Born: August 17, 1939 in Widener AR
Died: August 12, 1997 in Madison WI
Because he all but disappeared from the American blues scene for almost 20 years, guitarist Luther Allison has never received the respect nor the recognition he deserves for his contributions to the blues. Honing his skills in the fire that was the late-1950s/early-1960s Chicago blues scene, Allison's hot-blooded fretwork and soulful vocals would make him a favorite among young rock 'n' roll audiences.
Allison's music, especially his "take no prisoners" guitar style, effectively bridged the gap between traditional blues and rock music during the latter part of the '60s. You can hear Allison's influence in the music of contemporary blues artists like Joe Louis Walker and his son, Bernard Allison, and thanks to a slew of (mostly live) posthumous archival releases, the bluesman's popularity continues to grow better than a decade after his death.
West Side Of Chicago
Luther Allison was born the 14th of 15 children to an Arkansas cotton farmer. While a child, Allison sang in the church, and learned to play the organ. His first exposure to the blues came via the radio, where he'd hear the King Biscuit Show on WDIA out of Memphis, as well as country music on the Grand Ole Opry out of Nashville on WSM. Allison's first musical experience came from playing a diddley-bow – a wire nailed to a wall with a bottle used to fret the crude music-maker – and he was also a talented baseball player.
Allison moved to Chicago with his family in 1951, moving to the city's West Side. He would strike up a friendship with Muddy Waters' son Charlie, and often saw the blues giant rehearsing at home. It wasn't until he was 18, however, that he began playing the blues on a real guitar, performing in his older brother Ollie's band. Dropping out of school in 1957, Allison formed a band called the Rolling Stones, which later changed its name to the Four Jivers.
Apprentice To The Blues
Allison's band was soon gigging at various West Side clubs alongside talents like Freddie King, Otis Rush, and Magic Sam, and it would be King who urged the young bluesman to start singing. When King left Chicago to tour nationally in the early 1960s, Allison took over his band and local bookings, and for five years the guitarist honed his craft on the unforgiving Chicago blues scene. During the mid-60s, Allison moved to California for a year, recording his first sessions with fellow Chicagoans Shakey Jake Harris and Sunnyland Slim.
Returning to Chicago, Allison cut two songs with his own band that would appear on the legendary Delmark Records compilation album Sweet Home Chicago which, in turn, led to a contract with the label. Allison's debut, Love Me Mama, was released by Delmark in 1968, the album's mix of traditional Chicago-styled and houserockin' blues bringing Allison an audience of young rock music fans. His performance at the 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival blew away the crowd and cemented Allison's reputation as a bluesman to be reckoned with; follow-up appearances at the 1970 and 1971 festivals only increased his popularity.
The Motown Years
Allison signed with the Motown subsidiary Gordy Records, which released his sophomore effort, Bad News Is Coming, in 1972. His Luther's Blues (1974) and Night Life (1976) albums would follow, but as Allison was the label's only blues artist, they didn't really know how to market his talents, and the albums sold poorly. Allison retained a strong live audience, however, based on his explosive, nearly-four-hour performances, and the Motown deal exposed his talents to appreciative audiences in Japan and Europe.
Sensing that interest in blues music in the states was in decline during the late 1970s, Allison changed his focus to the European market, releasing the album Love Me Papa on the French Black & Blue Records label in 1977. Spending more and more time performing in France and Germany, Allison relocated to the Paris area in 1980, and he wouldn't release an album in the United States for almost fifteen years. His presence on the U.S. blues scene would dwindle to a handful of summer festival performances throughout the 1980s and early-90s.
The Alligator Records Years
Allison spent much of the 1980s recording well-received live albums, mixed with a handful of studio efforts, for a variety of European labels. Allison's manager Thomas Ruf formed the Ruf Records label in 1984 in Germany to promote the guitarist's career, but it was Alligator Records owner Bruce Iglauer that convinced Allison to sign with the noted blues label stateside and record Soul Fixin' Man in 1994. The album served as Allison's re-introduction to the American blues scene, and would net the artist four coveted W.C. Handy Awards.
Allison's years with Alligator were commercially and critically fruitful, albums like Blue Streak (1995) and Reckless (1997) earning the guitarist a loyal audience stateside as well as a slew of awards and accolades. During the early 1990s, Allison toured the U.S. and Canada heavily, appearing at the 1995 San Francisco Blues Festival and New York City's Central Park Summerstage. Allison appeared at the Montreal Jazz Festival on July 4th, 1997. Diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer, Allison would pass away a few weeks after his dynamic Montreal performance.
Recommended Albums: Allison's Alligator Records debut, Soul Fixin' Man is his award-winning "comeback" disc, but his follow-up, Blue Streak, which includes Allison's signature song "Cherry Red Wine," may be the guitarist's best album overall. Performing live on the stage was Allison's strength, however, and Songs From The Road captures him in his blues-rockin' glory!
Luther Allison - Select Discography
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- Love Me Mama (Delmark Records, 1968)
- Bad News Is Coming (Gordy Records/Motown, 1972)
- Luther's Blues (Gordy Records/Motown, 1974)
- Night Life (Gordy Records/Motown, 1976)
- Love Me Papa (Black & Blue Records, 1977)
- Live In Paris (Buda Records, 1979)
- Rich Man (Ruf Records, 1987)
- Let's Try Again (Ruf Records, 1989)
- Hand Me Down My Moonshine [acoustic] (Ruf Records, 1992)
- Soul Fixin' Man (Alligator Records, 1994)
- Blue Streak (Alligator Records, 1995)
- Live In Montreux – Where Have You Been? (Ruf Records, 1996)
- Reckless (Alligator Records, 1997)
- Live In Chicago (Alligator Records, 1999)
- Standing At The Crossroad (Black & Blue Records, 1999)
- Pay It Forward (Ruf Records, 2002)
- Underground (Ruf Records, 2007)
- Songs From The Road (Ruf Records, 2010)