Luther Allison (born 17 August 1939 in Widener, AR, died 12 August 1997 in Madison, WI) was an American blues guitarist. His powerful guitar work – equal parts traditional blues string-bending and wall-shaking rock 'n roll – is matched in energy only by his soul-deep vocals. His live shows (often clocking in at well over three hours) are the stuff of legend.
He was born in Widener, Arkansas (the 14th of 15 musically gifted children) first connected to the blues at age ten, when he began playing the diddley bow (a wire attached by nails to a wall with rocks for bridges and a bottle to fret the wire). His family migrated to Chicago in 1951, and Luther began soaking in the sounds of Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Robert Nighthawk. He was classmates with Muddy Waters' son and occasionally stopped in the Waters' house to watch the master rehearse. It wasn't until he was 18 already in Chicago for seven years that Luther began playing blues on a real guitar and jamming with his brother Ollie's band. He began hanging outside blues clubs with the hopes of being invited to perform. He played with Howlin' Wolf's band and backed up James Cotton.
By 1957, Allison had dropped out of school and formed a band called The Rolling Stones. Unhappy with the name, they became The Four Jivers, gigging all over the West Side of Chicago. Before long, Luther was jamming with the West Side's best, including Magic Sam, Otis Rush, and Freddie King, who encouraged Allison to sing. "That," said Allison, "was my school." When King began to tour nationally in the early 1960s, Allison took over King's band as well as his weekly gigs at Walton's Corner and became one of the hottest acts on the West Side. For five years, Allison honed his craft. He moved to California for a year and cut sides with fellow Chicagoans Shakey Jake Harris and Sunnyland Slim.
His big break came in 1957 when Muddy Waters invited Allison to the stage. He worked the club circuit throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s and recorded his first single in 1965. Allison was signed to the Delmark Records label in fall 1967. He cut his first two songs as a leader on the now-classic Delmark anthology, Sweet Home Chicago, before releasing his debut album Love Me Mama. He performed a stellar, show stopping, set at the 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival and was invited to the next three consecutive festivals. He also toured nation-wide and, in 1972, was signed to Motown Records, one of the few blues artists to do so. By the mid 1970s he began touring Europe, enjoyed the warm reception by the crowds and moved to France in 1977. He wouldn't return to the United States for another fifteen years disgusted by the disco music that started there.
LUTHER ALLISON's manager and European agent Thomas Ruf founded the label Ruf Records in 1994. Since signing with Ruf Records, Allison launched a major comeback in association with Alligator Records. Alligator Records founder, Bruce Iglauer, convinced Allison to return to the States. With the release of Soul Fixin' Man in 1994, Allison's first domestic album in 20 years, he announced his return. "Fever and chills performances," said Guitar Player, "ferocious solos combine the wisdom of a master storyteller with the elegance of B.B. King, the elasticity of Buddy Guy, and the big sting of Albert King."
After three mammoth U.S. tours, America once again was paying attention to LUTHER ALLISON. On his American comeback tour, including his nationally broadcast and typically jaw-dropping set at the 1995 Chicago Blues Festival, LUTHER ALLISON announced to the world that he was not only back, he was unstoppable. And now he has the trophies to prove it, having received every award the blues has to offer. He swept the 1996 W.C.Handy Awards with five statues, won 10 Living Blues Awards and a 1995 Indie Award, and played in front of hundreds of thousands of screaming fans at festivals and clubs all over the world. He appeared on the cover of Living Blues, Blues Revue, Blues Access, and was the subject of major feature stories and reviews in Guitar Player, Guitar World, and Guitar For The Practicing Musician, as well as being featured on National Public Radio's Weekend All Things Considered and The Late Show With Conan O'Brien. "LUTHER ALLISON", proclaimed Blues Revue," is the New King of the Blues."
Allison followed up with Blue Streak, and the praise and accolades poured in. "A sonic roar as soulful as his gospel-shout vocals," raved the Washington Post. "Luther Allison's latest is nothing short of a masterpiece by a master," reported Blues Revue. Continued touring brought Allison before raving fans around the world, as he brought his band from the San Francisco Blues Festival to New York's Central Park Summerstage, with all stops in between. With Reckless, Allison reached even greater heights. Guitar World said, "Reckless in the best sense of the word, dancing on a razor's edge, remaining just this side of out-of-control. Hard-driving, piercing West Side Chicago single-note leads with a soul base and a rock edge."
Luther toured the US and Canada thoroughly and his fan base grew to his mind-blowing performances. Both Allison and Soul Fixin' Man won four WC Handy Awards in 1994. With the James Solberg Band backing him, non-stop touring and the release of Blue Streak (featuring song "Cherry Red Wine"), Allison continued to earn more Handy's and gain wider recognition. Allison scored a host of Living Blues Awards and was featured on the cover pages of major Blues publications. Throughout it all, Allison delivered one show-stopping performance after another. His boundless energy and fierce guitar attack combined to make him a blues superstar who reached rock fans like no bluesmen since Freddie King and Albert Collins. Allison was known for his strong showmanship, ten minute long guitar solos and crowd walking with an extra long cord attached to his Gibson Les Paul.
In the middle of his summer of '97 tour, Allison checked into a hospital for chest pains and breathing problems. Unfortunately, it was discovered that he had a tumor on his lung that was about to metastasize to his spine. In and out of a coma, LUTHER ALLISON died on August 12, 1997, five days before his 58th birthday. His album Reckless had just been released. Without a doubt, LUTHER ALLISON's death robbed music fans of one of the most exciting and popular blues performers ever. With Live In Chicago, Allison lives on, as he tears through the songs with the single-minded desire to give everything he has to his audience. While listening to the album, fans can immerse themselves in the explosive power of LUTHER ALLISON's music and experience the redemptive force of his legendary performances. Not only did he leave his legacy to never be forgotten, but his son Bernard Allison (born 1965) is an exceptional blues guitarist in his own right.
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