Even among blues musicians, Luther Allison’s story was unique.
Born into sharecropping in Arkansas, the 14th of 15 children, he learned to sing gospel and play guitar. After the family moved their roots to Chicago in 1951, he joined his brother’s gospel group, the Rolling Stones. By ’57, he was slinging a guitar for Bobby Rush, then Howlin’ Wolf and James Cotton, soon earning himself a name alongside other Windy City next-gen players like Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, and Magic Sam. He wowed the blues world at the 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival and became the first bluesman signed to Motown, in ’72. And then, in the late ’70s, he dropped out of sight – in America, at least.
Luther began touring Europe, where the blues had much more respect and he was treated like royalty. In ’77, he settled in Paris, honing his craft and later finding a champion in the form of blues fan and record producer Thomas Ruf in Germany. A loss for the U.S.
In ’94 Allison made a triumphant return with Soul Fixin’ Man on Alligator (released by Ruf in Europe as Bad Love). He won four W.C. Handy Awards, but more importantly, was on his way to becoming one of the biggest blues guitarists of the day. His shows were incendiary, and follow-up albums continued his streak. Who knows where he would have taken his brand of gospel- and R&B-flavored blues if he hadn’t died well before his time, of lung and brain tumors in 1997, five days before he would’ve turned 58.
This seven-CD (or LP) boxed set pays homage. It’s carefully subtitled as his “essential” recordings – and just from the Ruf years – so it never promises a career-spanning retrospective.
Allison’s best Ruf albums – including arguably his top career recordings – are here, along with some rarities for American fans. “Soul Fixin’ Man” still thrills from the first note and “Cherry Red Wine” from Blue Streak continues to sizzle with Luther’s stately overdriven solo.
Hand Me Down My Moonshine is a hard-to-find all-acoustic album that proves Allison had a whole other side to his musicianship. And he’s backed throughout by his son, Bernard, who was poised to start his own career.
Sadly missing, though, is Allison’s ’99 Live In Chicago album chronicling his storming takeover of the Chicago Blues Festival.
Among his other, non-Ruf recordings that are essential are some of his first: the compilation Sweet Home Chicago (1967) with two tracks from Luther and his solo debut Love Me Mama (1969), both on Delmark.
In addition, there’s a 45-rpm of Luther’s last studio recording – a cover of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Plus there are four DVDs of live shows from 1987 to ’97. And included as well as is a 88-page LP-sized hardcover book chronicling Allison’s life and discography.
This article originally appeared in VG May 2018 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.