on August 17, 1939 in Widener, Arkansas to a family of sharecroppers. His family moved to Chicago in 1951 where his older brother, Ollie, began playing guitar. Allison eventually joined his brother's outfit, the Rolling Stones, as a bass player. By 1957 he had switched to guitar and was fronting his own band in clubs around the west side.

Allison's early years as a front man were heavily influenced by Freddie King, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, and Magic Sam. Although close in age to Allison, those guitar players had started their careers earlier and served as mentors. He also listened to B.B. King at an early age, and King's influence is perhaps the most prominent in Allison's style. In fact, Allison was perhaps one of the best at emulating King's fluttering vibrato.

Allison's first break came in 1969 when he performed at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival to an audience of mostly white middle-class college students and folk listeners. That performance built Allison's reputation as a fiery, indefatigable performer and one of the hottest new stars in Blues. Allison also released his first album, Love Me Mama, on Chicago's Delmark label that same year. Although the album suffered from a lack of original material, it was the best-selling release on Delmark by an artist not already established with a rhythm and blues single.

Partly because of his performance at Ann Arbor, Motown Records signed him to a contract that would produce three albums on the company's Gordy label. Bad News Is Coming (1972) and Luther's Blues (1974) were excellent blues albums, but the third album Night Life (1976) was a critical failure. The album was Allison's first attempt to blend soul and rhythm and blues with blues, but it left his guitar and vocal buried under layers of horns and backup singers.

As the only blues artist signed to Motown, Allison became more and more frustrated with the label's lack of interest and knowledge about how to promote and record him. During this period, however, Allison toured relentlessly around the Midwest, building a base of fans among the region's college towns and continuing to play his unrestrained high-energy brand of blues. After leaving Motown, Allison recorded Gonna Be a Live One in Here Tonight! for tiny Rumble Records in 1979. Perfectly capturing his live show at the time, the rare album quickly became a collector's item. Allison eventually became frustrated with the American music business, and spent more and more time touring Europe where he found a warm reception. By 1984, he was living full-time in Paris, France.

According to Solberg, Allison's arrival in Europe was monumental. "They had seen Mississippi Fred McDowell and Mance Lipscomb and all those cats, but a lot of them had never seen electric blues," he said. "I mean, to stick Luther in front of folks who had only seen an acoustic blues guy was pretty amazing, both good and bad at first. But ultimately I saw Luther turn blues aficionados' dismay into amazement and excitement. On a blues version, it was like when the Beatles hit the United States. It was like rock stardom in a blues sense." Allison's son, Bernard, also became a hit blues guitarist in Europe, often touring with his father and releasing albums under his own name.

Allison recorded nearly a dozen albums on various European labels, blending blues, rock, and soul with varying degrees of success, but he still yearned for success in the United States. By the early 1990s, Allison and his European agent Thomas Ruf returned to America and sought out Memphis producer Jim Gaines, who had previously recorded Carlos Santana and Stevie Ray Vaughan. The album Soul Fixin' Man was the result. Allison and Ruf formed their own label, Ruf Records, and released the record in Europe. Chicago's Alligator Records bought the album for release in the United States in 1994.

Allison had finally found the right formula, and the success of that album led to two more: Blue Streak (1995) and Reckless (1997). He won the W.C. Handy Award for Entertainer of the Year in 1996, 1997, and 1998 and collected 11 additional Handy Awards during those years.

Having conquered the blues world, Allison may have been on the verge of a cross-over breakthrough to mainstream rock similar to Stevie Ray Vaughan or Buddy Guy. But he was cut down at the height of his powers. While touring the midwest, he was diagnosed with lung cancer and metastatic brain tumors on July 10, 1997. He died while undergoing treatment in Madison, Wisconsin.

—Jon Klinkowitz

Further Reading:

Baldwin-Beneich, Sarah. "From Blues to Bleus." Chicago Tribune Magazine. March 31, 1991, pp. 19-20.

Bessman, Jim. "Alligator's Luther Allison Has a Mean 'Blue Streak."'Billboard. July 29, 1995, pp. 11, 36.

Bonner, Brett J. "A Tribute to Luther Allison." Living Blues. November/December, 1997, pp. 44-47.

Freund, Steve. "Luther Allison." Living Blues. January/February,1996, pp. 8-21.