By Martine Ehrenclou
Gifted contemporary blues guitarist, singer-songwriter, Bernard Allison taught himself to play guitar at the age of 10 by listening to his father’s albums, Blues Hall of Famer Luther Allison. A virtuosic guitarist with groove, Bernard furthered his guitar skills under the tutelage of Johnny Winter and Stevie Ray Vaughan and has quite the history with these legends. Right out of high school, Bernard toured the world for three years with blues great Koko Taylor as guitarist and bandleader.
Straddling a solo music career and acting as bandleader, guitarist, arranger and songwriter for Luther Allison, Bernard moved to Paris and collaborated with his father musically as well as carving out his own music path of blues-meets- funk, soul, rock and gospel. With armfuls of solo albums, Bernard Allison is one of the finest contemporary bluesman of our time. His latest critically acclaimed studio album Let It Go, is followed by his dynamic live album, Songs From The Road released in the U.S. January 31st, 2020. Bernard was kind enough to talk with us by phone.
Martine Ehrenclou: Congratulations on your new live album, Songs From The Road. It’s outstanding.
Bernard Allison: Thank you.
ME: Tell me how you decided to record that particular performance for the CD/DVD?
BA: We’ve toured Germany every January, February for many years now. I played the room with the Blues Caravan the year prior with Mike Zito and Vanja Sky. Acoustically, I love the room and the older style room for the sound quality. It’s a beautiful atmosphere. We have a pretty decent following in that area of Germany so I was sure we’d get some crowd participation. Everybody had a good time.
ME: I read that you actually prefer live performances. What do you love most about performing live?
BA: Even in the studio, we record it live but you still have the option to redo things and patch up things. Where live, you only get one shot. Live actually captures our true feelings and our interaction with the public. I always say, we’re not the type of band where you just sit back like you’re at a cinema. We love to get the people involved and I base my set on the people. I feed off of the people. Live really honors what we sound like.
We keep it really dynamic. I just prefer playing live. To do a live DVD, people can really see what our group is all about. It’s not just one-directional. It’s actually a lot of fun. I try to do it especially for the youngsters, the next generation of players, to show that blues can be played in many different styles.
ME: I noticed that you were really in your element on Songs From The Road.
BA: Me and my band, we’re there having fun. We’re dancing, we’re being who we are. I tell the audience, every night if I can, “You guys aren’t just fans. You’re family if you’ve participated in my shows or even my father’s [Luther Allison] in the past. And they really respect that. My dad always told me, “The people that you have to honor most is your fan base, because without them, it’s kind of a hit or miss. Stay true to your fans and true to yourself.” I try to stay in touch with some of my fans, even if we’re not on tour. It’s a family situation.
Every night we meet and greet, sign and take pictures. That’s something I think we owe to the people rather than expect them to just buy a ticket and enjoy the show. If they know us, they know that we’re coming for them, you know?
ME: That’s so cool, Bernard.
BA: We come out to talk to friends after the shows and people have a tendency to hang around because they know that we’re going to come and talk to them or have a drink with them. Just to keep that relationship focused not just on us, but to include them because without them, we wouldn’t be in this position.
ME: I bet that means a lot to your fans.
BA: It makes me dig that much deeper. I tell my guys, play from your heart. We’re just being honest, who we are, and people read that. I think that’s a big cause of our success in Europe. Even my dad was the same way for years. He’d say, “Make those people feel just as involved as you are.” With Songs From The Road, it being a CD/DVD, they can feel it.
ME: Now I’m going to get my hands on that DVD for sure. I reviewed the CD. How did you choose songs for Songs From The Road?
BA: We took four songs from Let It Go and then song favorites with different arrangements that fans know from the studio versions. We rearranged a lot of it because back then I didn’t have horns on my records. Now I have a saxophone player and percussion. I’m very happy with how it turned out. Jim Gaines mixed it for us and he knows us, he recorded Let It Go. We work well together and I’m honored to put a project in his hands and just let him do his thing.
ME: Let It Go is a superb album.
BA: Thank you so much.
ME: You incorporate great rhythm and funkiness in a lot of your music, and you add in some rock and jazz styles.
BA: When I first started playing my dad told me, “Don’t play what they expect you to play. They’re going to expect you to play the blues, like me.”
Early in my career I said, okay, I’m going to take bits and pieces from my brothers and sisters, some of my favorite things, a combination of blues, funk, soul, gospel. Everything is rooted in blues but I have a different feel or approach. It’s all about the arrangement and I love to get my band involved in the music process when we’re creating something new to make sure that everybody’s a part of it. It’s not 110% Bernard Allison. I involve each musician in every song.
ME: Really? So, they are working with you on arranging?
BA: I’ll come up with the general idea of what I’m thinking. They all come from different genres. It’s like, I’m blues. George is very funky. We all have a real unique chemistry to demonstrate to people how many different genres can go into a bluesy style.
ME: That’s part of what I love about your music. It makes things varied and interesting. You always include a couple of your dad’s songs. Is that out of respect for your dad or to feel a connection to him?
BA: Just to keep the Allison name and his name alive. When I started playing guitar and recording, I told my mom I’d always include at least two of my dad’s songs on my records and I’ve been consistent with it. My fans expect it. They know I‘m going to write the majority of the album myself. I rarely do cover songs, unless it’s my father.
ME: I read that your dad put you on his live album when you were 13 years old and that you’d been learning his songs while he’d been away. What was that like for you?
BA: Well, I was scared. I was playing guitar almost three years before he discovered I was playing. He had come home preparing for the album called Gonna Be A Live One In Here Tonight. He actually woke up not at his normal time and he heard music. My mom said, “Yeah, I was listening to one of your old records. Why don’t you go downstairs and turn it off?”
I could see lights come down the steps. I had no time to unplug the guitar and the amp. He looked at me and said, “Oh, that’s you playing.” And then said, “Well, you didn’t just start playing like that.” I was like, “Yeah, I’ve been learning for three years on my own.” He said, “Well, tonight you come and play with me.”
ME: He must have been very proud of you hearing you play like that.
BA: Yeah. I always knew I wanted to play and I studied all of my dad’s influences, a lot of my sisters and brothers as well.
ME: I read that you studied guitar with Johnny Winter and Stevie Ray Vaughan also.
BA: Yes. Johnny actually taught me how to play slide guitar.
ME: So, he was a big influence on your playing.
BA: Yes. Edgar and Johnny were very close friends with my dad. When they came to the house, me and my brother we’d find a good hiding spot to keep an eye on them. Then over the years, once I got in with Koko Taylor, we did quite a few package tours with Johnny. He would bring me on his bus, and he taught me how to open tune my guitar. I asked him how do you play slide like that? He showed me, and from there I picked it up quickly. Then I showed my dad. He always played in regular tune. All the later slide that you hear him play, I’d actually taught him how to do open tune like that.
ME: That’s cool.
BA: It was the same with Stevie Ray. You know, friends of the family. He took me on a couple of road trips with him and any time I was around, he’d come jam with us.
ME: I watched the video of you playing with Stevie Ray Vaughan.
BA: I believe that was my 15th birthday.
ME: You were 15 in that video?
BA: Stevie was playing at the Civic Center in Peoria. He had called my mom and said he and Double Trouble wanted to surprise me. In fact, it was the grand opening of the club, and it was jammed with wall to wall people. I played the first three songs and the owner comes up to me and says, “You have to stop, you have to stop.” I assumed we lost the gig, that we were too loud or something is not right.” (Laughter.) The owner said, “You have to come to the dressing room.”
We’re walking to the dressing room and I see this bus go by and I see the guitars and I’m like, it’s either Johnny Winter or Stevie Ray. By the time I got to the dressing room, I looked, and it was Stevie. He said, “Hey, Happy Birthday, Little Brother. Ready to play?”
ME: Oh, my goodness, wow.
BA: There were so many people, the band had to bring Stevie through this tiny trap door. They never would have got him on stage without being harassed. They came up and we did about five songs. He did a couple with my band, and Double Trouble swapped out and I did a couple with Double Trouble.
ME: Pretty exciting for a 15 year old.
BA: (Laughter) It was very special. Stevie, Edgar and Johnny have always been close friends. We might as well call them family.
ME: Would you describe yourself as a guitar prodigy? I mean, being able to do that at age 15?
BA: I’m a self-taught musician. I can’t read [music] just like my dad.
ME: I was going to ask if you played all by ear.
BA: I play everything by ear. I can pretty much play anything I hear. I tried doing the reading but my mind thinks too fast to read notes and it slows me down. There’s quite a few of the older blues guys who had no knowledge of that, like B.B. King. It’s all feeling. It’s kind of a special talent. Almost like someone that has perfect pitch. I can’t do that but if I hear music, I pretty much can figure out the songs and build on them.
ME: So, you can hear something and then replicate it right there in your style?
BA: Yeah, pretty much.
ME: That’s a gift. I wanted to ask you about leading your dad’s band.
BA: I came over to Paris in ’89 to record my dad’s live album.
ME: You were writing and arranging with him too, right?
BA: I was just basically the band leader because I had done it with Koko Taylor. My dad asked if I could come in and play on a couple of tracks on the record and help him with some arrangements, which I did. After the recording, he asked me to become his official bandleader. I ended up staying in Paris for the next three years before I recorded my first album, Next Generation and started going out on my own. He was like, “You’ve been with me, you’ve opened some doors, now start your own thing because now they’re getting two for the price of one.” That’s how he looked at it.
ME: He was really supportive of you.
BA: My dad was my biggest fan. For me, my dad’s the greatest. I always have that. And he told everyone, “I love the way Bernard arranges and how he thinks.” And I felt the same about him. His Soul Fixin’ Man album, I arranged that whole record. I told him, “I can’t do the recording, I’ll rehearse the band but I have to do my tour too. Don’t credit me. This is yours. Go to the States, make your statement.”
After that, that’s when everything took off for him worldwide and in the States. After that, he won all the Handy awards. Just to be a part of that is a big honor for me, to show my love and respect not only for him, but to my family too. I was actually a deep part of it being Bernard Allison, not the son of Luther Allison, you know?
ME: I sure do. That probably meant the world to him also. I think I’ve taken up enough of your time. Thank you so much talking to me. It’s really been a pleasure.
BA: Thank you too. Thanks again for the support.
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