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Obituary: Luther Allison

Spencer Leigh
Wednesday 13 August 1997 23:02 BST

The death of the blues musician Luther Allison has come at a particularly poignant time, when he was making the best music of his career and being recognised as one of the leading exponents of the blues guitar. In May 1997 he had won three W. C. Handy blues awards including Blues Entertainer of the Year. This August Bank Holiday weekend he was due to headline the Great British R&B Festival at Colne, Lancashire.

With his new success, Allison had developed a potent blend of blues, soul, funk and rock 'n' roll. He often worked with a horn section and he was known for performing energetic, two-hour sets at festivals. In the UK, he played with success at both the Burnley Blues Festival and the Great British R&B Festival.

Luther Allison was born in Mayflower, Arkansas, in 1939. He was the 14th of 15 children and his father and brothers worked in the cottonfields. In 1951 the family moved to Chicago and Luther found himself at school with Muddy Waters' son. His brother Ollie was already working as a blues musician and Luther started playing his guitar. He also acoompanied some of his other brothers in a gospel group, the Southern Travellers.

In 1957 a blues group was formed to play the Bungalow Club in Chicago. The line-up included Luther and his brother Grant, and they called themselves the Rolling Stones, after a Muddy Waters' song. They soon tired of the name and became the Four Jivers. Allison was becoming a skilled guitarist, influenced by B. B. King and Otis Rush, and he was encouraged to sing by Freddie King. When King found work outside Chicago, he took over his residency at a local club.

Luther also jammed on stage with Howlin' Wolf and for several years was a blues journeyman, working with Little Richard, Magic Slim and Muddy Waters.

In 1967 he achieved some national recognition through the compilation album Sweet Home Chicago, for Delmark Records. This prompted Delmark to record an album, Love Me Mama, with him and his then group, the Blue Nebulae, in 1969. The label's manager, Bob Koester, said that he believed Allison to be "one of the most original exponents of the modern blues". The same year he appeared at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival and played on the albums Further On Up The Road by Shakey Jake Harris and Slim's Got This Thing Goin' On by Sunnyland Slim.

Solo success seemed possible when he became the first - and, in the event, the only - blues performer to sign with the Tamla-Motown label, but the organisation did not know how to promote the three albums he made for their subsidiary, Gordy: Bad News is Coming (1972), Luther's Blues (1974) and Night Life (1976) are now collectors' items.

In 1976 Allison came to Europe for the first time. He was disillusioned by the commercial failure of his Gordy albums and he noted that Memphis Slim and Champion Jack Dupree had settled with considerable success in Europe. He moved to France and he told audiences, "I don't speak French but my guitar does".

Many of his concert performances have found their way on to albums, notably Live in Paris (1979). Earlier this year, a compilation was issued, Where Have You Been? Luther Allison - Live in Montreux, 1976-1994.

In order to appeal to a wide following, Allison included some rock numbers by Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones in his repertoire. On being told that he played like the Stones, he said, "That's a no-no. As far as I'm concerned they play like me." He worked with his son, Bernard, a singer/guitarist who has released his own albums with his father playing harmonica.

In 1988 Allison returned to his blues roots with the highly-acclaimed album, Serious. This obtained recognition in the United States and he was signed to the Chicago-based Alligator Records with Soul Fixin' Man (1993) being his first American album in 17 years. The magazine Guitar Player thought it combined "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". The second album, Blue Streak (1995), topped the US blues charts for 19 weeks. Acknowledging the applause at the Chicago Blues Festival, he shouted, "I'm not only back. I'm unstoppable."

On 10 July while performing on stage, Luther Allison felt dizzy and lost co-ordination. He was taken to hospital where he was diagnosed as having inoperable lung cancer. He cancelled appearances and in order to help with medical bills, a fund-raising night at the 100 Club in London had just been arranged. His best epitaph would be a line from a Guitar Player review: "He played the blues as if his life was hanging in the balance".

Spencer Leigh

Luther Allison, singer and guitarist: born Mayflower, Arkansas 17 August 1939; married (one son); died Madison, Wisconsin 12 August 1997.

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