LUTHER ALLISON
By David S. Rotenstein

©1992 D.S. Rotenstein

The Charlotte Observer
November 4, 1994

 


Eleven years ago, blues guitarist Luther Allison joined a long line of African-American artists who chose a voluntary exile in Paris rather than continue slamming into closed doors and dead-end opportunities. Before moving to Paris, Allison had reached rock bottom and any change would have been for the better.

"I figure when you down so low, down don't bother you,'' recalls Allison of the way he felt after arriving in Paris. "I don't think I could find any place as I found it in the USA, traveling, trying to make it work.''

Allison returned to the United States earlier this year to work the release of his debut LP on Alligator Records titled "Soul Fixin' Man.'' He plays the Double Door Inn tomorrow night.

As a teen growing up in Chicago, the Mayflower, Ark. native was surrounded by a virtual Who's Who of the blues world past and present. Buddy Guy and Lonnie Brooks were his friends. Another friend, Charles Morganfield, had a famous father: Muddy Waters.

"I came up in Chicago... at some point along the line we identified ourselves with the blues because that was what was in front of us,'' says Allison. "I knew the blues had a hook on me. I couldn't get away from that.''

Allison did not have to leave home to be enveloped by rich African-American musical traditions. Some of his siblings formed a gospel quintet called the Southern Travelers. His brother, Ollie Lee, had his own blues band . The remainder of Allison's siblings -- fourteen in all -- either played or sang some kind of music.

Although Allison credits his brother with having the greatest impact on his musical development, Otis Rush comes in a close second. Rush's left-handed guitar playing provided young musicians like Allison with a challenge on which to cut their teeth.

"Otis had such a sound,'' explains Allison. "I was curious how did he make the guitar sound so sweet, so solid, so easy.''

Allison knew early on that he had to play the blues. Unfortunately, until he was 21, the young guitarist was prohibited from most of Chicago's music venues because they served alcohol. Some of Allison's fondest memories of breaking into the music business -- perhaps his only good memories of the barriers then and those that lay ahead -- were lived out when older musicians would sneak him into the clubs to hear them play. And, on occasion, they would let him sit in. One night in particular remains close to Allison's heart.

"I think it was a nightclub called Alice Revisited where Howlin' Wolf was playing,'' says Allison. "We all went up to Alice's one night and Wolf called me up on the stage to let me jam.''

Howlin' Wolf told Allison, "I know you are in the house Luther, get on up here, show me what you have learned.''

Says Allison, "I remember these words coming from Wolf and I was scared.''

The good times, though were short lived. Allison quickly learned the brutal realities of the blues world. As he got older, Allison found fewer artists willing to share the limelight, willing to give him a shot at the big time.

Going from gig to gig, living from hand to mouth on the road played only a small part in Allison's disillusionment. During the 1960s, he was booking steady gigs and he had cut albums on Motown and Delmark. But, as he quickly found out, unless he was willing to do all of the legwork pushing his own products, he would ultimately end up an obscure footnote in musical history.

Paris, he felt, would be his only way to make it. Musicians such as Willie Dixon, Memphis Slim, Champion Jack Dupree all were bringing home stories of appreciative audiences and eager promoters. Allison decided the time was right for a change.

"I was tired of running up and down the road going no place,'' sighs Allison.

In Europe, Allison found that his greatest challenge was forgetting the difficult time that he had in the United States. As for the language barrier, that was the least of his concerns.

"I said at one concert in France, 'Excuse me, I'm sorry, I don't speak French, but my guitar does''' recalls Allison with a hearty laugh.

The ease with which Allison settled into the European music world underscores his belief that the blues knows no nationality. It is, in his eyes -- and ears -- world music.

"The blues got to be identified as world music as far as I am concerned,'' Allison offers. "Blues is the foundation of our music, let's say our American music, our African music. You know, let's take it all the way back -- our country music. Blues is the founder of the music.''

Allison is excited about the current blues revival, particularly its articulation with rock and roll. Allison likes rock and roll, not only for the music, but because he was in the middle of the musical mixing bowl when the blues spawned R&B and ultimately rock.

"I remember when I was a young guy, many of my friends, older people loved Chuck Berry, loved Fats Domino, it wasn't just the young people,'' Allison says. "I always feel that the blues has been the menu for rock and roll. In other words, no good blues, no good rock and roll.''

Allison experienced the birth of soul and funk. Today, he incorporates the sounds of his youth into a straight-ahead smooth blues reminiscent of Chicago's south side of the 1950s. The chords and lyrics are blues, but the instrumentation and timbre are a pastiche of post-war jazz, soul, funk and a little bit of rock and roll. To say that Allison lacks a musical center would be, in his view, missing the point.

"It's like we get labelled,'' Allison laments.

Arbitrary musical categories and facile comparisons of older blues artists to their younger, more popular rock counterparts infuriates Allison. In the past, young people have told Allison that he sounds like the Rolling Stones.

"To me, that's a no-no. Because as far as I am concerned, they play like me,'' Allison says to set the record straight.

Though it appears Allison shied away from the competitiveness of the American music business by escaping to Paris, he sees things differently. His move was one of survival and ultimate success.

"Because I travel the highways, byways, you name it, that's' like many of them did before and they endured right with me. And I would like to do something a little better for me, I found,'' Allison admits.