He Smoked!

Luther Allison smoked, died and bursts forth again on a live release

LUTHER ALLISON was my hero. But cancer got him young, almost exactly two years ago, and his death left a yawning gap in the blues world. He played and sang with the intense conviction of founding fathers Charley Patton, Son House and Robert Johnson crossed with more modern blue devils such as Otis Rush and Buddy Guy (before they both started to merely go through the motions) and Junior Wells (who, like Allison, remained a performer of frightening potency until the day he died).

I remember reading about Allison in Guitar Player magazine when I was a kid in the mid-'70s. Soon after, I bought a couple of his albums, but I wound up mighty disappointed. Allison was signed to Motown at the time, and they overproduced him, burdening his music with commercial silliness and burnishing off his sound its essential rough edges.

Shortly after the Motown fiasco, Allison moved to Paris, where he remained for the rest of his life. I didn't hear his music again until 1994, when Chicago's Alligator Records released the startling Soul Fixin' Man. I vividly recall thinking it impossible that the man playing these feral, tortured guitar riffs and singing like someone was applying a blowtorch to his butt was the same guy who made those awful Motown albums.

Alligator released two more superb Allison CDs (of the three, 1995's Blue Streak was the best), and Mr. Luther became my favorite modern bluesman, the guy who would rescue the world from such blues homogenizers as Eric Clapton, Robert Cray and—uuurrgghh!—Jonny Lang. Suddenly, Allison kicked ass over all he surveyed. He didn't work with opening acts because he wanted to play all night by himself; three- and four-hour nonstop shows were the norm. After a lifetime of obscurity, word of Allison was spreading—he'd recently graduated from playing small clubs to mostly theaters and festivals. Allison's Alligator releases netted him a dozen W.C. Handy awards and an unheard-of 15 Living Blues awards.

Visiting Orange County for a 1995 appearance at the Orange County Blues Festival, Allison seemed keenly aware that he was far from the blues pack. But he remained humble and modest about it—not to mention happy that he was belatedly beginning to enjoy a modicum of recognition for his efforts.

"I know what everybody's doing in the states," he said. "I've heard them all, and I've jammed with most of them, but I don't want to sound like that. I'm one of those guys who really misses Freddie King, really misses Magic Sam, Jimi Hendrix. I was always someone who liked to play in that old style, but I could never connect. Playing against the newer, younger, modern blues people per se, I play what I feel. What I want to do on my records is really go back. I want to see if a good lyric, a good title, a three-minute song can still have the power. How did those guys make those great records? That's what you hear me looking for. Me and Otis Rush and Buddy Guy and those guys really paved the road, but they were always a step ahead of my trip, and I was always in the background. I'm happy that now, being with Alligator Records and the Rosebud [booking] agency, they can hook Luther Allison back in. I missed the opportunity before, and I'm trying to say, 'Man, I feel great.' I still feel like I'm 25 or 30 years old when I get on that stage, for sure. I'm trying to take the opportunity to prove that I'm worthy."

A year later, on the verge of perhaps making the kind of mainstream breakthrough enjoyed by performers like Guy, John Lee Hooker and B.B. King, he up and croaked. The cancer got him, even though he quit smoking years before. The guy was only 58 and in the prime of his ability.

A tiny portion of this tragedy is righted with Alligator's new release, Luther Allison Live in Chicago. Recorded at the 1995 Chicago Blues Festival; Buddy Guy's Legends; and the Zoo Bar in Lincoln, Nebraska, Allison erupts like Mount Saint Helens over the course of two discs. Fine as his Alligator studio CDs were, his performances here are the best Allison you'll ever experience; this is an album that bespeaks genuine greatness and marks Allison as the most important bluesman of the '90s. It's a fitting epitaph that he would have been rightfully proud of. Whether anyone beyond the hardcore blues aficionado catches on will be another matter altogether.

Throughout a set of heartfelt, raging originals and a particularly ferocious take on Elmore James' "It Hurts Me Too," Allison's guitar playing is at times so manic you think you're listening to some metal head shredding away. But for all his speed and flashing technique, Allison never played an extraneous note; everything you hear is in service to the raw emotion at hand. His vocals had the rich fullness of tone usually associated with jazz singers like Ernie Andrews and Al Hibbler, but rather than laid-back jazz crooning, Allison testified like a gospel screamer in the throes of spiritual rapture.

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