Bernard Allison Gives Us Blues and Then Some

"Everything I play comes from somewhere else. I’m just playing it the way I feel it."

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2018 King Biscuit Blues Festival 300×600
Photo by Lisa Gray

Growing up with a legendary musician for a father can be a double-edged sword. Choosing to follow his path as a musician presents its own unique issues as well. To some extent, people might expect you to play the same music, and perform the same type of show.

Bernard Allison got the best of both worlds though. He learned everything he could about life and music from his father Luther, on and off the stage. He basically grew up on the road with his father, and after proving himself capable, he played and recorded with him as well.

The younger Allison took all that knowledge with him as he ventured out and began forging his own path, beginning as a member of Koko Taylor’s Blues Machine at 18. After years of playing, learning and teaching, he released his first solo album, The Next Generation in 1990. There were those that hoped he would pick up where his father left off and indeed he has, but he has traveled his own path.

American Blues Scene recently spoke with Allison about the new album Let It Go, the loss of his sister, and being his own person while still upholding the Allison name.

Barry Kerzner for American Blues Scene:

Things are different from when your dad was out there. They toured, put out records, played clubs, and you could make a decent living doing that. Now it’s all about streaming, Twitter, and YouTube. These days, records are the least of it.

Bernard Allison:

Oh yeah. It’s getting really slim. They’re all downloading. They want a song and don’t want to listen to the whole thing and it makes it hard. So, we make records to have for our fanbase and I’m always creating and trying to come up with something fresh for them. We have a very good record and we’re getting rave reviews. It’s only been out a couple of weeks and it shot right up to Billboard number two so, I’m proud of that.

It’s doing great. Basically, you make an album nowadays to have music for fans to download. Anymore, most of your money is made out on tour. Even if you are on Spotify and such, you’re not getting paid a lot of money for that.

Right. Yeah, that’s where you’re making it basically; basically the touring. We haven’t really toured the States. We kind of restricted it to summertime because we do so much in Europe, which allows us to go out and tour with the fanbase. Living there for 12 years, we have a very good following there.

Now I’m back with Ruf Records where he really wants to try to get my name boosted here in the states, where we could play a little bit more, and tour live. But without the support of a record company that’s willing to put dedication into it, you’re just kinda going down the highway.

You lived in France…

Yeah. I lived in Paris for 12 years. I moved over there in ’89 and became my dad’s band leader for the first three years before I went solo and did my first album.

What do you miss the most about Paris? Europe is completely different now than it was…

Totally different now. We still play Paris. I still have a lot of friends there and the thing I loved most was just learning a lot of different rhythms from the African musicians as well as the French musicians that we typically don’t hear over here. I try to graft it and interpret it into my playing because it’s some pretty amazing rhythm they use that the more you really think about, we are trying to put it in our music here. A lot of guitar players are like, “How do you mix that with blues?” It’s very simple if you think about it. You have to find the right placement for you.

You can tell a lot about who artists listen to by what they play and how they play it. There’s a song on the new album “You’re Gonna Need Me,” where you blend blues, jazz, and old-school soul seamlessly. You cover them all distinctly, but they all work together to make the song work.

My father always told me that. He always said, “Don’t try to just go strictly blues, use what you grew up with.” Being the baby of nine, all my older brothers and sister had  their favorite genres of music, so he said: “Grab all of that and you’ve gotta find your own sound.” That’s what I do. I take gospel, jazz, soul, rock, and mix it all to make my formula. And, it works very well because all those styles compliment each other so well.

Your speed is incredible. Folks that are even casually aquatinted with your playing know that you’re every bit as informed and speed capable as Greg Howe, Eric Gales, and Tony McAlpine. Then you came out with Let It Go and it’s a treat because it’s so different.

I appreciate that. My band and I focus on trying to get some really good songs and show folks the way that we have as a band as opposed to hiring studio musicians to play my band’s feelings, so it makes it very difficult for me… This record I was so pleased that they allowed me to use my band and go down and get back with Mr. Jim Gaines. I’m very happy with it.

It’s a very different sound and album.

It’s a different side of the blues, and like we talked about, the influences. I don’t hold back; I wanna let them know what I can do. The older I get, the more I focus on the song, vocals. I can play the guitar to anything I hear, but it has to make sense. It has to be some sort of story. That’s the problem with a lot of blues records that I hear, that’s typical: “My baby left me. She did this…” I go more off of personal experiences.

“Let It Go” is all about how I lost one of my sisters two years ago, and I lost the oldest boy in our family [who] passed away. We went to my sister’s cremation and she wanted her ashes to go into Lake Michigan, and we all had balloons and I would not let go of my ballon. She was like my best friend. And my mom said, “Just let it go baby.’

That’s where the whole title came from, as well as “Hey Lady.” It’s written for my sister, Rose. to lose a loved one, I’ve been through [with] my dad. But, to lose a sibling, it’s very hard for me. It just made me focus and realize that I’m still not alone; she’s still up there looking down on me and very proud of my progress as well as my dad’s.

Losing a sister can put a huge hole in a person’s being.

We all handle it differently; the music was my exit. I went out on tour right after it, but, that made me stronger. It made me realize like, “I gotta go get it!” I have to give the people all that I can give them.

One of the great things about the album is that it’s very well balanced. There’s funk, there’s hints of jazz, ballads. It has a very contemporary feel, but it’s not overly slick. It’s a varied but complete album.

Right! That’s very important to me. And how to place the order of the record, so you don’t get bored. It does go through those different phases, like a rollercoaster.

Coming out with a big bang and go back up there, it kind of reaches to where I really took time to place those songs in the right order and get what we feel are the head turners and get them up in the top five. Just in case someone’s like, “I don’t want to listen to the [whole] record.” I think everybody’s gonna listen to it top to bottom, and listen to it again. But, there are great songs and you order it perfectly and it’s very well balanced.

When you listen to the actual way certain artists record their music, it shows up well. For instance, Led Zeppelin is one where the music is engineered very well. Listening to this, I was curious about the micing. Did you record live in the studio? The mix is like a living, breathing thing.

Yeah; everything’s live! I like to record live. I have visual where everyone can see me. Most of the stuff is a one take thing. We were very well prepared. Every album, we do our preproduction for like two weeks prior to being in the studio. So, once we start recording, Gaines sets the mics up and it’s “Let’s go!”

Let’s not waste time trying to make this perfect sounding record. That’s just how we play it. So, with myself and the rhythm player John T, it’s amazing how we play together and off of each other. It’s made the recording go so much smoother.

“Kiddeo” was so jazzy. The sax playing that Jose Ned James did on that was brilliant. A very together track.

Every record I do, I always try to go way back and bring something back. I always call my mom and ask what song I should do. She said, “You know your brother Frank, (the one that I lost), that was his favorite song.” So, that’s what I’m gonna do then.

I’m doing “Kiddeo” in dedication of my brother as well as to turn on some of the youngsters that know about Bernard Allison music: [and have them say] “Wow, what’s this?” Do a little research. It’s the same with “Look Out Mabel.” That’s a very old classic song and Mabel was actually my mother. I’m doing the track thinking about my mother. So I see her and she says, “You did that song?”

I grew up with so much stuff and I really try to show my respect to those artists way back then that made everything possible for the blues and just to show the youngsters that it’s not all about the Stevie Rays and Eric Claptons. There’s a whole generation that starts there and doesn’t know where to take that.

Everything I play comes from somewhere else. I’m just playing it the way I feel it. My dad was really good about that; the same with Stevie Ray and B.B. King. It’s better to know where those roots come from.

The other song on there that made me stop what I was doing was “Hey Lady.” It reminded me of Little Milton: Like a souped-up version of Little Milton. He’s so laid back, but right there in the pocket. It was perfect.

That’s a big compliment because “Hey Lady” – that’s all for my sister Rose. Love her to death and all the words in “Hey Lady” are based off all our conversations. Like her email address was “you-better-ask-somebody.” I tied all her words together. People that don’t understand it, you’re gonna write about or they’ll hear it in an interview; then it will make sense to them.

When I played this for my mom, she was like “How did you put all that together?” I really just wanted to do something special for her and the family. I was proud that I was able to pull it off and hopefully, all the listeners out there will ask me questions about it. I’m very open to explaining and I think people need to understand the songs too, you know?

I do a lot of interviews and they go right for the title song or one other and they don’t talk about the really personal songs.

On “Backdoor Man” you use a talk-box and it’s funky! That whole song, the feel of it reminded me of Johnny “Guitar” Watson. You took the essence of his groove and stepped out with it and made it your own.

When I lived in Paris I used to get compared to Johnny “Guitar” Watson. I used to get that comparison all the time, but I also grew up with him. Gaines wanted to put it [talkbox] on the record. It’s very subtle. I didn’t want to overpower with the talk-box.

What is the most important thing that your father ever taught you? What’s the best piece of advice he ever gave you?

Be very open-minded. Always expect criticism: You can’t please everyone. Go out and give 110%. If there’s five people in the audience or five thousand, you give 110% because you never know who’s out there. That could be your breaking point. So I try to follow that.

There’s always someone out there better than you, but my dad said: “No one can do you more than you can do you.” That’s something I cherish and all my musicians cherish as well. I think that makes us a crowd favorite. They know that after the show, we’re coming out to hang out and talk. There’s no ego for us. We leave the ego somewhere else.

You’ve said, “I don’t read music, I write lyrics, and as far as notes, I have a pretty decent ear.” There are two schools of thought. One is “I’m a musician and I should know the language that goes along with what I do for a living.” The other side of that is “I have a good ear and as long as I can play what I’m feeling, and people feel what I’m playing, I’m good.” Folks forget here’s a lot of musicians that didn’t know how to read music.

Exactly. I’m a self-taught musician. I’ve tried when I was younger to enter a guitar class to learn the notes but to play the blues, put notes in front of me? You just said it. It’s gonna sound like a box – the feeling is gonna be gone. Some guys can do it – I can’t! I wasn’t blessed to read notes and be onstage with a piece of paper playing all these fancy licks.

If I open my ears, I know the licks. I may not be able to tell you what they are… It comes from having that ear. My father was the same way. He couldn’t write music, he couldn’t read music. We could write lyrics, we could play the hell out of the guitar. If you want me to play on your record, play the song for me and I’ll figure it out with my ear.

Regarding carrying on the Allison name you’ve said, “I always say I’m carrying on the Allison tradition the best that I can and hopefully I can keep bringing in some Luther Allison songs as well as some Bernard Allison songs and let ’em know that, ‘Hey, we’re still out here to give. My daddy’s still with me. If it wasn’t for him. I wouldn’t be doing it.'”

If it wasn’t for my dad, I wouldn’t exist first of all. He had a large family and he did it through years of hard work, years going out and playing a four-hour show and then taking two hours to talk to the fans that put him on that stage.

Losing my dad, I was so blessed with all the people that came to me, giving condolences. Those that knew my dad never talked about the music, they talked about the conversations that he had. That really showed me the love that the people gave and respect.

I try my best. I always tell people, “I can not be my father, I can represent the Allison name the best I can.” It’s up to me to keep his music alive, keep that Allison name going forward, and I’ll continue to do that. I’ll continue to record two of his songs on every record I do because he had so much with me and I grew up with it. That’s the only way I can pay him back for being the dad he was.

Bernard Allison

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*Featured Image by Barry Kerzner

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