This is the latest entry in the Between the Seats weekly feature, a collaboration between Elwood’s BluesMobile, the nation’s longest-running syndicated Blues music radio show, hosted by Dan Aykroyd as Elwood Blues, and American Blues Scene Magazine, the recognized leader in blues music news.
Every week, Elwood Blues digs deep down between the seats and pulls another interesting, exciting, revealing interview with a blues personality from the archives.
This week’s “Between The Seats” features an intriguing snapshot of one of the most powerful, soulful guitarists in Chicago’s history: the late Luther Allison from way back in January, 1997, just seven months before his untimely death.
We are so proud to have the opportunity to make a new album on Alligator Records called Reckless here on The Bluesmobile. It’s such a privilege that you allowed us to do that.
Hey man, it’s like a dream come true, you know? It’s like I’ve been wishing for things like this to happen, especially back home. And every time I’ve been back home and every time I’ve been on this show, I was feeling things that’s going down and I say, “is this really Luther in this situation?”, you know.
And I’m very proud. I tell people about your show. I tell people about The Bluesmobile, about the whole deal, what’s going on here with people trying to help people in the blues for a change, you know. And believe me, I’m like a wire, man. It’s like everybody knows what’s going on with you back there and Luther Allison and other people mentioning people’s names like Buddy Guy and what not. And I’m proud, man, yes.
That’s great. And it feels good to be doing two things. One, keeping this music out where we believe it belongs. And also to be having fun, because what the heck?!
That’s it. Well, if you see Luther Allison, you know, I’m going to be trying to have some fun, you know, just like you guys be. You be out there, you’re doing your thing, you know. It’s like this is the point, the blues is not sad, the blues is the menu, all the music as far as I’m concerned, so let’s put some energy in there and keep the young people, especially turn into the real deal. I want young people to do their thing, what they feel is the right thing anyway. But remember, without the blues, that other stuff doesn’t work.
So true. And the songs that took my attention right away from the new album is one called “Living in the House of Blues”, and it’s interesting to me that obviously, I live in the House of Blues. But we came up with this name, House of Blues, from a John Lee Hooker album, House of Blues.
No kidding, no kidding. I didn’t know that!
That’s the truth.
Well, you know, I just did my very first major interview about two weeks ago or so with, guess who, the great John Lee Hooker by phone, off the road and from France and it was just fantastic.
Do you know John Lee Hooker?
Do I know Mr. Hooker? Mr. Hooker is a big reason that Luther Allison got a play in Europe for sure. Because when I first started to come in here I was supporting John Lee Hooker most of the time when I was here. Yes.
What’s it like playing with him?
Man, it’s a miracle. It’s like he just do what he do. And if you came up in the same school Luther Allison did, like Luther Allison, Buddy Guy, Freddie King, Magic Sam, he would summon these kind of guys, then you’d learn how to play behind John Lee Hooker because he’s not going to play that straight out rhyme, what everybody called that 8, 12-bar blues thing. He’s going to play John Lee Hooker. And we learned how to do that. And I had a warm up pitch because my brother was involved with singing and he was kind of off timing in singing, too. And I learned everything about John Lee Hooker that could be known.
So, in these days, when we were together, he knew Luther Allison was in the area. He say “okay, where’s Luther? Get me Luther, he knows how to play boogie with me.” So we boogied many times over here in Europe and at the San Francisco Jazz Festival as you saw, with the short time, a couple of years ago. Bu that’s home over here. When John Lee Hooker and Luther Allison get together, people know it.
People try to play with John Lee and they don’t know what to do.
They kind of just sit back there and watch the guy and say okay, what’s he doing?
Exactly. It’s simple. We learn how to – I tell this in my band, follow me. Whatever it is, follow me. Watch me, that’s the way it goes. And then eventually you learn to feeling this. It’s like a person who can’t dance to a person who can dance. You know, because you dance on two feet or you dance on one foot, you know. And Hooker is very, very, very cool because he’s very simple and it’s called listening. And then you feel where he’s coming from. Watch him, watch his fingers, watch his face, watch his feet. And then you’re going to come up with it if you got any kind of soul in you at all, now.
He’s a darling, he’s a darling, believe me.
Now, when you’re talking about John Lee Hooker, you also played with Sunnyland Slim?
Well, Sunnyland was kind of my front runner. Sunnyland and Jimmy Rogers, these was the nice guys down that stretch, you know, a little bit and below a name like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and these guys, in that neighborhood would work in these neighborhoods. Sunnyland was the front. Jimmy Rogers was that next guy who was a very nice guy. He was always smiling. You never would see these guys mad. Not us, not coming up the stretch. They were never angry. They always had something funny to say or a joke to say and move on.
And we could sit down like Sunnyland and I could sit down, just the two of us and start – you could put piano in his mind and hum the piano and say okay, this is the way you going to do the guitar, man. You follow me, I’m going to do this, you do it. And we don’t even have an instrument and we just go on like this. We used to do that thing like [singing] and stuff like this, man.
And then Jimmy Rogers, on the other hand, he would just like sit down, hey man, like, I’m the happiest guy in the world, even today. And you know the man just now got off of a gig, didn’t get paid or what not, had no money in their pocket. But he showed that one gold tooth all the time. And just a few weeks ago when I was in Memphis doing that trip down there, I hadn’t seen Jimmy in 30 years. And that same big smile came: hey, Luther, it’s been a long time, ain’t it? Yes. And it was just fantastic at the Handy’s you know, so it was great.
He’s really a great guy. In fact, the difference between rock musicians and blues musicians, rock musicians are busy figuring out if they’re going to fire their manager or something.
Yes. Absolutely. So but anyway, all of these things that comes down to it, you know, coming across, the people asking a question like, “hey Luther, you know it’s like, where you been, what you been doing, who you been with, how was it to play with B.B. King? How was it to play with Clapton? How was it to play with Gary Moore, whatever.” And you know, you just kind of answer the question, hey man, it’s great but it’s just like it was when we were playing locally with each other.
You know, you can’t figure out any other way because these guys got a big name or whatever going on. The fact is they are people, they are musicians and you usually kind of go inside and say “hey man, how come I don’t know you? But it’s a pleasure to know you.” You know, stuff like this. And then you get a different feeling of what you hear as a young musician, for instance, out in the streets. Like, “oh wow, this guy is great, man, he’s better than so and so.” Well, we never figured that. Muddy Waters and those guys and Hooker never taught us that way. They said “be you, make sure you in the game, make sure you’re enjoying yourself and try to make the people happy.”
I just got an image of you shaking hands with your guitar.
Like you get a chance to meet these people on a whole other level, plane. And I think that’s what people want to know. When they say what was Clapton like or what is Booker T. like or Muddy or whatever, it’s like, “what was it like to dance with them musically?”
Right. Well, Elmore, you know, “Take a Look at Yourself”, you know. When the Blues Brothers come across on the stage, just the dance aspect. And then you figure the music that they play, okay, okay, if they do Sam and Dave, for instance, all right? It’s the Blues Brothers’ version injecting Sam and Dave’s trip. You know, making it become the Blues Brothers, make it a show that’s very funny, very enjoyable but very serious because the music sounds good. And it compacted the people around like Matt Murphy, Aretha Franklin, John Lee Hooker, Donald “Duck” Dunn, all these guys that figured inside to make such a wonderful production behind the ideas of why don’t we do it this way.
And that’s, to Luther Allison, that was the broken arrow that was taped back together and we got back in a straight line in his home. And that’s where I’m headed. You know, like, hey man, I’m so glad because I was saying, man, I wish I could have been involved with that movie. You know, it’s like, it was not so much of getting a name, it was talking about being involved with a beautiful picture here. That was a story, that’s my kind of bringing up, man, family type thing. People are singing and having a good time. Didn’t matter who you was, white, black or blue. You know, it’s like here we are. And I love the movie today and when I see it, I just crack, I about lose it, man. Yes.
We’re working on the new one. And I would very much want you to be part of it.
All right. Great.
If you’re in the States when they’re filming, we should make it a point to try to get you in there.
Well remember, no matter where I am, just let me know.
I like the slide guitar in the album!
Well, I hope it sounds all right. It sounds real good to me, you know.
Thank you. Well, I kind of got involved. You know, I wanted a song to represent the hood from the Blue Streak Records. Because like I say, many people it’s like going to – “hey, Luther Allison, are you back home to stay now? Are you back, are you back, man? Are you really back?” Because many people in the States think I’m back home now to stay. And I’m saying not yet. You know, it’s like you got to prove to me you want me back, you understand what I’m saying? It’s like I never really left but you don’t know whether I’m back or not, so I wrote a song called, “I’m Back”. And I wanted to make sure that maybe I take off on the record with this song.
But you know, that’s going to be up to people like you all to figure because I will need that input, too. Where to put the record. But it means I’m back, okay? I’m the man, you understand? I’m back with the thing, you know. I’m back, where’s my Cadillac? You understand what I’m saying? Just to show people my roots of the streets, you know. And that’s why I wrote the song. Put the slide in there, I thought about Hound Dog Taylor and Elmore James and those guys, you know. That’s what I like.
I know that you played a lot with Hound Dog. Did you know Elmore James?
Oh, I played about the same amount of time around Elmore than I did Hound Dog. As a matter of fact, I played more with Elmore in his band, in his setting, in his jamming than I did Hound Dog.
What was Elmore James like?
Elmore and B.B. King was a lot alike. Real smooth, real soft spoken and really teach-y, you understand? Really give a young person a chance. And they talked to you. Said, “you can be, you going to be, you’re good, you’re a good singer. You look good, you carry yourself right. You got it good, you coming from a good family.” The good part was we never knew how much they knew about our families. They knew because they was from the cotton belt. They knew.
You grew up in Mayflower?
No, I grew up in Chicago, okay. I got to Chicago at the age of 13. But I came to find out this past year, or ’96, where I really was born. I always thought I was born in Mayflower, Arkansas but I was born in Widner, Arkansas. And my sister, she said, no way you could be born in Mayflower because that was one of those cities that, one of them big uppity class cities and that we at this time, the black people was to have no hand in that. But when you talk about Fort Smith, Arkansas, Widner, Arkansas or Youge, Arkansas, stuff like that, then you talk about where I used to hang out when I was a teenager. So now I’m straight on where I was born, Widner, Arkansas, population 365 people in 1996.
Now, you grew up, you spent your teen years up in Chicago right after World War II. And there was an incredible scene going on that you obviously tapped right into.
Exactly. My brother actually turned me on to this whole idea. Because you know, I wanted to be a baseball player once I got to Chicago and find out that there was some range there. Because I loved it from the cotton plantation when my brothers and my brother-in-laws and stuff would play heavy duty baseball. You know, that heavy duty stuff.
But when I got to Chicago, then I was like young enough to learn enough about it from my brother, who had a group called The Rolling Stones from like 1952 through 1957 as to where I started in ’57 by asking him to show me how to play some boogie woogie a couple of years before I sit down to it. And we went on up that ladder. Living in the neighborhood, I was living like about three, four blocks from Muddy Waters. When Muddy played at his house I went by his house to go to school everyday with his son who’s the same age as me. And we become friends so I spent a lot of time at Muddy’s house. That was with Jimmy Dawkins, who I first started to play bass behind on tuning the string down on the guitar and stuff like this here.
Then of course, Freddie King and Magic Sam. Then Buddy Guy came to town later on, Otis Rush becomes my idol. And in Birmingham Jones, met Little Max Simmons, you name it. Bobby Rush became bass player but before was just a working guy like this here. And we all just kind of fell into the market and finally I got a group with my brother Grant. We call ourselves the Four Jivers. And then up the stretch with Mojo Elem and T.J. McNulty, which was the bass player and drummer for Freddie King, up the stretch as Freddie made it, his first record, “Hideaway,” way up on that level.
We all just become one big, compact disc and being together we – I remember sitting down with Freddie King, teaching Freddie King some rift that I knew. Freddie did the same thing. Magic Sam would be on hand to do the same thing. Sam liked to cook and barbecue in the back yards. Not too much grass back there because of what we did every Saturday in the summertime or whatnot. And we jammed and we cook and we teach each other and we supported each other. And that’s the way Luther Allison came up that stretch, man.
Do you still like barbecue?
I like barbecue to a point. If I can get down to Chicago. I think I had some a couple of times in San Francisco. Yes, but I’m a fish man. I like to go fishing, I like to catch my bluegills and stuff like this, and I like a good fried chicken. If the chicken is real good, I can deal with that. But not so much barbecue. No, I think I had so much of it until I just kind of got away from it, you know.
It’s also probably healthier for you, the chicken than the barbecue.
Yes. What kind of fishing do you do?
Well, when I get a chance, I do bluegill fishing, actually, with a few bass, you know, and crappie and stuff, like fresh water fish. I’m from Arkansas. I lived right on the St. Francis River and we did a lot of that and it’s just fantastic to, you know, to know today I’m able to do that. And what I did do to take up my good time and because nowadays I can’t get the timing together to get the good time of the fishing and in certain areas like in the Midwest because it’s cold or it’s too hot or at this time now I’m on the road.
But at the same time, I took up tennis. And so many times over here I’ll play tennis after four hours straight on the stage. I’ll go out and play me two or three hours of tennis straight up, too. You know, so I’m in good shape because I don’t have a chance to ride my bicycle or play basketball or stuff like I used to do in the States.
But when I come now, I’m going to be looking for a nice tennis partner that can hang with a 57 year old blues man that I’m pretty good at the time I learned and to do it after a gig. You know, it used to be hanging out at the bar, drink or whatever. Not no more for Luther. I hang out behind my guitar and that’s about the size of it.
It sounds like you’re really charged up, really excited. A lot of people, us included at The Bluesmobile, I know a lot of people that would like to see you as the standard bearer of the 1990 blues.
You’re the one.
Well, you know, speaking of “You Are The One”, remember Jimmy Rogers? I put it on my first acoustic CD. You the one who really gave me a buzz, you know. But however, due to all respect, I always figured, like my dad said down in the cotton plantation, he raised eleven boys and three girls or four girls, whatever we were down that stretch. And he said, if you got something, eventually somebody will find out about it. And I just know, I respected everybody you could name in every parts of my type of music I do including gospel or jazz or whatever.
Because I feel my music covers a little bit of everybody’s trip. And I know it’s just a matter of time that people going to have to look at a for real thing. And I believe I’m a for-real person. I learned from the best and I’m still learning and I’m learning from the youngest now, as well as the oldest, like John Lee or B.B. or whoever it might be from that stretch, you know. And I’m just so proud to be involved with the new movement. And the things that you guys have set the pace for the blues on a national, international scale, along with my peers B.B. King and John Lee Hooker, to help you guys get interested and charged up to come behind these great people, to do this trip in 1997.
And if it’s going to be Luther Allison, so be it, let it be Luther Allison. But I want to be there as long as I can and give all I can and I don’t want no star struck trip to come into my heart and all this stuff. And anything I can do to help House of Blues and people behind this, to hold the blues in focus. Because to me, the blues is the menu to rock and roll and all this stuff and maybe we’re going to have the children come back home to us and hook up and say, “hey ma, hey dad, I like your music and I’m glad you like ours.” And that’s what I’m feeling right now.
So we just going to go right on forward, you know. So, like “Pain in the Streets”, for instance, that’s parts that take off from the hood. “Cherry Red Wine”, when will it ever change, I’m still looking at people standing on the street corners in Chicago and San Francisco, whatever, at all times of night. “Cancel My Check”, this is great ambiance for a ghetto person to be able to go to the welfare line and say look, I don’t need that no more. I got a job, you know. So, these are the kinds of things that’s going down and I want to explain this in The House of Blues.
Now, when you named your album Reckless, what were you thinking of? What does that mean to you?
Well, too many people look at Luther Allison off stage and they know my way with people. And they know offstage I’m kind of a quiet guy. I tell a couple of jokes here and there. But I’m always… I’m happy. I’m shaking hands, I’m smiling or whatever. And when I’m onstage, it’s like where does he get this energy? He takes chances. Musicians look at that guy, he makes a lot of mistakes. That guy plays out of tune, that guy does this.
I read something of the last record, some guy tried to analyze what I do. I think it said accidents will happen or something like this. Somebody wrote that in the States somewhere, “accidents will happen”. Like he tried to analyze all the notes that I play, which is, how can you do this to me? I mean, what am I doing that everybody else ain’t doing. Okay, at the same time, you won’t analyze what John Lee Hooker is playing, I promise you. You understand what I mean?
So, it’s another good step on this level but I want people to know that I play what I feel and I will take a chance. And I think we all need to take a chance on trying to get close together and make more love and more friends and make more blues records and make more rock and roll so it can stay great. So, that’s me, I’m reckless. I’m a reckless person when you really get down to when I got to do it, I got to do it. And I got to do it now.
Now, what other person who was in your past that people may not know about. Certainly a lot of people know about Buddy and Elmore and all those. But you were with Shakey Jake for awhile.
Tell us, because our listeners may not know much about Shakey Jake.
Well, Shakey Jake was a harmonica player. Shakey Jake was one of those guys that you could look out in San Francisco or Chicago or somewhere that always was involved with music. He loved music. He loved to play his harp. He loved people. He liked to be around guys and girls that he could deal with musically. He wasn’t a greatest harmonica player or greatest, strongest singer but it was in his blood. And he was the uncle of Magic Sam.
So we all kind of come together. So we got people, we call smooth people, slick people, whatnot, right. Shakey was one of those smooth people who he could get you a gig. He could get you a gig because he was that smooth. He could play the preacher role. He was a preacher for awhile, he was that preacher of the blues for awhile. He presented you, okay.
And I came to find out down the stretch, he was a really shy person. You know, it’s like he would hide behind a musician because he was afraid to attack the audience off the stage, understand what I’m saying. But at the same time, you would not – might not know that until you really got close to Shakey. But this guy, Shakey, Magic Sam, Luther Allison, Willie James Lyon, Bobby Rush, Hubert Sumlin, Max Simmons, Magic Sam, Freddie King, Buddy Guy, on the stretch, we all used to be that one little compact disk. And I think a lot of people need to know about that part of Luther Allison being involved in those days. And we had Muddy Waters and those guys to bounce off and Little Walter was Shakey’s, was Shakey’s idol, as well. So that’s the way we were.
Sure. You knew Walter, as well?
I knew both of them.
Jimmy Rogers says Little Walter was something of a firefighter.
You couldn’t beat the man. I see the man. He would invite saxophone players. Say okay, and here’s the jazz guys, play saxophone, looking at the blues guys, “you are serious, right?” They didn’t want to know about the blues. But Walter was saying okay, you all so tough, you’re so bad, you think jazz is so this and so that or whatever. Whatever you play, you come, bring your horn and I’m going to play my harp. We’re going to see who’s who down here on this cart.
Walter have them lined up and make them feel so bad, man, it’s just ridiculous. We used to almost cry to see them do these guys who really asked for it so bad. That man could play harmonica. Big Walter, same thing. He was also a little bit shy, a little bit scary to the fact that other people might be a little bit better maybe but he was great. George Harmonica Smith, he’s my number two choice. That man could play some chromatics as far as Luther Allison is concerned. And today, Carey Bell is my man. I got to deal with it, you see?
Yes, Cary Bell. The thing about George Harmonica is he held his own thing as a young guy.
He made me start to play chromatic. I play a little bit of chromatic. I got it from Harmonica George, although Little Walter do a great job with that. And you know he was bad, anything he pick up, including Rice Miller, Sonny Boy. I played, he lived – you know, I lived two blocks from where they played every Monday night. So, we were then one little compact disk.
And you know what, speaking with you, it seems like that for you the best is still to come.
Exactly. You know, I want to go back. I took a stroll through the neighborhood where I grew up at in Chicago when I made Soul Fixing Man. And I couldn’t find certain people like Big Mojo Elem and I know exactly where he lived. And the next time I went back, just this past year, I found him in the same place I had looked before. But all of the whole block, the buildings is gone almost except for his, you understand.
So I went back and researched the whole deal to find out what is going on, where did I come up. And the greatest thing happens to me. My brother who taught me how to play this music and got me involved, his whole family of boys and girls still live right there on the west side of Chicago. And when I played Legend’s Club, I got about 35 or 40 nieces and nephews right there to support me that was babies, that went to school with people like Melvin Taylor and stuff like this. And it makes me proud, it makes me want to go back there. As you might here in one of my songs, I’m going back and get the people I left behind then.
And it’s like too much, it’s too much to get back out of where I come from but I can’t get it back. So I’m going to try to build something there. Or if I go back to stay, I want to pick a place that people going to be loving, no jive, listen to Luther Allison, trust their kids with Luther Allison so we can go on into all of the beautiful details that Muddy Waters and those guys brought from Mississippi to Chicago and the way it was. And I would like to carry that candle as far as I can.
Because I did some problems like this up north in some of the clubs today with musicians fighting among themselves. I don’t like the idea and I think they just need a kind of a leader or somebody they can really look up to. What I’m saying is, when I get to Chicago, man, every musician I know that know about Luther, Luther is back, hey Luther, come on, man. That makes me feel like they need me back home. Well, I need them, too.
While we love our European friends as well, we’re happy as Americans to give them a gift called Luther Allison. We know that your place – we hope you move back here in the States. And when we get our act together, I hope that you come back and stay with us more.
You better believe it! I like that. All right. You too. Well Elwood, you keep cool. Keep up the good stroke, you know. Stay on that mission, man, because I’m with you.
Well thanks a lot! Take care.
All right! You too, and whatever we do in the future is for the world, man, because you guys are doing a great job. So I’ll give you Rocky now, okay? And I’ll see you in the States.