Bernard Allison Interview - Slip Slidin' Away

Most musicians would agree: Early musical influences can be, well, very influential. But when your father is a blues legend, you know something good is going to rub off. And no disappointments here: Bernard Allison does his late papa, Luther Allison, proud on his latest release, Across the Water. Bernard sat down with the video team to show us a few things about the blues, and in the process pretty much redefined slide guitar playing altogether. Read the interview, but better yet, watch the video. This guy rips. Bernard, you're on the road in support of your Across the Water. Tell us a little bit about the album.

Bernard Allison: We recorded Across the Water in '99. We started in December. I don't tour the month of December. I take that whole month off just for that reason 'cause we're on tour pretty much the rest of the year. It was recorded in Minneapolis, produced by Jim Gaines. It's my second album with Jim Gaines. It's basically no different than my other albums. It's the same idea, the same concept. I like to throw em' a couple straight ahead traditional blues and use like a rock influence or a funk influence. Out of all the seven albums I've done, I've always followed that procedure. It's just a little bit more mature with my playing and my vocals and my musicians. From your upbringing, your father, Luther Allison, was a phenomenal blues guitar player and frontman and you grew up around his whole world of blues success and knowing a lot of celebrities. How did that affect your playing?

Allison: Well, I studied. I played like three years before I even told him. I just wanted to play something right before telling him, which I learned his very first album. He came home and preparing for a live recording in Peoria, Illinois. And, he woke up that morning and I was practicing along with the record and he looked at my mother and said that sounds like my very first record. He wasn't aware we still had a copy of it. And she said that is your first record, you can go downstairs and turn it off, if it's disturbing you. I can see his feet coming downstairs and I'm like, 'Oh, I'm busted now you know.' And he comes down, and looks, and says, 'So, you're playing guitar.' I said, 'Yeah I started playing guitar,' and he said, 'You just didn't start, not playing like that.' He was impressed by what I learned on my own and he said, 'Well, tonight come with me and I'll put you on the live record.' Now, I'm really shaking in my boots. So, that night he called me up and gave me his guitar, at the time he was playing a B.B. King Lucille 335 and it was just huge. I'm a little bitty guy and the guitar is bigger than me. But that was my first actual chance on stage, with him, and actually recording a record. What album was that?

Allison: It's called 'Gonna Be A Live One in Here Tonight' on Rumble Records, recorded in Peoria, Illinois, in 1979. How old were you at the time?

Allison: About 12-and-a-half. So as you were growing up, first of all you met a lot of his friends and associates in the music business, but you also brought in your own influences, maybe a little more of a rock influence.

Allison: Yeah, I studied my dad first along with people like Muddy Waters, all the King's, and later on I had the chance of working with the queen of the blues Koko Taylor, backing her for three years. Even through her I had the chance to meet more musicians like Stevie Ray and actually go on tour with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Johnny Winter, where I kinda picked up my slide technique. I walked right into that circle of the creators of music. And also, being the baby of nine kids, we had all kinds of music in the house, not just blues. We basically come from the church so we had gospel, jazz, rock, funk. And basically what Bernard Allison is doing now, playing what I was brought up on in the household. When did you tour with Stevie Ray Vaughan?

Allison: There would always be like package tours with Koko Taylor. I remember playing Chicago, in fact at the Chicago Blues Festival or the Handy Award festival where the Blues Explosion won a Handy, a Grammy, actually for that album with Stevie, Koko. We were all in the show together. Stevie had been good friends with my dad for years. He knew me way before I even started playing. The minute we hooked up, and he realized who I was, we became like brothers and stayed in touch. I'd go join him or vice versa he'd come somewhere I was playing and sit in and say let's jam. You played with Koko Taylor right out of high school didn't you?

Allison: Yeah, like four days out of high school I got the call from Koko saying, 'I'd like you to become a member of the Blues Machine.' I knew at that time there were so many more guitar players out there that were more qualified for her and I was like, 'Why me?'Apparently her and my dad had talked and he said, 'Once he gets out of school, I'm going to be in Europe during this period, so if you have faith in his playing, take him out and teach him the rules of the road basically.' Koko's a sweetheart, I just had the chance to open up for her last week, at the Philadelphia Blues Festival, and we started talking about the old times. She's like my second mother basically, and I was too young to be in the clubs then so she was like my legal guardian on the road. What kind of stuff did you learn from playing with her band musically?

Allison: I think more or less to be a rhythm player and learn how to follow someone 'cause learning, I always played by myself, and I kind of got a couple groups together during school but never really played out or anything. Just to be able to back someone and I think if I didn't do that then, I probably wouldn't have any knowledge of rhythm now, for the fact that I would just be concentrating on singing and soloing. I think that's the most influential thing that I learned from Koko. She plays a lot of tunes in her repertoire, I'm sure, that are blues standards. Did you learn a variety of chord progressions that you have since then built your music upon?

Allison: Basically with Koko, it was kind of simple for me. It was your traditional rhythm and blues plus blues patterns, 12-bar blues. There are a couple of her trademark songs, like 'Wang Dang Doodle,' where each guitar player actually has a part to play, like one's playing the actual bass line with the bassist. I was actually playing the charm part that Buddy [Guy] actually recorded, so that was something different for me cause that was the only thing I had to play in the song. So I thought what do I do for the rest of the song? I kind of danced and waited 'til my part came along. And actually she showed me that part 'cause that was the only part Buddy played on the record, which is actually the hook of the song. So, we had the two guitar players where, that's kind of impossible to do both, so you had the continuous part. After you played with Koko for a while, you did your own thing for a little bit.

Allison: Yeah, and that was kind of like a combination of playing songs of my father's that I really liked and a lot of Muddy Waters-type things, or even an Albert King thing. Albert was probably my greatest influence as far as a guitar player; the tone just did something to me. Even Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, or Buddy Guy, they all sort of got something from each other and that's the thing about the blues. You kind of get something from everybody, and mix it all up, and create yourself, try to find yourself. So, some bluesy things I like to do, I like to do slow blues like Albert King or Stevie Ray style. That's like the Albert King approach that we use, also. And what about some of the funkier stuff that you do, where does that come from?

Allison: I was a big fan of the Isley Brothers, so if I wanna do something funky, in my band, I'll do something funky. That's a little bit of the funky side and I don't do a lot of soloing but more or less fall in with the rhythm section of it, and back the vocal or the keyboard part. So, do you choose musicians that also have a similar mixture of blues, rock, or funk experience?

Allison: Exactly, like my drummer, James Knowles, he comes from the R. Kelly band. He's the ex-drummer with R. Kelly and a lot of gospel groups. The bass player has played with Otis Rush, Junior Wells. My keyboard player comes from my father's band. He's probably the oldest member of the band so he has the early rock band experience and Top 40 music. I think that's what works best for me is to have 'cause all of my guys are involved in the creation of all the music. I'll present the idea and say, 'What would you play there?' And then it all kind of gels together. If we try and play things this way, we can play songs that everybody likes to play. Maybe the drummer likes a more rockier thing, then we'll give him his rock thing, now the bass player wants something a little funky, now I want to play something real down low or ballad so, it's a give and take thing. You lived for a long time in Europe, I guess because your dad was over there. Is that why you gravitated in that direction?

Allison: Yeah, I went over in '89, to record a live album Live In Berlin with him, and after the session he asked me to become his bandleader. I stayed there until '92, almost the beginning of '93, before receiving my first record contract. I gradually started going out on the road with his musicians, when he wasn't touring, until I was able to find my own. It just got set up there and we just kept touring and recording after that and we were there. I was happy, I was touring all over Europe, and I wasn't really thinking about coming back to the States yet. I was like, 'I'm doing fine here, one day maybe if they hear enough buzz about us, they'll say okay let's try and get them over here.' Cause before I didn't have the management or the [booking] agency so, basically I was doing it myself, and it was impossible to get work. So I said, 'Why not? If they're accepting me here, let me give it to them.' Now I'm back in the States and a lot of people think I'm a newcomer, but I'm actually not. We're just going out, taking one day at a time, and letting people know what Bernard Allison is all about. Europe has a pretty strong blues scene...

Allison: Oh yeah, its very big. I think it all comes to public radio and television because they actually show you who's coming to town, they'll run video clips periodically through the year, if you gotta do a tour or something like that you know, the kids can see that. Whereas vice versa, in the States, you don't see that so often and they try to make sure that the kids are literate to it, you know if it's jazz or blues. A lot of times when I think of European music, and I've known for a while that Europe has a strong blues scene, but in my mind I think of European music more as either folk-y, ethnic, traditional , that stuff you hear in movies, like some French accordion player, or real electronic dance-y kind of stuff.

Allison: Yeah. And also a lot of Latin, heavily African rhythms, and I learned a lot about the rhythms over there 'cause I was blown away, when I heard the first French blues band. I went to a club with my dad and I was like, 'Whoa!' They were playing everything note for note and, actually, they were singing it in English. But now we go up to them and say, 'Hey man, great show,' and they can't speak English. I'm like, 'How is that possible?' They study the records, and they're very good with that, and they have some very talented musicians over there, all kinds, not just guitar players, all styles of music. And like I say, lots of drummers and bass players that played some grooves I've never heard. I didn't grow up with that part of it. I think that's a plus for me, as well, to know how to convert some of the African rhythms into our style of playing. As your dad's bandleader, did that include auditioning people, hiring and firing people'

Allison: I auditioned, I rehearsed them all, and then the road manager actually took the responsibility of hiring and firing, after I approved. I'd give the tapes to my father, we'd listen together and we'd say, 'He's a bit weak in this area but strong here, I like his attitude, he's gotta be there, he's dependable.' Those are all the things we are looking for to make things as smooth as possible. We're willing to learn together, that was the whole thing and just to make my daddy comfortable. I liked the role of that 'cause I pretty much knew what he wanted. We played off the stage at home together and he would say, 'Play this behind me.' So I knew what type of groove would make him go to the next level. His last three albums I helped a lot on, as well. You know, that was Luther Allison. If he puts something solid behind him, he's gonna skyrocket. Those were really great moments to be able to actually get up there, and back, and play with my father. When you say you knew the kind of rhythms that would take him to the next level, is that something you can explain to us and show us?

Allison: A lot of people don't realize that Luther Allison was not just a blues guitar player. He was heavily influenced by Hendrix, Chuck Berry, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett. He loved all styles of music. So looking at your own playing now, what traces do you see of your dad's playing?

Allison: I hear it more vocally than playing-wise. Certain songs we do are really obvious like, 'Yeah, he sounds a lot like his dad there.' I don't do it intentionally, it just happens. Like when we play the song 'Midnight Creep? or 'Bad Love.' 'Bad Love? is probably the one; I really like to play this song. I remember when he wrote the song and I was like, 'Yeah, that's cool,' playing with the minor blues and the minor changes. It's really an emotional vocal song. We do that live every night and I try to include at least two or three of my dad's songs in my show every night. You also included some other songs he wrote: 'Change Your Way of Living? and 'Love is Free.'

Allison: Yeah. It's tons of things. He had so many great songs that a lot of people don't even know about and that's what I'm doing. I'm bringing back those songs I felt were overlooked because they were really super songs. And hopefully, we can get the message that he didn't have the chance to get it across by using a higher level of production for example, and trying to compete with commercial artists, or the crossover artists. And I think we fall in that type of bag being kind of like a crossover blues, rock-ish type of band. You've moved from Europe to Minneapolis, and you worked on Across the Water with some people up there who have worked with Jonny Lang, Shannon Curfman'there's something going on in Minneapolis isn't there?

Allison: I think it's a breeding ground or something. You have tons of musicians, lots of studios and between North and South Dakota and Minneapolis, there's definitely something happening. I don't know if it's in the water, you've got Jonny, Shannon Curfman, Prince, Morris Day and the Time, Jellie Bean [Benitez], and now Ronnie Baker Brooks is doing a lot of stuff up there, too. I just think it's another stepping stone like Chicago, one of the greatest places for music, and I'm lucky enough to have met people up there who have confidence in what we do and are willing to work with us. I noticed that you had Paul Diethelm on guitar?

Allison: Yes. Jonny Lang's rhythm player. Right, and you had Kevin Bowe?

Allison: Yeah, we co-wrote a song or two. And the keyboard player?

Allison: Bruce McCabe, from Jonny Lang's band. We tour a lot with Jonny. We have the same manager. On the tour, I was like, 'I'm gonna be doing an album soon. Come in the studio.' So, Paul came in and did a couple tracks. And one day, I invited Bruce and we were actually just jamming 'Change Your Way of Living.' I saw him come in and I was like, 'Come on in the studio,' and he got on the piano, and Mike [Vlahakis, Bernard's keyboardist] just moved over to the Hammond organ and just kind of played it through. And we played it like two times maximum and I was like, 'Don't touch anything! Leave it as it is.' I played a little bit of slide guitar on top of it, and it still keeps us honest. It gave me a chance to play a little slide guitar.

Check out the first part of Bernards' Video Guitar Lesson here

And for more information on Bernard - visit his website - Bernard

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