Luther Allison (1939–1997)
Blues guitarist and singer Luther Allison was born in Arkansas, but like many of his contemporaries in the rural South, he rose to fame in cities far from his original home. His style exemplified the soulful blues of the west side of Chicago, Illinois, where he moved with his family as a child. Later, in 1977, when the popularity of the blues faded in the United States, he began touring Europe extensively and became an international star.
Born in Widener (St. Francis County) on August 17, 1939, Luther Allison was the fourteenth of fifteen children, all of whom were musically inclined, born to parents who were cotton farmers. He was exposed to gospel music as a young child, although he quickly became enthralled with the flourishing blues scene in Chicago upon his family’s arrival there in 1951. At age sixteen, he was leading the first of his many bands, one of which was presciently named the Rolling Stones. His first major breakthrough as a popular solo artist was his acclaimed performance at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival in Michigan in 1969. In 1972, he was one of the few blues performers who ever signed a recording contract with Detroit’s Motown Records.
Allison started touring in Europe almost exclusively in the late 1970s and settled in Paris, France, in 1984. He was adored in Europe, receiving what one critic described as “an overdose of respect,” and cut one album, Serious, while in France—this was released by the Blind Pig label in the United States in 1987. Fifteen years after moving to Europe, Allison returned to America in triumph, and in 1994, he began recording for Chicago’s Alligator Records, an association that led in 1996 and 1997 to his winning five W. C. Handy Awards and fifteen Living Blues Awards. He released Soul Fixin’ Man in 1994, Blue Streak in 1995, and Reckless, which was nominated for a Grammy, in 1998.
In 1997, at the height of one of the most astonishing comebacks in blues history, he was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. He died on August 12, 1997, at University Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin. The Ruf label released Hand Me Down My Moonshine, an all-acoustic album with Allison and his son Bernard, in 1998, and the following year, Alligator Records released Allison’s two-CD set, Live in Chicago. Ruf has since released other Allison albums, including 2009’s Songs from the Road.
For additional information:
Herzhaft, Gerard. Encyclopedia of the Blues. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1997.
Luther Allison. http://www.luther-allison.com/ (accessed February 8, 2013).
Stambler, Irwin, and Lyndon Stambler. Folk and Blues: The Encyclopedia. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001.
University of Arkansas, Fayetteville
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