My first and last interview with underrated blues-guitar great Luther Allison

Luther Allison Blue Streak

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, SEPT. 21, 1995

By Steve Newton

Why would a gifted bluesman from the Windy City ever think to leave his sweet home in Chicago and take up residence in a place like Paris, France? Maybe so he could get some inspiration for a tune called “Nuclear Weapon–Testing Weasel Blues”, but that’s about it.

“There’s no big blues scene for Paris,” says Allison, calling from his French abode, “but I don’t do a lot of work in Paris per se. When I’m here I’m rehearsin’, or I go out and spend all of my energy at the music stores, talkin’ and tryin’ to promote myself in a very positive way. I became my own kind of billboard, you know what I mean?”

Emerging from Chicago’s West Side in the late ’60s, Allison made a name for himself with his stinging guitar and fervent vocals, as captured on his 1969 Delmark Records debut, Love Me Mama. By ’72 he had signed with Motown Records as that label’s first blues act, and his three records for Motown’s Gordy subsidiary led to numerous concert dates and international festival appearances.

Allison travelled from Japan to Europe, and Europeans’ instant acceptance of his marathon (three-hours-plus) concerts convinced him to relocate to Paris in ’79. That move made him a star in Europe but cost him his American visibility, so he’s planning to reclaim these shores with a North American tour in support of his new Alligator Records release, Blue Streak.

That journey—which includes Allison’s first-ever Vancouver show, at the Town Pump on Tuesday (September 26)—will see him in the company of guitarist and songwriter James Solberg, who accompanied Allison on his original venture overseas.

“Who knows me better?” asks Allison. “I mean, if I couldn’t have my son [Bernard] on rhythm guitar, I was gonna try to find out if Solberg would like to do this. It would be another opportunity for us to be together, and hopefully we both will benefit from this.”

Although he might not be as well-known as B.B. King, Buddy Guy, or John Lee Hooker, Allison’s body of work certainly stands on its own. He still wishes he’d been a baseball player, though, and nowadays his nonmusical passion finds the 56-year-old player out on the tennis court.

“That’s what I do in my spare time,” he says. “Anywhere on the road I can possibly find a couple of hours here and there, I take my own racket with me and my woman—or my keyboard player—and we do it.

“See, I’m not into bars no more, drinkin’ and partyin’ and doin’ crazy things,” he adds. “I’m really tryin’ to sit here, create, and take my career a little bit more seriously. We’re movin’ forward, and I just want to show people I can do both sides of the coin, blues and rhythm and blues. To me it’s still Luther’s blues, okay, but I have this range, and that’s where the three-hour shows come from. If I got a chance to do three hours I will do three hours, you know what I mean?”

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