Bernard Allison: HIStory
Bernard Allison totes the same smokin’ six string shooter that his late father Luther Allison assaulted the blues with. And he is blessed with his father’s soulful voice, spiritual devotion, and a musical freedom which experiments with the blues. Born in Chicago on November 26th, 1965, the youngest of nine children Bernard was first introduced to the roots of black music and the art of the electric guitar by his father, the late great Luther Allison. Like Ken Griffey Jr. hanging out in baseball locker rooms as a youth, Luther’s son was the kid running on-stage throughout the band’s set. Experiences like that profoundly effect one’s aspirations. “That’s when I decided I wanted to be up there like him. I think I was seven.”
“I didn’t start to play ‘til I was maybe 10 years of age” Bernard recalled “I picked up the guitar and listened to his records.” While Luther was absent, his record collection played a major role in shaping the son’s direction. Bernard listened to his dad’s influences like Magic Sam, Otis Rush, T-Bone Walker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and B.B. King. He also got into the next generation that followed, people like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Johnny Winter, and Jimi Hendrix.
Bernard made his first appearance on record at age 13, when he played on a live LP his father recorded in Peoria, IL. “When we moved to Peoria, Dad came home preparing to do his live album in Peoria, I hooked up the amplifier and guitar in the basement and started playing his first record, Love Me Mama, note for note. He freaked out and said tonight you’re gonna record with me. That was my first recording. I played “You Don’t Love Me Know More” and “Sweet Home Chicago.”
Luther brought Bernard my first guitar, a Fender Stratocaster, and told him to first get an education. At 18, Bernard joined his father on-stage at the 1983 Chicago Blues Festival. Then, one week he graduated from high school, Bernard got a call from Koko Taylor asking to be her lead guitar player.
He joined Koko Taylor’s Blues Machine for three years. “Koko and Pops Taylor taught mew the do’s and don’t’s of the road. Bein’ really careful and watching people. They were like my mom and pops. It was a great education, I was able to tour the world and see different cultures. We backed Willie Dixon, Koko was the only group I played in besides my father.”
The 1980’s became Bernard’s classroom as both learner and teacher. Relationships in the 80’s with Johnny Winter and Stevie Ray Vaughan expanded Bernard’s guitar foundation. For a year and a half, Bernard lived and played in London, Ontario. Then, in 1989, Bernard flew to Europe to record with his father, was asked to lead the band, and, like his father, adopted permanent residence in Europe. A recording of the furious collaboration between Luther and Bernard at the 1989 Chicago Blues Festival can be heard on the Luther Allison album Let’s Try It Again, on RUF Records.
One year later, Bernard released his first solo album in 1990 with the significant title The Next Generation. Allison followed that in 1993 with Hang On, then Funkifino, No Mercy. Bernard’s other titles during the 1990’s included Born With The Blues, Keepin' The Blues Alive, and Times Are Changing. In the new millennium, Bernard’s recordings include Across The Water, Storms Of Life, Kentucky Fried Blues, the highly personal Higher Power, and Energized, a live recording and DVD from a 2005 show.
One look at that DVD and it’s obvious that Bernard has inherited Luther's knack for igniting audiences; but he's no clone of his famous father. He is definitely blazing his own path with a style that reflects a unique mix of traditional and modern influences. The Allison torch has been passed, and it's clear that Bernard takes his role as its bearer very seriously. He's assumed the challenge of keeping the blues alive and growing - a commitment he renews every time he takes the stage.
“I’m gonna try my best to pick up where he left off, but I can’t be Luther Allison, I can only be myself. In the beginning everyone expects me to be exactly like him, but we are two different musicians.”
As a true “son of the blues,” Bernard possesses the requisite guitar feel and vocal intonations necessary to push his blues into the next century. He knows the energy level necessary to hold audiences and combines a enough showmanship and spontaneity to push the performance in fresh, innovative directions each night.
“In order for anything to expand, you have to take a risk,” says Bernard. “Blues is about experimenting and getting your feelings across to someone else. And if you want to keep it going, people are going to have to give it all a chance because we’re losing all our creators. Because I’ve been taking risks on every album I’ve recorded, this record is just a logical progression from everything else I’ve done. Instead of playing rippin’ 12 bar blues guitar over and over, there are bluesy songs, soul, funk, R&B songs and a couple of rock things which shows the overall musicianship of Bernard Allison.”
That musicianship is no clearer than on his current record, Chills And Thrills. After 17 years of recording experience, Bernard has perfected his sound. Instead of just using his guitar, Bernard has become mature the artist who uses the full palate of musical colors in his band to paint his stories.
If there ever was a CD for all occasions, this is it. It’s got the chill songs to curl up with on a rainy day, or the thrill music you’ll blast when you’re driving late at night. By adding the rhythm guitar of Bernard’s guitar soulmate Eric Gales, every song explodes into a guitar player's head trip. The title cut opens the record with Bernard’s trademark funk meets blues sound. that signature sound permeates other tunes like “Compromising For Your Need,” “Heart of St. Paul,” and “Groove With Me,” Bernard’s treatise on the modernesque blues he’ll continue to play around the world. But Bernard’s got so much more. On “So Devine” Bruce McCabe’s piano and Jose James’ alto sax steals the show. On “Just Me And My Guitar,” Bernard shows off the frantic slide techniques he learned in the 1980’s from Johnny Winter. For slow blues, Bernard and pianist Rusty Hall turn in a first rate guitar and piano performance on “That’s Why I’m Crying.” But any fan of Bernard Allison knows that every show or record comes with one of his father’s songs. Here, Bernard reprises Luther’s 1980’s tune “Serious,” played with Bernard’s errie, Luther-like vocal attack. In addition, Bernard strips “Serious” down to just piano and guitar in his after hours styled closer.
Amid all the daily pop culture pressures to be the next American Idol why does Bernard stay rooted in the blues? “The blues is my roots. Regardless of how far outside of the blues I reach for tones, I can’t ever leave the blues. Whenever I play, all those guitar parts are Luther Allison coming through me. My dad was the same way, he wasn’t all blues. He loved Otis Redding or Chuck Berry. I’m just showing where my influences come from. And respecting the people who got me to this point.”
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