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The Best of the Blues

Luther Allison plays with a passion that's winning top awards.

June 26, 1997|JAMES E. FOWLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The blues is hot these days.

And nobody playing the blues right now is hotter than singer-guitarist Luther Allison, who plays at B.B. King's on Tuesday evening.

For the last 18 years in Memphis, Tenn., the Blues Foundation has annually presented the W.C. Handy Awards to recognize the best in blues music. Allison has been the big winner there the last two years.

Allison picked up five awards in 1996 and this year, even without the benefit of a new album, he received three more: blues entertainer of the year, best blues band and best contemporary male blues artist.

In fact, Allison has won every award the blues world has to offer, including 10 Living Blues Awards, given out by the magazine of the same name. Blues Revue magazine has gone so far as to declare Allison the "New King of the Blues."

"It's turning out to be a very beautiful two to three years for Luther Allison," said the artist, referring to himself as befits a newly crowned potentate. "I'm hoping we can keep the string going."

Beautiful, indeed.

Allison's performance style has been described as "slash and burn." Allison is a performer who delivers his whole emotional load. He gives it all up on stage so it seems like there should be nothing left. He doesn't hold anything back, he goes all-out on each song. And yet each note sounds like it comes from his soul.

"I want to go out onstage and make many people happy," Allison said. "I want to give it all while I can."

But his is not a household name, as is Buddy or Muddy or Albert or King. And Allison is not a youngster. He's 57, but he sings with a red-hot passion that's rare in performers half his age.

Allison and his band do about 175 live dates per year in the United States and Europe. He doesn't like to take a lot of time off, because he doesn't want to lose his groove, he said. But he spoke by phone from a cabin in Wisconsin, where he was taking in a few days of fishing.

"I just went out to the lake for a few minutes today," Allison said. "It's not a vacation, it's just a few minutes to myself."

Born in Arkansas and raised in Chicago, Allison recorded his first blues record on a small label in 1969. He signed with Motown in the early 1970s as their only blues artist. A three-album stint with Motown led to numerous concert dates, both in the States and Europe. He was part of a new generation of blues players.

"Muddy Waters, B.B. King, had paid their dues--down the street, up the alley," Allison said. "And all of a sudden, you have some young guys way out of nowhere playin' the blues."

But, the blues' popularity was fading. It fell out of fashion and was not much in demand in America during the disco era.

"We lost it in that stretch," Allison said. So Allison migrated to Europe, where he still remains one of the continent's biggest blues artists.

"Europe's been great," Allison said. "Promoters there are more knowledgeable about American music than American promoters. "

Allison didn't return to the U.S. until the early '90s. His 1994 CD, "Soul-Fixin' Man," was his first U.S. release in almost 20 years. Allison followed that in 1995 with "Blue Streak," and a triumphant appearance at the Chicago Blues Festival.

His latest CD, "Reckless," which was released earlier this month by Alligator Records, was recorded in Memphis with veteran producer Jim Gaines, who has worked with Stevie Ray Vaughn and Santana.

Nothing fancy here. Just straight-ahead, in-your-face blues super-fueled by Allison's emotional intensity. Allison ably handles lead guitar and vocals and is accompanied on most tracks by rhythm guitar, Hammond B-3 organ, bass and drums.

Most of the tunes are of the 12-bar variety, but a soulful ballad, "Just as I Am," is a standout. As is "Playin' a Losin' Game," which features a duet by Allison and son Bernard on acoustic guitars.

Years abroad have given Allison an unusual perspective on the American music scene. "This country needs to have more mixed festivals where young people can hear all kinds of music," he said.

As for his future, Allison said, "I'm not concerned about how much I do, but how much can I do--how solid I'm stayin' for a few more years. I want people to say, 'Go see Luther Allison. You haven't seen nothin' until you've seen this man.' "

*

BE THERE

Luther Allison plays the blues at 9 p.m. Tuesday at B.B. King's, Universal CityWalk. $8 cover. (818) 622-5464.

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