If your music comes from the heart, it’s solid. No other rules count. That’s basically what Bernard Allison learned from his iconic dad, the late Chicago blues master Luther Allison.
“Knowledge is great, but it always goes back to feeling things, especially for someone who grew up around nothing but feelings from Koko Taylor to Muddy Waters to Howlin’ Wolf. That’s feeling! Howlin’ Wolf would get on the floor and roll around or Guitar Shorty doing somersaults. Blues guys do that.”
Bernard had spent two years learning every riff on his dad’s first record, Love Me Mama (1969 Delmark) before his father ever knew his son knew how to play. Dad insisted he get a high school education before going on the road. But as soon Bernard graduated he started touring with Blues Queen Koko Taylor in 1983. “I joined Koko Taylor like a couple of days after I graduated which I think my dad had a lot to do with because him and Koko were so close.”
In 1989 he flew to Europe a week before his dad recorded a live German album and ended up living with him in France and touring Europe for two years. “I knew pretty much all his (Dad’s) moves, but he was more impressed with how much rhythm knowledge I had. So, he would often put me in charge and then assign me to be the bandleader. When I got there, I didn’t agree with a lot of the European musicians and how they played behind my dad. (Compared to) all those earlier bands like the ’70s bands – his Motown years – it was too boxed in for me.”
Bernard told his father, “I’m going to put some flavor in here and take you out of this box these French musicians have put you in.” At that point Dad was less concerned about whether his recorded sound matched the quality of his incredibly electric live performances. He told his son, “I’ll do whatever just to have a record out. I gotta prove myself when I play.”
Bernard hated France because the language and food were so different. “(Dad) took me to see a local blues band, and I’m like, ‘Wow, they sound like Otis Rush and Magic Sam, but then when I’m introduced, they can’t speak English.’ (But) they can sing English.’ I’m like how does that work?”
When they weren’t touring, father and son would go to California Music in Pigalle, an artist’s section of Paris famous for the Moulin Rouge and its red light district. They’d play with local kids who came in to learn the ropes. “My dad had the biggest heart. He was all about the youngsters and carrying on and teaching them the proper way and not just about music, but about life and the road and everybody wants to be on stage. They want to be on stage but they don’t want to do the work that leads up to it. You can’t do that.”
France was always a bigger market than the United States for both father and now his son, and the audience appreciated that these American musicians were playing outside the box, even if the French band they had supporting them had trouble getting beyond the technical aspects of blues and finding the heart of the music. Luther would later fire his French band in 1994 when recording Soul Fixing Man. This, his first Alligator LP, was produced by veteran blues producer Jim Gaines. Bernard remembers his dad’s call. “I didn’t understand it because I had rehearsed the band for a good month,” recalls Bernard. “We really mapped out these songs and arrangements. My dad said, ‘They can’t play it.’”
Almost three decades after Bernard left his dad’s band, he still spends three seasons a year in Europe playing 1000 and 2000-seat concert halls instead of clubs. “So, for us to have that type of following that understands our music and appreciates music is night and day, and to see my crowd and some of my dad’s fans, but I grew up with my crowd, and it’s the coolest thing for me to tour Europe because I pretty much know everybody. I’ve come once a year to that town since ’89.”
“People say, ‘Well, you’re always in Europe.’ It’s like ‘Yeah, they allow me to be me other than put me in a box ( as many do in the states) and say Bernard Allison, West Side Chicago blues. I’ve never been a West Side Chicago blues player. I have a right to dib and dab in every genre of music to create Bernard Allison, and I do some of my dad’s stuff. That comes naturally to me. I’m not gonna go and copycat him. He always said, ‘Don’t copy it. You can pick all the notes off, but don’t try and be me. Be yourself.’”
Even though Bernard sounds little like his dad, Luther had a huge influence on him, advising him that if it’s a good song, don’t play me, play you. “Like my dad was a big fan of Otis Rush. He got on stage with Otis Rush. He was like a kid in a candy store because that was passed down to him: Freddy King, Magic Sam, Earl Hooker. And I learned that early on. Having Dad’s record collection and having all these greats at my house talking, telling road stories and jamming. I’m like wow. This is crazy. So, I just absorbed everything by sitting and listening and I’d go to my room and try to play what I just heard.”
“I didn’t read, (but) I can pretty much play anything I hear, and at that early age of 10 when I first started and I learned my dad’s Love Me Mama album note for note, I could only learn it if I slowed it down. It was going too fast, and I never asked my dad to show me anything. I played for two years before he knew I played from listening to Otis Rush, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon.”
“It’s like, ok, I gotta get this stuff down before I present it to my dad, and let him know that I can play. If I hadn’t have done that, I don’t think I would have grasped it, and by not being a reader, there’s no way of me simulating anything. I could go hear Buddy Guy live, but now it’s moving too fast for me. I can see the feeling but to have the option to slow those records down, and to have a record collection that a lot of people have no idea who these people are.”
“My dad could sing. He’d give me goose bumps doing some song on stage. And I’d be like, “How do you do that?” Like “Puppy Love.” Like I say Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett, Sam Cooke. He loved that kind of stuff. But I think he lost – he didn’t necessarily lose it, and got with the French musicians. I think he felt that, ‘Ok, I gotta tone it down some for these guys to get where I’m coming from,’ which goes back to that whole box.”
“(Mama) had a box of old 78 (rpm) records. So, we were exposed to so much music, and once I started doing my first album, my dad’s like, ‘Don’t just lean so much on the Chicago side of things. Go and interpret some of your sister’s and brothers’ favorite songs ’cause you know it.’ And I’d never really thought about it like that. My one brother loved Sly & The Family Stone. My mom liked Mahalia Jackson, and I’d go back to reference these things. So, every time I start thinking about doing a new record, I’d always call my mom. I’d say, ‘Mom, what’s a good old song that you think I could pull off?’ Nine times out of 10, I’d remember it.”
Great feelings are color blind on the blues stage, and no one knew that better than Luther. It’s just one of the lessons he instilled in a young Bernard. “A lot of the older guys dislike per se the white players, and they say they’re trying to do something they wasn’t born with which I disagree. Stevie (Ray Vaughan) was a half Indian, so anybody can do anything they want. The blues is probably one of the only musics other than maybe jazz or gospel that is passed down to the next person, and I tell any new artists, ‘If you do my song, that’s why I’m recording. Take it! And put yourself into it. Keep that song alive.’”
“If it wasn’t for Johnny Winter and the Stevie Ray Vaughan, for example, Robert Cray and a lot of other big names would never have existed because they brought this other power to the table. When I heard Stevie on the radio, I was like, ‘S**t! Albert King’s got a new song.’ Then after meeting them, and playing with Stevie, he reminded me of my dad. He reminded me of B. B. Just that big heart, and he understood that he didn’t own that. It was just his approach to it. He’ll tell you ’cause I thought, “Voodoo Chile” was Stevie Ray’s f**king song. He said, ‘Are you crazy?’”
“My whole slide approach is totally Johnny Winter’s. I knew Johnny before as a kid. He used to come to the house, him and Edgar with my dad primarily. And I used to be afraid of him. I couldn’t figure it out. Every time my dad would say Johnny and Edgar are coming, me and my brother would basically hide in the closet. We’d never seen pink eyes, and things like that. Then once I got with Koko Taylor, Johnny had just signed with Alligator (Koko’s label) so we got a chance to tour out as a package with him, and he remembered me.”
“One day I asked him ‘I would really like to learn how to play slide,’ and he said, ‘The first thing you gotta do is open tune that guitar’ where my dad never played open tune slide. He played just regular straight up and just put a slide on your finger and he’d figure it out whereas open tuning, that’s where Johnny’s sound and technique come from because he’s pulling off all those open strings just like Eric Sardinas. He’s basically Johnny Winter. So, when Eric and I first met and played together, we’re playing the same notes because we both had that same influence from John.”
“Stevie was a sweetheart of a guy, and he really supported – just like my dad – the younger generation of players trying to teach them, not to teach them music or teach them notes, but teach them a little knowledge and make ’em build that confidence like if you really want it, it’s not gonna come to you on a plate. You gotta work for it. So, first of all, you gotta have your education. That’s first off. You can’t go touring and can’t count your money.”
Dad also had a great impact on Bernard concerning the drug habits of his mentors Johnny Winter and Stevie. “My dad shared a story with me early on when he realized what I was planning. Once, before I went out with Koko, he said, ‘If you ever get out on that road, you’ve got to learn how to say no. Don’t ask them for anything. It’s gonna be there.’”
“He had a headache at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival, I think it was 1972. He had a headache right before he went on stage, and he asked somebody backstage if they had aspirin. Sure, they gave him aspirin. He got on stage, and he says he saw 16 guitar necks. The gave him acid.”
“So, he told me, ‘Don’t ask for anything. They’re gonna be there. I already know you’re gonna dabble. You can try something once. Don’t try it.’ Everybody takes things differently.’ I started smoking with Koko because Pops Taylor smoked all the time. I didn’t ever have to smoke. There was so much smoke. Wow! But I tried it. ‘Oh, this is kind of weird.’ Even today, I can’t play and do that. If I do, I just solo all the time. I forget about arrangements. That’s probably why I didn’t get into Hendrix.”
“Actually, when I met Stevie was during Texas Flood. So, that whole period up until he went into rehab I knew him. I was out with him quite often, and even today I do a lot of stuff with (Stevie’s brother) Jimmy (Vaughan) when he goes out, but that was a sad moment, but we saw it coming. He saw it coming as well. The body just can’t take that, you know. When he passed away, he was on fire. He was clean. He was playing things that he had been playing, but he never really heard it (until he got clean).”
“We opened for Stevie I think it was what Alligator Records called Blues Explosion when I was with Koko. It was Koko, John Hammond and Sugar Blue. Stevie headlined. Grant Park was just packed. We finished our set. They’re roaring for Stevie to come out. Stevie’s hammered. He’s got a white cream suit on, and he had gotten in an argument with his wife. He had spilled red wine all down one side of his suit, and his manager said, ‘Stevie, get out there! They’re gonna tear the park up.’ So, an hour went by, about an hour and 15 minutes. They stood him up, walked him to the side of the stage, strapped his guitar on him and pushed him out right next to backstage. I’m like there’s no way he’s gonna be able to play s**t. And that’s the best I’ve ever heard Stevie. He didn’t look up one time.”
Bernard Allison’s latest album In The Mix was released in 2015 It’s as influenced as much by soul as it is Chicago blues. He hopes to have a new CD out next fall after his next European tour. For that he’s reaching back into his 83-year-old mom’s record collection for songs by Brook Benton and Jackie Wilson.
It was another great blues man who brought Bernard’s mother together with his dad in the first place. “You know, Bobby Rush is my Godfather. Bobby is responsible for my parents getting married. Bobby was playing bass with my dad at a place called Walter’s Corner in Chicago, and Bobby and my mom went to school together. So, my mom would always say, ‘He (Luther) never talks to me.’ My dad was more focused on just playing music. He wasn’t thinking about the girls and things at that point And Bobby told my mom, ‘This is what you gotta do. When we finish this set, take his guitar and take it home.’ My mom lived maybe three or four blocks away, and she took the guitar. When my dad came back up on the stage, he’s like ‘Somebody stole my guitar,’ and Bobby’s going, ‘I know where it’s at,’ and gave him the address so he had to talk to my mom.”
Bernard would like to record an album with childhood friend Ronnie Baker Brooks, the son of Luther’s friend and fellow Chicago blues veteran Lonnie Baker Brooks. On the CD Bernard would do Ronnie’s dad Lonnie Brooks’ material and Ronnie would do Luther.
Bernard sees blues as bright and wide open to innovation. “Rap and some other stuff is gonna disappear. It’s like numbers on the clock. Once you drop off the clock, there’s only so much other stuff coming, but I like to give every music a chance.”
Visit Bernard’s website at: http://www.bernardallison.com/
Interviewer Don Wilcock has been writing about blues for nearly half a century. He wrote Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, the biography that helped Buddy Guy jumpstart his career in 1991. He’s interviewed more than 5000 Blues artists and edited several music magazines including King Biscuit Time.
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