By Brian Turk
By Drew AIles
By Taylor Boylston
By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
Allison, whose latest CD, Blue Streak, has just been released on the Alligator imprint, has learned this lesson the hard way. He's one of the few remaining legends from Chicago's first generation of blues guitarists, but unlike players such as Otis Rush, critics haven't always appreciated him. In fact, many journalists have tagged him as an adept emulator rather than an innovator. That may be about to change, however, because today there are very few guitarists who can even conceive of playing with Allison's fiery virtuosity.
The story of Allison's upbringing is similar to the tales told by many of his Chicago blues peers. "I come from Arkansas, on a cotton plantation," he divulges. "I'm next to the baby out of fifteen children--eleven boys out of that. I left when I was about thirteen, because my parents were too old to take any more of that Southern thing: to farm and go on. I had to do what I did. So I went to Chicago and landed right in the middle of the blues, you might say. That means Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter. All of those guys who had come from down in Arkansas and Mississippi and where I'm from.
"My dreams were there," he continues. "I dreamed of making records and being recognized as a blues player. I wanted to sound good. I wanted a pretty guitar. I wanted a good amplifier. I wanted to be on the stage with a lot of people in front of us and the lights shining. And nice clothes. I mean, in those days, being black and coming from off the cotton plantation or whatever, you looked at the entertainment field, and people were all dressed up. All those soul shows and the R&B shows--people were dressed up and they looked great."
In 1969 Allison realized one of his fantasies: He released his debut album, Love Me Mama, on Delmark Records. He subsequently made three platters for the Motown label. "I became the only blues artist Motown ever had," he boasts. But in the last half of the Seventies, the popularity of blues waned, and Allison had to struggle to make ends meet.
"It was a different type of trip," he remembers. "I didn't have a nightclub to work. I had a day job. I worked construction. Washed dishes. Washed cars. Whatever it took to keep me going so I could play music when I had a gig. If it was five nights a week, two nights, one night for a little bit of money, I did it just to stay in the game. I'd be sleepy on the gig. Sleepy on the job. Hungry on one or the other--or both--trying to support a family and support my music. The instruments cost so much money, and I had to deal with having my only four guitars stolen from me. It takes years to get over those kinds of setbacks. But something happened. I was still going on."
And where Allison went, in the mid-Eighties, was to Paris--a city he calls home to this day. "People ask me why I moved to France," he notes. "Well, I had heard that they appreciated the blues over here. And I found an opportunity and I took it. I stopped drinking and that stuff. I didn't want to wind up in the nightclubs every night, high, drunk and not knowing what the next day is, just all because of frustrations. So I moved."
Shortly after putting down roots in Paris, Allison was rediscovered both here and abroad. As his popularity grew, he was signed to Alligator, a company whose president, Bruce Iglauer, had booked Allison to play a concert at a Wisconsin college 25 years ago. Iglauer likens Allison's playing to that of Jimi Hendrix--and Allison doesn't balk at the comparison.
"People talk about Jimi Hendrix to me every day," he notes. "I see how popular he is now, and I know how hard it was for him in the beginning to be able to get people to listen to him and what he did. He was coming from the blues, looking for a way to express himself--and he found that. But he died very early. Just like Freddie King; he died at 42. And Magic Sam, he died at 32 or 34. Whereas I've made it to 56, and I feel great. I'm still creating. And I'm getting a few breaks that I didn't get down the stretch."
With Blue Streak and its predecessor, 1994's Soul Fixin' Man, Allison's also been the beneficiary of something that long eluded him: critical acclaim. The response has led to an avalanche of festival appearances and tour dates across the country. The attention tickles Allison. "It makes me feel that my life has not been in vain," he concedes. "And I know now that I'm qualified to be out there with the rest of the people, big or small.