“Luther Allison’s guitar cries, and it’s tears are blue”

It has been a week since I discovered Luther Allison, it was last Sunday evening when I heard Bad News Is Coming (flac), his debut album on a big label from 1972. I have been progressively going CRAAAZY over that sound, but let me back up. It is difficult to describe that first listen. I guess everyone has to experience it their own way. For some it would take a little getting used to. But there is no way you wouldn’t have a reaction.

Some reviews from over at the Amazon page:

  • I don’t want to review this cd as much as I want to implore you, the person reading this, to treat yourself and buy it. Out of the 100’s of cd’s I’ve owned and listened to, this is the most soulfully smooth music I’ve heard. This album is an unknown classic. Allison’s voice rock’s, his guitar work stings, the piano is perfect. Track after track this cd is either perfectly sexy, painful, funky, or rocking. Why this guy wasn’t hugely popular is beyond me. Buy this cd and then buy it for your friends. They’ll love it too. Peace- Adam Milan.
  • Now THAT’S what I’m talkin’ about, kids. This is gutbucket, soulfunk, dirty electric blues at its best. Chicago blues guitarist Luther Allison made his debut with this 1972 release on Motown’s Gordy label. Allison’s fiery guitar playing and his rough and tumble vocals bring life to a set of blues standards mixed with two songs he co-wrote. The first seven tracks make up the album as it was originally released, but this excellent remaster/reissue adds four more, including the potent “It’s Been a Long Time”.  – Jack Baker
  • “Bad News Is Coming” was Luther Allison’s debut album and from the first track, (his version of Willie Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster”), he EXPLODES with an intensity that is refreshing every time I hear it. He belted out his vocals in a raspy, impassioned wail, and his guitar playing was just as searing. This should have been a smash, although the blues market was drying up by the time this was released in 1972 and it ultimately didn’t sell in big numbers. Luther Allison himself is quoted in the liner notes as saying that he got lost in the shuffle when Motown moved from Detroit to L.A. Luther Allison was an amazing guitarist and unfortunately remains underrated. Songs like his own “Raggedy and Dirty” are perfect examples of how he could play the blues over a funky groove and just sound plain DIRTY. I don’t know how else to describe it. He didn’t hold anything back on this album. Also notable is the piano playing of Paul White, who has some great solos on this one. If you are a fan of the blues and haven’t heard Luther Allison, this CD serves as a good introduction to this unsung performer. – B. Bowman.

You get the idea.

Amazon’s own succinct ‘Product description’ is:

One of the greatest modern electric blues albums of the 1970’s.
blues_011
I have not been able to listen to anything else, and I it seems to sear my brain every time I hit play. Early morning, afternoons, late night, on the highway, in bed, on the balcony. I feel my sperm count increasing steadily with every play through. Rise in happiness and an irresistible desire to stop people in their tracks and tell them, ‘You will thank me, your children will thank me, your grandchildren will thank me. Listen to this. Don’t make an immediate judgement. Just listen.’
When I feel like this, I remember this banter between Hound Dog Taylor and the audience, at the beginning of a song,
Hound Dog Taylor : I’ve got it, I’ve got it, I’ve got it
Audience: WHAT?
Hound Dog Taylor: The Bluuues, man!
A Longer and more apt Description of the album we are talking about here:

Roots music wasn’t exactly a hot prospect in 1972, which might be why the blistering guitar-centered blues on Luther Allison’s debut record didn’t garner the respect it deserved at the time. Though it’s unfortunate that he’s no longer around to appreciate it, it’s good to see that Allison is finally being recognized for the Chicago West Side master that he was, as a single spin of Bad News Is Coming surely enough proves. Things get started with a hard-stompin’, guitar-squealin’ rendition of the classic Willie Dixon tune “Little Red Rooster,” followed up with the riff-rooted “Evil Is Going On,” also by Dixon. Another standout is the title track, a slow, moody piece with a perfectly bittersweet inflection. Then there’s the considerably upbeat version of “Dust My Broom,” which manages to dust off a hoary standard and make it sound brand-spanking-new, all while showing off guitar pyrotechnics worthy of Jimi Hendrix. This issue of Allison’s debut also includes some worthy tracks that weren’t on the original release. All four merit a listen, but particular attention should be paid to Allison’s take on Freddy King’s classic instrumental “The Stumble,” which also features some admirable piano courtesy of Paul White. –Genevieve Williams

See there are three main stages of Blues, the real early Blues with gospel, scratchy string, delta blues. Add the glam pre war 1920s diva Blues. Then there is the Chicago Blues. Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson. This is 1950s-60s. Lot happened in that late 60s era. Elvis came in around 1960 and sparked off Rock n Roll. The electric guitar sparked a whole new sound. English rockers started playing their versions of Chicago and Delta Blues. Blues Rock, a whole psychedelic world. But for discussion’s sake, let’s be back into the main stream of Blues. After the Chicago Blues were the modern interpreters – Freddie King, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Even if you have heard through  (cursorily, of course) the whole set of Blues evolution, Luther Allison’s guitar would still surprise you. As Jean Cabot of Rock and Folk magazine says, admittedly about a different Luther album,

The primary value of this recording, his first live album, is to make one feel Luther Allison’s musical abilities, as well as the intensity and generosity of his live performances. You can also find the memories of the privileged moments – maybe a few seconds when you feel, when you know, that Luther shuts his eyes and opens his soul… At that moment, his guitar no longer speaks to you, it cries . and it’s tears are blue.” — Jean Cabot, Rock and Folk

From over on the Wikipedia page:
Luther Allison (August 17, 1939 – August 12, 1997) was an American blues guitarist. He was born in Widener, Arkansas and moved with his family, at age twelve, to Chicago in 1951.He taught himself guitar and began listening to blues extensively. Three years later he began hanging outside blues nightclubs with the hopes of being invited to perform. He played with Howlin’ Wolf’s band and backed James Cotton.
His big break came in 1957 when Howlin’ Wolf invited Allison to the stage. Freddie King took him under his wing and after King got his big record deal, Allison took over King’s house-band gig on Chicago’s west side. A well-received set at the 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival resulted in his being asked to perform there each of the next three years.He also toured nationwide and, in 1972, was signed to Motown Records, one of the few blues artists to do so.
Bad News is Coming

VERY HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

On an aside, the more I thought in terms of the evolution of Blues, and where Luther Allison would be in the scheme of things, the more I was reminded of the below paragraph from the excellent Richard Dawkins book The Ancestor’s Tale,

I believe that there are senses in which evolution may be said to be directional, progressive and even predictable. But progress is emphatically not the same thing as progress towards humanity, and we must live with a weak and unflattering sense of the predictable. The historian must beware of stringing together a narrative that seems, even to the smallest degree, to be homing in on a human climax.

A book in my possession (in the main a good book, so I shall not name and shame it) provides an example. It is comparing Homo habilis (a human species, probably ancestral to us) with its predecessors the australopithecines. What the book says is that Homo habilis was ‘considerably more evolved than the Australopithecines’. More evolved? What can this mean but that evolution is moving in some pre-specified direction? The book leaves us in no doubt of what the presumed direction is. ‘The first signs of a chin are apparent.’ ‘First’ encourages us to expect second and third signs, towards a ‘complete’ human chin. ‘The teeth start to resemble ours …’ As if those teeth were the way they were, not because it suited the habiline diet but because they were embarking upon the road towards becoming our teeth. The passage ends with a telltale remark about a later species of extinct human, Homo erectus:

Although their faces are still different from ours, they have a much more human look in their eyes. They are like sculptures in the making, ‘unfinished’ works.

In the making? Unfinished? Only with the unwisdom of hindsight. In excuse of that book it is probably true that, were we to meet a Homo erectus face to face, it might well look to our eyes like an unfinished sculpture in the making. But that is only because we are looking with human hindsight. A living creature is always in the business of surviving in its own environment. It is never unfinished – or, in another sense, it is always unfinished. So, presumably, are we.

The conceit of hindsight tempts us at other stages in our history. From our human point of view, the emergence of our remote fish ancestors from water to land was a momentous step, an evolutionary rite of passage. It was undertaken in the Devonian Period by lobe-finned fish a bit like modern lungfish. We look at fossils of the period with a pardonable yearning to gaze upon our forebears, and are seduced by a knowledge of what came later: drawn into seeing these Devonian fish as ‘half way’ towards becoming land animals; everything about them earnestly transitional, bound into an epic quest to invade the land and initiate the next big phase of evolution. That is not the way it was at the time. Those Devonian fish had a living to earn. They were not on a mission to evolve, not on a quest towards the distant future. An otherwise excellent book about vertebrate evolution contains the following sentence about fish which

ventured out of the water on to the land at the end of the Devonian Period and jumped the gap, so to speak, from one vertebrate class to another to become the first amphibians …

The ‘gap’ comes from hindsight. There was nothing resembling a gap at the time, and the ‘classes’ that we now recognise were no moreseparate, in those days, than two species. As we shall see again, jumping gaps is not what evolution does.

If you are interested, the rest of that fascinating introduction to the book is here – The Conceit of Hindsight.

3 thoughts on ““Luther Allison’s guitar cries, and it’s tears are blue”

  1. Thanks for making the effort to write this review.
    My reaction was similar to yours when I heard Luther’s ‘Southside Safari’ live album in around 1982.
    As you probably already know, he spent much of his working life based in Paris, and he was quite well-known in Europe playing frequently, appearing at festivals including Montreux (repeatedly), but not so well known in the USA I believe, or at least not until late around the time he played the Chicago Blues Fest. for which there exists a double cd that you might like. There are plenty of his concerts on You Tube as well as official dvds. Walter Trout released an album ‘Luther’s blues’ as a tribute not so long back. If you have not heard him, then his son Bernard is very good too-there’s youtube coverage of him playing with SRV.

  2. Check out Luther’s Blues released in 1974. I played drums on 7 of the 9 songs on the album. Of the 7 I played on, I co-wrote Now You Got It and Into My Life. K J Knight

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