It’s Friday the 13th, but Luther Allison ain’t feeling superstitious. Halfway through a four-hour set in Minneapolis, he rolls into a rollicking version of his award-winning hit song “Cherry Red Wine,” unleashing a melodious storm from his trademark golden Les Paul. Luther is rejoicing in the blues, and his energy is mirrored in the faces of the standing-room-only crowd. He picks guitar with his teeth, boogies across the stage, and waltzes out among his fans. The blues have come to town with a fury.
Luther Allison’s time is now. He’s riding high on two fine albums, Soul Fixin’ Man (Alligator, 1994) and Blue Streak (Alligator, 1995). He took home an arm full of five big trophies at the 1996 W.C. Handy Awards in Memphis, including Best Male Blues Artist, and won a handsome 10 Living Blues Readers’ and Critics’ Awards. He’s instantly become the hottest headliner for blues festivals around the world. And in the last year, he graced the cover of all the major blues magazines and Blues Access crowned him the new king of the blues. Luther’s new Alligator CD, Reckless, promises to deliver more of the goods.
Luther has paid his dues to get to the top. He has been touted as “the next big thing” ever since the debut of his first full record as a leader in 1969, and his legendary performances in the 1960s and 1970s. Now, there’s no denying it: the former shoeshine boy has made it big.
Luther is justifiably proud of his recent achievements. He is a gracious, friendly man who loves to talk about the blues and vintage guitars. We met for a series of three interviews and chats before and after his Minneapolis show. Bursting with energy, he summed up his current state.
“I feel great! I’m not running out of steam now.”
Gospel, Muddy Waters, and Baseball
Luther was raised on gospel. He was born in Widener, Arkansas, on August 17, 1939, the 14th of 15 children in a sharecropping family. He learned to play organ and sing gospel early on, roots that come through today in his soulful, churchified blues singing. Music always mattered in his family, and he remembers he and his father listening to everything from the Grand Ole Opry to B.B. King on Memphis’ all-black WDIA radio.
Like many other rural Southern youths, Luther fashioned a diddley-bow to make music: he stretched a length of broom wire between two nails on the side of a building, playing a one-string beat and melody using a slide. He first experimented with a guitar was at age 10, learning licks from his elder brother, Ollie, and strumming along with records by Muddy Waters and his favorite bluesman, slide guitarist Robert Nighthawk.
In 1951, the family said goodbye to Arkansas plantation life and made the exodus to the promised land – Chicago. Luther went to high school with Muddy Waters’ son, Charlie Morganfield, and hung out at Muddy’s house to hear his band practice. After school, Luther played baseball, apprenticed in shoemaking, and sang gospel in a group called the Southern Travellers. But he was also drawn to the blues clubs, and soon was drafted into Ollie’s band.
In about 1957, Luther and another brother, Grant, formed a serious band, presciently named the Rolling Stones, but later changed to the Four Jivers. Luther also played bass behind neighborhood chum Jimmy Dawkins, learned licks from friends Magic Sam Maghett and Otis Rush, and sat in with Muddy. But it was Freddie King who took Luther under his wing.
King was playing as a frontman in Chicago at the time and was on the verge of breaking big with his 1960s Federal hits, “You’ve Got to Love Her With a Feeling” and “Hide Away.” He became Luther’s blues mentor, inspiring his music and his love of goldtop Les Pauls.
Luther appeared as a sideman on a handful of recordings in the 1960s, backing Delta bluesman Johnny Shines and Big Walter Horton on a Testament session. He first recorded as a frontman for Bob Koester’s fledgling Delmark label in 1967, releasing his first full album, Love Me Mama, in 1969.
At the 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival, Luther wowed the blues world much as Jimi Hendrix had dazzled the rock world at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. Luther played an inspired show, covering blues classics with his rock and roll touch. Throughout the ’70s, he was on the verge of the big time, returning to Ann Arbor several times, as well as Fillmores East and West.
Luther was the first bluesman I ever saw live, way back in the bad old ’70s. Fresh out of high school, I had heard the odd Muddy album and Clapton’s whitebread blues. But even though I was an ex-boy scout, I was unprepared. I was mesmerized by the age-old pomp and circumstance of the blues show: the band’s building intro theme and then, there’s Luther – with a 100-foot guitar cable, playing down amongst hoi polloi, like Guitar Slim. This was the real thing.
The Prodigal Son
In the late 1970s, disco was cool and blues were old school. Luther was getting more accolades in Europe, so in 1984, he packed his guitars and moved to Paris. There, he cut a long string of rocking R & B albums and built a devoted following.
“Luther Allison got a chance and unfortunately I had to go do it that way,” he recounts. “Jimi Hendrix had to do the same thing. At a certain point, I was a bigger name than B.B. King in Europe.”
Yet he always kept an eye on America. He played shows in the U.S. several times and tried in vain to get his French albums released here.
“I sent my records over here but everyone says, ‘That’s not the blues.’ And I say, ‘Hey, I don’t just play “Sweet Home Chicago” and “Stormy Monday”.’ They say, ‘You’ve been away too long.’ But I have been back here many a time but there ain’t no coverage unless some foul show go down.”
Finally, in the early 1990s, he teamed up with German blues aficionado and budding record-label head Thomas Ruf. Together with Luther’s second wife and manager, Rocky Brown, they charted a career for Luther, which included a return to the U.S. Bruce Iglauer, chief of Chicago’s Alligator Records, saw Luther play in Cannes, France, and knew the time was right.
Luther made a pilgrimage to Nashville to record what would become his first U.S. album in two decades. He was backed by the Memphis Horns and his U.S. touring group, the James Solberg Band, from Eau Claire, Wisconsin. At the control board was producer Jim Gaines, a veteran of sessions with the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Albert Collins, and Santana. The result was a masterpiece, released in 1994 in Germany as Bad Love and later that year in the U.S. on Alligator as Soul Fixin’ Man.
The “Soul Fixin’ Man” moniker came to Luther on the spur of the moment.
“We were down in Nashville recording and we were walking one night on Beale Street down near B. B. King’s club, and there was a shoeshine guy and James Solberg said, ‘You used to shine shoes, didn’t you?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I’m the sole fixin’ man.’ And we wrote that song that night. And it fired up the band and we named the album after the song.”
In 1995, Luther headlined the Chicago Blues Festival with Otis Rush. It was like the triumphant return of the prodigal son: one wheelchair-bound older woman in front of the stage shouting and hallelujahing, revival-style, as if kingdom had finally come. Tours in support of Soul Fixin’ Man and 1995′s Blue Streak packed clubs and festivals around the world.
Luther is philosophical about his revival.
“There’s many people who used to know Luther Allison when they were in college,” he said. “They’re raising their families now and they want to come out and have some fun again and they remember Luther Allison from the energy I gave then, and the energy I’m giving now. I have been away and I have been back – many times.”
Luther’s energy is, at times, downright frightening. He sometimes has to change guitars after almost every song due to broken strings. He employs the hardest-working guitar tech in show business.
Talking Blues Guitars
Luther loves to talk guitars. He has long been enamored with goldtop Les Pauls. Emulating Freddie King, early on he picked a P90-equipped goldtop. Today, his trademark is once again Midas-touched Les Pauls. On the Blue Streak tour, he played a goldtop Classic and his “perfect guitar,” a heavy, all-gold Classic he discovered in Paris several years back.
“This guitar has made a lot of noise for Luther Allison,” he says.
He bought his first guitar at pawnshop for $20, “…and paid another 20 bucks for the pickup a year later because we had to scratch for it, selling pop bottles, watermelon, whatever.”
He soon moved up to Les Pauls.
“Somewhere along the line I was able to get a Les Paul Junior which [belonged to] a friend of my brother’s who sang gospel.”
In 1961, he was playing a nightclub called Walton’s Corner, in Chicago, and the club owner told him he needed some decent equipment. The owner fronted Luther a piggyback Fender amp and a white Stratocaster. That Strat was later loaned to Magic Sam, who made it famous.
“Magic Sam took my Stratocaster to Europe and all around,” Luther reminisces. “He used it and finally he gave it back to me. I had it refinished and then it got stolen and I ain’t seen it since.”
Along with Les Pauls, Luther grew up on Strats. “In those days, everybody jumped on the brand new Stratocaster. Everybody had a Strat at some point, and I had two or three down the stretch. We were all victims of the Stratocaster. I still play a Strat now.”
Luther has a prized black ’62 Strat that became a victim of his performing excesses.
“I split it down the middle acting the fool,” he says, recounting the time he was standing on his own cord doing some fancy tricks, and the guitar body literally split in half. He has since had it repaired.
Luther also plays Super Strat-like Blade guitars made by American expatriate luthier Gary Levinson, in Basel, Switzerland.
“I have played and promoted the Blade for many, many years now. It’s a fantastic guitar but at the same time it’s not going to be the Les Paul. You can get the Strat sound, the SG sound, and almost a Les Paul sound.”
In fact, Luther’s Blue Streak album was named for the blue Blade he is pictured with on the cover – almost.
“What happened is that I forgot the name of the guitar; it’s really called the Silver Streak. But it’s painted blue, and that’s how we came up with the name. So I’m feeling good and I call Gary up and say, ‘Hey, I just named my record after your guitar.’ And he says, ‘But it’s not Blue Streak, it’s Silver Streak.’”
Overall, Luther loves Gibsons, which he terms the “Cadillac” of blues guitars.
“You see me with a Les Paul in my hands most of the time. I played Gibsons for years and years and years. Matter of fact, Gibson was the first guitar I played after I was able to get a name-brand guitar.”
Alongside his goldtops, he also plays a sweet baby blue Lucille. As he says, “Lucille was a big effect on me, and I like to play 335s. I have a ’67 335 and a ’50s 345 Stereo, given to me a long time ago.”
His intense acoustic CD, Hand Me Down My Moonshine, was recorded largely with a 1950s Gibson LG series sunburst.
He currently plays slide on either a tobaccoburst Les Paul reissue given to him by Gibson at the 1996 W. C. Handy Awards, or on an Ibanez ES-335 copy. “I play slide in normal and G, but I like the Elmore James, Hound Dog Taylor trip-E tuning.” Luther also has a 1930s 12-fret, slothead National Duolian.
Gibson has lately returned Luther’s longtime faith in the brand.
“When we were recording down in Nashville, we went over to the factory, went to the Custom Shop, got to know the people. They’re being very supportive of me with mechanical work and they take care of my business.”
Not a fan of effects, Luther lets nothing come between him and his backline.
“I used to play a Strat with a Twin Reverb with JBL speakers. I loved that sound and went to Europe [with the setup], but the sound wouldn’t work with the different electrical current. I couldn’t get that beautiful sound.”
In Europe these days, he uses a German-made Stevens rackmount amp run through two Fender 1959 Bassman Reissue 4 X 10 cabinets.
In the U.S., he was using two recent Fender 4 X 10 DeVilles. He has just switched to a single Victoria 4 X 10 that he is pleased with. “I’m looking for a sound between Albert King and Freddie King.”
These days, however, there’s many a guitar player striving for the Luther Allison sound. The former shoeshine boy has become the Soul Fixin’ Man.
Photo Michael Dregni. Return of the prodigal son: Luther Allison headlines the 1995 Chicago Blues Festival, playing impassioned slide on his Ibanez ES-335 copy.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Apr. ’97 issue.