Beyond His Years

Bernard Allison: "Blues isn't about copying the greats."
Hans-Christian Sparrer

Second-generation bluesman Bernard Allison may have been born in Chicago, reared in Peoria, Illinois, and Florida, and reside these days in Minneapolis, but he's got a soft spot for Houston.

"It's been six years since we played Houston, so I'm glad to be coming back. There are so many great Texas players — Lightnin' Hopkins, T-Bone Walker, Albert Collins, Gatemouth Brown, Johnny Winter, Stevie and Jimmie Vaughan — and they all had a serious effect on me as a musician. They all have some special quality."

While he's only 44, Allison feels like he's almost two generations further along than some of the young, upcoming blues players.

"I started playing when I was ten," says Allison from his home in Minneapolis, "but through my father, I got to be around many of the creators of his generation — guys like Albert Collins, Hound Dog Taylor, Albert King.

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"And I also got to hang a lot with Stevie Ray and Johnny Winter, the next generation," he adds. "So as far as being exposed directly to some huge creative forces, I came along at a very lucky time to be a blues guitar player."

Father Luther Allison, who played in Howlin' Wolf's band and was known for his extended guitar solos, was one of the creators who made sure Bernard got the proper indoctrination into the blues fraternity.

"Dad would take me to gigs and festivals and I'd get to meet all these great creators," Allison reminisces. "He took me to see Lighnin' Hopkins at the New Orleans Jazz Fest when I was ten, and I was absolutely blown away.

"There truly was no one else quite like Lightnin'. I'm still listening to those rec­ords today and trying to turn the young cats on to that.

"I was lucky to be brought up around people in my dad's circle who cared about the music and who wanted to hand this thing down, pass it on the right way," recalls Allison. "We need more of that today."

Allison first recorded at the tender age of 13, but his father insisted that he finish high school before starting a musical career. Diploma in hand, he joined Koko Taylor's band at 18 straight out of high school. Allison claims that he owes much of his blues education to Taylor's label, Alligator Records.

"Back at that time, Alligator was ­package-touring groups of their artists, so I got to go on the road with legends," he says. "Koko and her husband, Pops, I'll always owe them a debt because they really looked after me and taught me how to live on the road."

One of Alligator's main artists would also have a major effect on the budding guitarist.

"Albert Collins had a huge influence on me, and not just the way I play," Allison says. "Albert was just the sweetest guy, always laughing and having fun. He didn't just play well, he showed us how to live."

About the legendary Houston bluesman known as the "Ice Man," Allison remarks, "The last time I saw him was at a show in Paris in November 1993, just a few days before he died. I still miss that guy."

Allison also has huge respect for an­other local guitar hero, ­Beaumont native Johnny Winter.

"Early in my career, I was on a package tour with Johnny, Koko and Lonnie Mack. When the show was over, we'd all go back to the bus and pick," says Allison. "I'd learned some slide guitar, but it was very basic. Johnny sat me down and showed me that low D tuning of his and just started teaching me licks. For me, no other slide player compares to Johnny."

Winter, Allison says, is "such a serious student of slide guitar. You know, a lot of cats get it wrong; they think it's all in the left hand and the slide. But it's the right hand doing most of the hard work."

Another mentor was Chicago icon Willie Dixon, who worked for years recording and producing the Chess Records stable of artists. Dixon's fingerprints are all over some of the most significant blues and rock and roll recordings of all time.

"Willie used to put together these special nights at Grant Park in Chicago, sort of like all-star shows with different vocalists, you know — Muddy Waters, Koko, Katie Webster, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, Junior Wells, just anyone and everyone from Chicago," recalls Allison.

"Willie picked me to be in the band a couple of times when I was still pretty young. When a guy of Willie's stature has confidence in you, it breeds confidence."

Like many bluesmen before him, Allison notes that these days he spends half his time in Europe, where authenticity is still prized.

"My dad took me over for the first time in 1989, when we did a live record," says Allison. "Then he asked if I wanted to stay and be the bandleader. I've been going ever since."

Allison retains his father's fiery style of funk, but it's apparent from listening to his new album, The Otherside, that the son is no copycat replica of Luther, who passed away in August 1997. It takes only a few listens to realize the younger Allison has also been influenced — especially vocally — by blues smoothies like Robert Cray.

"We all have different influences, but blues isn't about copying the greats," Allison philosophizes. "It's so important to keep this thing moving and evolving. I could go out there and imitate Stevie Ray or Hound Dog Taylor every night, but that doesn't do the music any service. You have to try new stuff, take some chances."

Asked to name his favorite young players, Allison quickly name-checks Lucky Peterson, Tyree Neal, Wayne Brooks, Eric Gales, Ronnie Baker Brooks and local picker Hamilton Loomis.

"At some point, all of these guys have been exposed to older guys who nurtured them and their music. That's the way it works best," Allison says.

"We went through a long period where there were literally no new black players coming along," he notes. "Now that's changing, and it's very important for the Buddy Guys and the Hubert Sumlins, these elder statesmen, to engage these up-and-comers and instill creativity."

"It's so important to me to educate the young players about where Eric Clapton learned his licks, where Jimmie Vaughan learned his licks," Allison says.

"It's our duty to make sure these kids who grew up on Clapton also know about Lightnin' Hopkins and Leadbelly and all the great innovators," he says. "That's what will keep this thing alive."

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