Gone but Not Forgotten: Luther Allison
by Todd Beebe
The great Muddy Waters once said, “The Blues had a baby, and they named it Rock & Roll!” No quote may ever ring as true as this. Rock & Roll spawned and grew from the mighty root of the Blues. In it’s infancy, many people, unfamiliar with the Blues, assumed Rock & Roll came from a planet all it’s own. But as the genre grew, more people started to point to the Blues as Rock’s definite source of power. By the mid 1960’s, audiences were looking for players with the Soul of the Blues, and a Rock edge to add plenty of fire. Many of these players by fate, coincidence, or simply the need to play anywhere they could, seemed to be continuously found on Chicago’s West Side. Buddy Guy, Freddy King, Otis Rush and Magic Sam were players that all came to be associated with Chicago’s “West Side Sound.” Another player with a massive Rock edge and plenty of fire also joined that list of new players: Luther Allison.
Luther Allison was born in Widener, Arkansas on August 17, 1939. Luther was fascinated by the Guitar at an early age, and strung a wire to the wall to form a Diddley Bow. His love for the Blues soon blossomed, so when his family moved to Chicago in 1951, Luther found himself in the perfect place! The Blues was everywhere in Chicago, and he basked in the sounds of Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson. Legend has it that Luther didn’t start playing on a real guitar until he turned 18.
Freddy King became his good friend and encouraged him to emphasize his strong voice along side his guitar playing. King’s success soon took off and he began to play nationally. Luther jumped right in and took over Freddy’s old band, and also King’s weekly shows on the West side. It was during this time that Luther stormed Chicago and made a name for himself. 1969 saw Luther Allison play a barn storming set at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival. To say Luther turned heads is an understatement. [pullquote]He literally grabbed heads and turned them if they weren’t paying attention! [/pullquote]Chicago’s Delmark Records soon took notice and released Allison’s debut “Love Me Mama” in 1969.
In 1972 Luther signed with Motown Records. He was the only Blues artist on the label at the time. This opened doors for him to tour more nationally and internationally as well. Luther noticed that the Blues scene was not exactly thriving in the States at the time. But in Europe, audiences couldn’t get enough. By 1977 he decided to move to Paris, where he was rightfully treated as a real artist and master of his craft. He enjoyed many years there, playing for appreciative audiences in large venues everywhere he went. As the years went by, Luther started to set his sights on conquering his homeland.
In 1994, Chicago’s Alligator Records released “Soul Fixin’ Man.” This album is a Blues Masterpiece, and signaled that Luther Allison was ready to show America that he was indeed still carrying the torch of the Blues and all of it’s power. On June 3, 1995, Allison took the stage at the Chicago Blues Festival. He was well aware that many in the audience were unfamiliar with his name. He had something to prove, and prove it he did! Much like his amazing, energetic show in Ann Arbor in ‘69, at the ‘95 Chicago Blues Fest, Luther pulled out all the stops! I was there that day to witness this amazing show, and I can tell you the experience was unreal. I’ll never forget hearing a man behind me, obviously not at all familiar with Luther Allison, screaming over and over “Maaaan!! Who is this guy??!! He jams!!” By the time Luther left the stage that day, everyone knew his name. Several months later, I found myself at Buddy Guy’s Legends. It was November 4, 1995. I had heard stories of Luther’s amazing, marathon long shows. On that night I witnessed it first hand. Allison played close to 4 hours! Walking through the crowd and taking showmanship to a new level, he once again left myself, and everyone in attendance stunned with his Blues power. Check out the amazing “Live In Chicago” 2 Disc set that captures Luther’s ‘95 Blues Fest performance and also features selections from that “95 show at Legends. It’s absolutely essential listening!
Alligator released “Blue Streak” in 1995 and “Reckless” in 1997. Both are outstanding examples of the man and all his power. With the release of “Reckless” came more marathon shows. Luther burned across the globe and more importantly, the States. He was on a mission to win back his homeland, and he was doing just that- one amazing show after another- night after night, city after city. W.C. Handy and Living Blues Awards started to pour in. Luther Allison seemed unstoppable. So in July of 1997, Blues audiences were shocked to hear that he had inoperable lung cancer.
On August 12, 1997, the World lost one of the most amazing entertainers to ever live. His passing left a huge void in the Blues. He lives on though, in so many ways. His son, Bernard Allison gives amazing performances night after night, reminding us to never forget his legendary Father. Anytime someone plays and plays and gives a marathon performance, unable to stop because they simply can’t- the spirit of Luther Allison is alive and well. Luther had a saying he became known for: “Leave your ego, play the music, love the people.” Night after night he did just that, and in the process, showed us all how it’s supposed to be done.