In the long and rich history of the blues, the path going south to north, from Mississippi to Chicago, is a well-traveled one.
Plenty of unknowns have left the rural pastures of the Magnolia State with little to their name, only to end up as legends after their feet hit the concrete in the Windy City.
But as has been proven, that’s not the only path to stardom in the world of the blues.
There’s the path that starts out in Chicago and winds up in Paris, France.
While not the closest or the usual one, it is the path that the late, great Luther Allison traveled to stardom.
It’s also the path that his youngest son, Bernard, continues to travel to this day.
“I’m in Europe more than half the year. I’ve got set tours over there (in Europe) that I do every year. They’ve been fixed for years,” Bernard Allison said. “The biggest one is the tour that my dad started in 1976 with John Lee Hooker and B.B. and Muddy and Taj and Sugar Blue. And that tour was passed down to me when my dad passed away. So I’ve continued that, as well as tacked on stuff that I’ve created on my own. So it’s really grown.”
Kinda gives new meaning to the old “have guitar, will travel” adage, doesn’t it?
“The interesting thing is, I basically grew up with that (European) fan base. So that makes it like I’m almost at home,” Allison said. “I was introduced to the fans by my dad. And now they’ve grown to expect Bernard Allison to play around those certain times of year. So I try to play over there in pretty much the same months and same places that my dad used to.”
One of the biggest shames in the history of the blues is the way that Hall of Famer Luther Allison never really received the widespread love and adoration from fans in the United States that he richly deserved, until right before his death in 1997, just days before he would have turned 58 years old.
However, it didn’t take Luther Allison very long to become a certified star over in Europe – especially in Paris – where he was immediately embraced as the embodiment of true American blues.
These days, not only as a tribute to his late father, but also as a way to say ‘thank you’ to the legion of fans overseas who made it possible for his dad to continue to play the blues, Bernard Allison, the youngest of Luther’s nine kids, sees to it himself that the European blues community is well taken care of.
“My European fan base is who has put me in the position that I’m in today. I do a lot of dates in the United States and could probably tour over here the whole year, easily. But I have to be loyal and have to stick to the word that I promised my dad. That comes first,” he said. “So I’m trying to keep the Allison tradition that my father created going, for sure. That’s something that I promised my dad and my family that I would continue. And hopefully, if not another family member, then some other youngster can come in and take over when I say that I can’t do it anymore.”
Not wanting to leave his stateside fans feeling left out, Bernard Allison is taking care of those who can’t travel to see him with his newest project – a live two-CD or single DVD set, titled Live at the Jazzhaus (Jazzhaus Records).
Slated for a late September release, Live at the Jazzhaus is an audio and visual document of the way the Bernard Allison Group has been burning up stages all across Europe the past year.
“Yeah, it’s basically what Bernard Allison is doing now. We wanted to capture the moment with the band that I’m using before going on to the next project,” he said. “I just want to make sure people are kept up-to-date, step-by-step with what I’m doing, because I had just released my last studio album, The Otherside, just the year before. And that album really hasn’t kicked in gear here in the States, so I wanted to follow up as soon as I could with this live one.”
Live at Jazzhaus boasts blistering workouts of a number of songs off The Otherside and Chills & Thrills, Allison’s two latest albums, along with a white-hot reading of the classic “Rocket 88.”
“This unit (George Moye, bass; Toby Lee Marshall, keyboards; Jose James, sax, percussion; Erick Ballard, drums; Mike Goldsmith, guitar) I’m playing with is pretty intense, because they all come from different genres of music,” Allison said. “Yeah, it’s all blues-rooted, but it captures the direction of each one of the players. I’m really proud of it. These guys are just fantastic players and we really have a good time. They have absolutely no egos. And our Allison family motto is, ‘Leave your ego, play the music, love the people.’ And I’ve really got the right guys now that represent that. They’re just as hungry as I am and play for the love of the music, not for the money.”
Bernard’s passion for playing the blues was absorbed from his legendary father, even though there were long stretches of time when Luther was apart from his family, with them in Peoria and him on the other side of the globe, working hard to provide for his loved ones the best way that he could.
“He wanted us to finish school and we knew that the only way that dad could support the whole family was to make music and to travel,” Allison said. “So we saw very little of him, other than holidays when he would come back to Peoria. But one thing he wanted all of us to do was to stay in one place so we could finish high school. After that, he said, ‘it’s your choice what you do.’ But he insisted we got our educations first.”
And once his own education was out of the way, Bernard relocated to Paris in 1989, with intentions to stay just long enough to play on a live album with his father, and then to record his own solo debut (The Next Generation).
But as often-times happen, plans change and Bernard ended up staying in the City of Lights for 12 years, working as his dad’s bandleader for a majority of those years.
“Dad was really into the way I wrote music and arranged songs,” Allison said. “And he was interested in learning to play open-tuning slide, which Johnny Winter had taught me. Dad was playing everything in standard (tuning), so I showed him open-tuning and then he was on fire.”
Not only did hanging and jamming in Paris re-connect Bernard and Luther musically, more importantly, it also re-connected them as father and son, even through that dynamic was not as straight-forward as it sounds.
“Our relationship was more like brothers. And the main reason I wanted to stay, was to get to know my father and spend time with my dad – more so than for the music. I knew the music would come, but to get to really know my dad and just hang with him was just a blessing,” Allison said. “We really got a chance to bond, man-to-man. He called me B.A. and I called him LuLu. It wasn’t dad or pops or son … so we had our nicknames for each other. That was one of the smartest moves of my life – going to Europe. I already knew Luther Allison the musician – I had all the tapes. But I got to know Luther Allison the man, the friend, the father.”
And like father, like son – B.A. would find out just what LuLu had to go through in order to put food on the family table.
“He explained to me that someday I might be in the same situation that he was in when I was young, having to choose between taking care of your family here or going somewhere you can be successful and support your family,” said Allison. “And that was totally the case with me in raising my daughter Dominique, who just graduated from ISU and just had her first child. So now I’m a grandfather. But if I would have stayed in Peoria, there’s no way I could have supported her and put her through college. It would have been impossible. There’s just not enough venues there, so I had to go to Europe.”
However, Bernard’s first exposure at what it was like to be a part of a working blues band came a few years before he made his trek across the Atlantic Ocean.
Still in his teens at the time, Bernard played for the Queen of the Blues, Koko Taylor, in her Blues Machine for three years.
“If it wasn’t for Koko and Pops Taylor, I wouldn’t be the musician I am today. First of all, they taught me how to play behind someone. I learned how to play in a rhythm section behind a vocalist,” he said. “They also taught me the do’s and do-not’s of the road. When I joined Koko’s band, I was 16 years old. I really wasn’t of age to be in the clubs that we were playing. So they basically adopted me and were my guardians on the road. So I give them all the credit. I mean, I was a baby out there with the Queen of the Blues.”
Bernard’s next big task was finding his own identity. And as he found out, it took awhile for some fans to realize that Bernard Allison was his own man, with his own personality and style.
“It did take a few years to break out of the ‘let’s go see Luther’s kid play’ thing,” he said. “They never used to call me by my name. It was always ‘Luther’s kid.’ So it wasn’t easy to break out of his shadow, but I did manage to do it. But you know, I’ve always been different than my dad. We’re two different guitar players and two different singers. For years in Paris, I had an eight-piece band with a horn section. It sounded something like Albert Collins meets Big Twist or something. It was different from Chicago or straight Texas blues.”
With Luther Allison being the kind of man that never met a stranger and a person that was so-beloved by those that knew him, it’s no wonder that so many people saw Bernard as just being “Luther’s kid.’
“My dad just had so many friends all over the world. Not just the ones that knew him through music, but the ones that knew him on a personal level,” said Allison. “People that knew he loved to fish and talk about the days in Peoria when he used to work at Keystone and Caterpillar. People just couldn’t believe how humble he was, how he just could jump on stage and then tear it up for a couple of hours.”
With the way that blues music always seems to get the short-end of the stick when it comes to being a widely-popular form of entertainment, taking a back seat to things like the disposable pop stuff that’s crammed down people’s throats, it’s a wonder that there’s still a batch of up-and-comers that continue to be interested in playing the blues.
“I think that years ago when MTV came out and saturated a whole generation and you didn’t see any blues, or any blues rock, it just threw everything off,” said Allison. “Blues has never been able to sit at the top of the mountain anyway, but I always say every genre of music is like a number on the clock. Everyone has their turn, so all these phases and fads go in and out, but the blues and jazz and gospel never go out, but they never reach 12, either. God bless guys like Buddy (Guy) and B.B., guys like that who are still out there doing it after all these years.”
And whether he calls Paris, France or Peoria, Illinois home, Bernard Allison’s agenda remains the same.
Leave your ego, play the music, love the people.
“My dad always said that you have to go out and give 110-percent all the time and be loyal to your fans. That’s what will make you happy,” he said. “And that’s what I do. I could care less if I top the charts with a number-one seller. That means nothing to me. It’s the respect of the people that I’m trying to reach that’s important to me.”
While releasing a studio album and then a live CD/DVD in the span of about 12 months indicates a busy year, the way things look, Bernard Allison’s plate shows no signs of emptying any time soon.
“I’ve got quite a few ideas that are being tossed at me, so you may very well see some more Bernard Allison in different situations. It’s just a matter of time,” he said. “There’s talks of the “Who’s Your Daddy? Tour,” with me and Ronnie (Baker Brooks) and Shemekia (Copeland), along with an album. That’s a great packaging. If we get the proper support, that could be a Showdown II. Then, we’re looking at a pairing of maybe Bernard Allison, Eric Gales and Lance Lopez. So we’re just all putting our heads together, because we all understand things are getting tougher. There’s just so many great players out there that need to get that one big break. I was lucky because I moved to Europe. So I try to help everybody that I can. I try to turn people on to whatever I can, because this music (blues) does not belong to me. It was passed down to me. It wasn’t my father’s, either. John Lee Hooker passed it on to him. That’s what it’s all about – passing the torch and keeping it going. You have to enjoy every day, because tomorrow’s not guaranteed. I want to leave the Allison stamp on as many continents as possible, because I love to play.”