Bernard Allison honors his dad's blues chops in his own way

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Bill Livick/Special to The Gazette
Wednesday, July 3, 2013

JANESVILLE-Blues guitarist and singer Bernard Allison is coming to Janesville's Armory on July 21 in a relatively rare U.S. appearance. It's rare because most of Allison's performances take place in Europe.

When Allison and his band do appear in the United States, it's usually at a summer festival.

Allison, 47, is the youngest of the late Luther Allison's nine children. Luther was, in blues circles, a legendary performer with a natural stage presence and a ton of talent and charisma.

Bernard was 7 years old when he decided that he wanted to become a performer like his dad. At age 10, he began to teach himself guitar, attempting to learn the songs that his father had recorded.

A few years later, when Luther was home from a tour, Bernard plugged in an electric guitar and played his dad's first recording, note for note.

A surprised Luther brought his son to the band's gig that night in Peoria, Ill. The performance was recorded and became the album "Gonna Be a Live One in Here Tonight!" It was Bernard's first appearance before a big audience and his debut on vinyl.

At 18, Bernard joined his father onstage at the 1983 Chicago Blues Festival.

One week after he graduated from high school, Bernard got a call from blues diva Koko Taylor, who asked him to be her lead guitarist.

After three years in Taylor's band, Bernard moved to Europe to join his father's group in France. He eventually went solo, and France became his home for 12 years. He returned to the U.S. after his father's death in 1997.

Bernard recently spoke with The Gazette by phone from his home in Minneapolis. Here are excerpts:

Q: You've recorded 15 albums that have all been blues-based, but you've included elements of funk, soul and African music. What's your current band like?

A: This summer we're doing a power trio. I'm undecided where I want to head with my next recording. I've been leaning toward just doing a power trio, blues-rock record. So it's just guitar/vocals, bass and drums.

We did our first show as a trio two weeks ago at the W.C. Handy Fest. It went really well, and I haven't played in a trio since I was a kid.

Once we got on stage it was, like, this is all right. I like change; I'm always up for trying something new.

I very seldom rehearse because we tour so much. My guys do their homework, and when we get together everybody's on the same page and we're good to go.

We just get up on stage and have fun. If you're not having fun, then you're in the wrong business.

Q: I've watched probably a dozen YouTube video performances, and it's pretty obvious that you're having a good time.

A: Oh yeah, that's what it's all about-just to have the pleasure of getting in front of people and sharing the music and what talent I have. That's the big joy for me. It's not at all for money.

We get some money, sure, but no one's getting rich quick here.

You have to love the music and just spread the word and try to reach the youngsters especially, and say, hey, this is a form of music that we're gradually losing.

I mean, all of our creators are almost gone. We just lost Bobby Bland the other day. Basically all we've got left is B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Lonnie Brooks. There's not too many more.

So it's left up to the younger generation, not to go out and copy the 12-bar blues and try to be the next Muddy Waters. That's already been done, and it's not gonna work. But take what you can use and put yourself into it and commercialize it. You've got to take a risk and go for it.

Q: Apart from your dad, who are some of the people who have influenced you the most? I'm sure playing with Koko Taylor must have been a great learning experience.

A: First off was my dad, and then Albert King was the main guy. I did learn a lot playing with Koko because I learned how to play rhythm first. I learned how to back someone instead of jumping out and being a frontman, never learning how to play rhythm in a supporting role.

Further on down the line, you're talking Johnny Winter as far as slide guitar. Johnny sat me down when I was with Koko on tour and taught me how to open-tune my guitar because I wanted to learn to play like him. I wanted to play those kinds of licks that I heard on the early Muddy Waters albums, and then when I saw Johnny do his own thing, I thought that's pretty interesting.

He showed me how to tune the guitar, and about a week later, I was playing and those licks just came naturally to me.

And then later came Stevie Ray Vaughn. I did a lot of things with Stevie and still do a lot with his brother, Jimmie.

Q: When you come to Janesville, will you do mostly original songs? Or do you play covers of Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray and people such as that?

A: I'll do mostly originals and some of my dad's stuff. I'll do a couple of covers, but I'm not too keen on doing a lot of them. People know me for doing the whole Hendrix thing, so what I typically do is a medley of his music.

I might do a medley of genres, from Hendrix to Metallica to Michael Jackson or whatever. You never know.

I'll show tastes of what influenced me, but not straight-up covers. It's all about the Allisons.

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