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A Tribute to Luther Allison

By Mike Zwerin

PARIS, 25 September 1997 - Musicians treat the blues like gospel. It's a kind of honesty meter, a measure of belief. "He can't even play the blues," is to say he's a hopeless case.

Although Texas now competes, Chicago remains the point of reference - a mecca. Among those who followed Muddy Waters and the others who first urbanized and electrified the original Mississippi Delta sound, Luther Allison was one of the few world-class down home true-believers remaining.

For years his peers had been moving towards funk - or wherever their record companies wanted them to move. It's called "crossing over." With the white market in mind. Many talented young black musicians have come to consider the blues a symbol of misery, to escape from rather than glorify.

Robert Cray, a young hope in the 80s, fought hard to keep his integrity but his hit records ended up in the pop bins. And he traveled with a bevvy of bodyguards and rode in limos and was known for general bad humor with the public. Just like big white stars.

Is that what "crossing over" is all about? Even John Lee Hooker is in the pop bins. Eric Clapton has been there for years. While Luther Allison, appalled, remained filed under blues. And then he was appalled that he was appalled.

Like the blues itself, Allison had trouble defining the object of prayer. He wanted to create a "new menu of devastating sounds," combining the Windy City with the City of Light, "to build new walls and add new rooms." He would have liked to have been "as charming as Duke Ellington, as colorful as Miles Davis, as civilized as B.B. King.

He was born in Mayflower, Arkansas, moved to Chicago where he worked with Elmore James, Big Mama Thornton and others. He led his own band for 35 years before he died of lung cancer at the age of 57 in Madison, Wisconsin, where he had a summer home, on 12 August.

In the mid-70s he began to invest in Europe as the blues grew increasingly bearish in the United States. Not that the Bulls were exactly kicking butt in Europe, but he felt wanted here. Recognizing the real thing, French blues aficionados followed his band around like Deadheads. Tours grew longer and more frequent.

European producers tried to repackage him. His point of reference became increasingly unclear. One-by-one his American musicians chose to remain at home, where at least they could pray in their own language. He picked up French musicians and good, young, white Americans living in Europe were proud to play with him. He settled here in the 80s, but the package remained more lost in general delivery than forwarded.

Going straight to the heart, the blues has a permanent place in the corridors of rock 'n' roll. It enjoys periodic revivals, which tend to be merely lesser degrees of penury. Mid-level white rockers are pleased to hit on "respectable" music (easier to play than jazz).

Although he looked long and hard, Allison found no record company willing to back him. He had no major outside organizational support. He financed his own recordings, made his own distribution deals, planned his own itineraries, calculated his own costs and hustled his own interviews with the press. Musical quality went up and so did record sales. He was getting better prices too.

The clubs were invariably packed and they asked him back. But they were the same 500 seaters he had worked for the past five or ten years. Continual traveling stretched physical endurance and artistic creativity, and there was always the possibility of that accidental occupational disease. To become an accident statistic. Stevie Ray Vaughan died in a helicopter crash. Buddy Holly, etcetera. The list is very very long.

In October, 1990, Huey Lewis and other rock stars performed in Madison Square Garden for a combination tribute to John Lee Hooker and benefit for the Delta Blues Museum. It coincided with the Benson and Hedges Blues Festival. Luther Allison was not invited. That same Fall, an issue of a blues magazine dedicated to the "blues boom" dealt with major bluesmen living and dead. Luther Allison was not mentioned.

"If the blues is booming," he said, "there must be something new making it happen. Somebody should be able to spot the blank spot. There's a reason it's back. What's new about the music to bring it back? There are people up there who are pushed to the top by copying. While the artist who opened certain musical doors for them, Luther Allison, who is still an active artist is not going anyplace. What do you have to do to be respected for being creative? I'm trying to avoid naming names. Okay?"

When pressed, he confirmed that the names not named were white names. "Now everything is fine for them because, you know - wow! - the blues is back. But if it don't work out for them, they can always move to pop or rock or country or whatever."

With a shrinking planet and increased communication, it is ever easier for musicians from any one discipline to be convincing in another. A French-based blues band can be true to Chicago roots. Ironically, however, French critics do not consider a blues band with French names quite authentic enough, and Allison wanted to tend his roots and expand them at the same time.

He called it "exercising new dialogues." With his own unmistakable husky voice and the strong French horn players he employed towards the end of his career, the dialogies were new and exciting. He was unique and his European audience got more enthusiastic all the time. He had every necessary ingredient except one - geography.

He was not at home here. He appeared to be totally uninterested in Paris. He never learned the language, he was rarely seen in clubs and/or cafes with musicians other than his own band. His life was his band period. You imagined him practicing his guitar and harmonica and listening to his tapes far into the night...homesick and brooding.

He played tennis in the suburb of Saint Cloud, where he lived, for hours on end. He spent one entire week cleaning his windows. He said he liked to keep busy. But it was escape more than anything else.

The bitterness was fierce: "I'm full of fire. I'm not on drugs. I'm not on booze. I'm always on time. I'm qualified. Why isn't there a place for Luther Allison?"

Finally, there was a place, but it was too late. He was named Blues Entertainer and Contemporary Blues Male Artist of the Year at the 18th annual W.C. Handy Awards at the Orpheum Theater in Memphis Tennessee.

Other Americans move here for quality of life, for culture, for the architecture - to escape banality. They would like to feel European somehow. Allison, however, was a true expatriate. He remained always a foreigner here. He left something he loved behind, he did not find something new to love.

He was here because survival was here. Although he made it clear how grateful he was to the French for accepting his music, he dreamt of a triumphal return to Chicago. But "not before I have a hit record to support, not before I'm accepted for my true worth. I'm qualified to be a legend. Everywhere I go in Europe, people call me a legend. Not in America. I like the word. Legend."

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