Listening to Bernard Allison's Highs and Lows, you're not necessarily thinking of Prince. But upon learning Prince was a fan of the bluesman, the idea immediately makes sense.
"I did a couple of shows with Prince," Allison recalls. "And once I did that, I was shocked that he invited us to his birthday bash, and then [I] come to find out, his guitar tech and road manager pulled me aside and said, 'You know that Prince is a big fan of you and your father?' And I'm like, 'What?' 'Yeah. On tour, that's all he does. He listens on the tour bus. He has all your music, your dad's, watching DVDs.'"
Why wouldn't Prince love either Allison? But Bernard in particular makes sense. The younger Allison's soulful, funky blues almost transcends styles. Where so many artists use the blues as a tether for their music, Allison uses it as a slingshot, not wedded to any particular sound, but always registering as bluesy. So on a tune like Highs and Lows' "So Excited," he might sound like a ZZ Top-inspired blues rock artist. And on "The Hustler," featuring his godfather, the mighty Bobby Rush, he's easily deploying funk-blues. Allison isn't a master of disguise so much as he's fluent in many genres. Which is surely what Prince responded to.
Allison, like Prince, is a multi-instrumentalist, building songs brick-by-brick, instrument-by-instrument, even when, as with Highs and Lows, he's also working with collaborators. Part of his musical training regimen is listening to different kinds of music. "I play a little bit of bass and organ and harmonica, it kind of frees me to learn more about the bass guitar, and [legendary Motown bassist] James Jamerson," Allison says. "So it just keeps me fresh, [as] opposed to listening over and over to what people believe I listen to, you know, blues or Hendrix or Santana."
Allison came up under his father's guidance, but made an early impression as Koko Taylor's bandleader. Eventually, Allison returned to his father, though, leading Luther's band, and even relocating to Paris, where his father lived for touring purposes. Almost 20 solo studio albums later, Allison is his own artist, but still committed to his father's legacy, including Luther Allison covers on every album.
After Luther died in 1997, Allison returned to the United States, settling in Minneapolis, because that's where his management put him. "We're predominantly a European touring act, so I'm like 'Okay, Minneapolis. I can dig it,'" Allison says with a laugh. "I like to fish. There's lots of lakes."
Minneapolis was also Prince's home base and Allison formed friendships with many from Prince's huge orbit, including people like The Time's Jellybean Johnson. "They're all good friends of mine," Allison says. "I'm just blessed to be able to be a part of the music scene." Allison also has a more tangible souvenir of his time with Prince: a blue cloud guitar, like Prince played in the Purple Rain movie. "I just have it in the vault," Allison says.
In this interview, Allison discusses inviting his band into his songwriting process, and talks about how his father influenced his work, but how he also influenced his father. He also expresses an openness that allows you to see how he can fuse so many different musical styles together and still wind up with a result that feels simultaneously pliable and authentic. Allison has his routines, but he's also open to the possibilities created when songwriting takes a detour.
Plays well with others
Working Mojo: What was your songwriting process for Highs and Lows?
Bernard Allison: I typically do it all the same. This one's a little bit different, because I decided that I wanted to collaborate with some of my musicians and pretty much focus on that point. Get the feel of each of the musicians; they're great songwriters. A lot of people don't know that.
But I said, 'Okay, we're going to showcase some of your songwriting ability,' as opposed to just being instrumental. And it really worked out well for it. It made things go a lot smoother, it had some really good ideas. We just took it from there.
WM: So how did that work? Were you bringing them the sketches of songs?
Allison: [Laughs] Actually, they were sending me sketches of lyrics, because none of them actually sing. So I'd kind of review what they wrote down and make my own adjustments and suggestions. Musically, I pretty much did all the music myself. And then I just collaborated with them, with the lyrics per se, which, like I said, it worked out pretty [well]. I pretty much use a multitrack recorder, or I can play the bass line, guitars, whatever instrumentation I want to hear, and just kind of shoot back and forth. The vocals, how they sound, how it gets sung, you know, not to lose their total idea or not for me to dominate it with my idea, lyrically.
WM: And when you said it went smoother, what did you mean by that?
Allison: Well as opposed to me just writing all the lyrics, doing all the arrangements, playing all the guitars [laughs]. Actually, on [2018's] Let It Go, I did a couple of songs from my ex-drummer Andrew Blaze Thomas, which also, we have three songs with him on this album, "The Hustler," "Highs and Lows" and "My Way or the Highway." I kind of tweaked the words a little bit, and then I pretty much put the music, what I'm hearing, and shoot it back to get their approval, and they're like, 'Yeah, just do what you do, B.A. I can't do it' [laughs]. So it's really good to be able to showcase my guys and give them the chance to say 'Okay, I can write too. I can't sing it, but I can write it!' [laughs].
WM: What does your pre-production involve? Are you doing extensive demos with the band?
Allison: I pretty much do every song by myself. Put it all to a multi-track recorder. I play all the instruments so I can hear what parts work, [like] if it's going to be organ, or I'll have my horn player blow something into the recorder.
I'll do all the bass lines and have my bass player, once I did it, the idea informed, then I tell them, 'Okay, now, I want you to give me your feel. That's what I'm feeling with the song, but I need to have your feel. I don't want you to copy what I played.' And they're all like, 'Well, you can do it. Sounds good to me' [laughs]. I'm like, 'No, you're the bass player.'
Like [bassist] George [Moye], you know, he's been with me going on 13, 14 years now. We sit together a lot. He can play guitar and I play bass. And so we can kind of sit and say, 'Okay, how do you like this?,' or 'Try this. Try that.' And that's pretty much how it worked for this whole album. I showed them the map, and they played their part.
WM: Did you always know you'd be working with producer Jim Gaines?
Allison: We decided to use Gaines my first USA release. I was actually still living in Paris at the time. My dad [said], 'Let's try you with Jim' and the chemistry just worked really well, between us and the ideas. And over the years, we've just became a lot closer and understand what [the] other is trying to do. Trying to bring the best out of each song. It's not just work, work, work. We're joking around telling stories and getting through the sessions, It just makes it so much at ease, between he and I, and the musicians.
WM: When you're getting ready to do an album, do you know you'll work with Jim, or do you think about working with other people?
Allison: I did a couple of albums with David Z., as well. But yeah, now you know, Jim's getting up in age, and really not sure how [much] longer he wants to do things anymore. So we just kind of take it by ear, but I do have some other people that are willing to work with me, if not do it by myself, which I've done also in the past.
I've learned so much from Jim and and David Z. over the years, where I can pretty much get it done. But Jim always said, 'If I do decide not to do any more recording, just call me and I'll help you, and coach you along.' That kind of relationship.
He has thousands of recordings he's done over all these years. He's a large staple in the music world, not just blues, rock or whatever. His resume is just over the top with what he does. But when you hear his recordings, you know it's him; the clarity and separation of the instruments, which is all very important in the recording process.
Beyond the blues
WM: That's interesting that you say that about Jim because your sound is so unique. It's bluesy but it also incorporates so many different styles.
Allison: I go back to what my dad told me early on: 'Okay a lot of people are gonna expect you to be bluesy, bluesy, bluesy, and very similar to me.' And he said, 'Why don't you always remember where you come from and know what genres of music that you grew up with.'
Being the baby of nine kids, all my sisters and older brothers all had their styles of music in our household. We had gospel, we had rock, we had funk, we had the blues. The [variety of] music was just tremendous for us growing up as kids. A lot of people say, 'Aww. They're a funky blues band.' Yeah, it's funky. We can be funky, we can be rocky, but my roots are blues. Everything we do, the foundation is the blues. I just capitalized and always remember what my dad said: 'Why let someone label you as a blues band? Why not have them call you a musician?' So it just lets us be who we are, live or on recording.
I try to not record things that I know we can't produce live or get into an over-produced recording session. Like this album was pretty much one-take material. Every song. I find that you capture the best feel on that first or second take. Any more than that and you start to lose the feel of what you've already created. Now it's almost like starting over; you have to rebuild around the song. So we're very well polished and I do a lot of pre-production for every record before actually hitting the studio, so we have a map that we can follow.
WM: How would you describe your sound, if you had to label it?
Allison: I've always said since my first recording, I like to call it the blues of the next generation, and now I'm getting up in generation considering we have the youngsters coming up. But I own that title. That's what I call it [laughs]. Everybody's like, 'Well, what do we call them? The variety is so wide.' So I just said, the easiest way to describe us is we're the blues of the next generation.
WM: Do you think your father wanted to go beyond the blues, in that same way he encouraged you to not be labelled by it?
Allison: Yeah, that's exactly what he did. That's why he moved to Europe. Because they allowed him to be Luther Allison, [as] opposed to be Chicago blues. My dad was a big fan of Chuck Berry, Otis Redding, he comes from a gospel [background]. All his brothers sing gospel music, and some of his strong points were the Otis Redding, the Chuck Berry, so when he went to Europe, they allowed him to play what he wanted to play, as opposed to here in the States, where they really wanted to just put that Chicago label on him.
WM: Is it frustrating to you that Americans haven't embraced the blues as much as Europeans?
Allison: It doesn't really frustrate me. I get it. It's something that's been going on for years, and something that I can't change and I think we just have to live with it. But like I said, prior, I think the blues has a lot of potential. You're seeing a lot more youngsters getting involved in it as opposed to when I was growing up, [I] very rarely saw someone my age, or younger, that even wanted to listen to the blues. Immediately they'd say, 'Oh, that for my grandmother' or something.
And when I went to Paris, they just blew me away. How much that the Europeans knew about the blues. I'm like, 'Wow.' They can sing in English, but they can't talk' [laughs]. I told my dad, 'How does that work?' It sounds great singing and they learn the words exactly. But when you go to say hello to them, they talk French [laughs]. Like how does this work?
WM: You always do a couple of your father's songs on your albums and I was curious how you select them.
Allison: I pretty much call my mom and tell her to look on the record shelf and pick out something old [laughs]. I have the tendency to do the songs that I felt were overlooked on certain albums, with my dad. Every album has the top three or four or five songs, but I always choose things that I really want to throw at people and let them go back and do their own research, say, 'Hey, listen to this.' And they'll be like, 'Well, what album is that from?'
I pretty much dug back into his early Motown days. for "Now You Got It." And "Gave It All" was actually one of his European releases before he re-did it with Jim Gaines, in fact. So "Gave It All" came from the Time album, which a lot of people don't know about.
I collaborate, I call my mama, I ask her to turn the record I grew up with [laughs]. She has a box of 78s. I know where everything is, and it just amazes her because I can direct her. I can call her and say, 'Okay, it's over there. It's the third album on the top shelf.' It's amazing to her. She'll copy it, or just let me briefly hear it to make sure I'm kind of remembering [it] and on the same page. If not, she'll forward it to me, and I can take it from there.
WM: Do you feel closer to him when you cover his songs?
Allison: I just want people to always know where I come from, which is my dad. Without him, I don't exist but I'll always keep recording at least two of my dad's songs, keeping his name alive. I've been doing quite a few interviews and it's very interesting, because quite a few of the people that interviewed me, discovered my father through me. I was like, 'Wow,' kind of blown away. It's like, "I heard you and then I did the research, and then I saw your father.' And I say, 'Well, that's just amazing.'
I always want to keep the Allison name out there. He has so many good recordings, and I have access to all of this stuff. So I'll always continue to give respect where it's due and have a couple of Luther Allison songs, and I'm going to try to write the rest myself.
WM: Did you and your dad ever talk about songwriting? Did he have advice or tips for you?
Allison: It's funny because he loved the way I write [laughs]. And I loved the way he writes. Like, for example, his comeback album to the United States, called Soul Fixin' Man, I pretty much arranged that whole album.
Actually, I was supposed to do the recording, and I couldn't do it because it was my first major tour on my own in Europe. So I sent him to Gaines with all the demos and the band.
But yeah, my dad was my biggest fan. He'd be like, 'How do you do that?' I taught him how to open tune slide like Johnny Winter taught me, and once I showed him, then he was like, 'Awww. I can do this.' When you hear those last recordings, he's just wailing at that slide, so it was like a give and take.
I always say our relationship was like brothers, opposed to father and son, because we did share a lot of ideas and, you know, me being the bandleader for those years with him. For me, he became more dominant because he was he was letting me know that, 'Okay, I want to learn something new, too,' as opposed to teaching me per se, where he comes from. So we just shared what we knew musically. But he liked my songwriting and I was like, 'Well I got it from you' [laughs].
WM: I noticed organ guitar on the album credits. What is that?
Allison: I'm pretty much playing organ. It's called the B9 pedal, with a Leslie simulator on my pedal board. And a lot of people are like, 'Who's playing the Hammond?' [laughs]. It's a very unique sounding pedal, and I've learned how to use it, because I actually play a little bit of B3 [organ]. It's all about the feel [and] attack of the guitar. Even Jim Gaines—I used it on Let It Go for a track, I believe—he said, 'Where is that organ pedal again? We don't need a Hammond player for the whole album.' I said I have it, so, 'Yeah. We're gonna use that. You know how to use it.'
It's so funny because when people see us live and I hit this pedal, they're looking like, 'Where's his keyboard player?'
WM: How do you find new ideas within the blues songwriting structure?
Allison: Well, I try to stay away from just straight 12-bar blues. I like to play some minors and do some interludes or do some transposing; maybe change the key on a chorus or a hook opposed to just playing it all straight out.
And then it all depends on on the song itself, the lyrics. For example, "Strain on My Heart" from this album is a totally R&B song. And, for me, that's one of the favorite tracks on this album because I've never tried to attempt the R&B type song, but it has that heavy, bluesy bottom to it, where I was like, 'Wow, I think I can do this.' You know, I can sing three-part harmonies and make my voice, Jim had it where it almost sounds like I have girls singing with me. But in fact, that's just my voice. And I don't have to rely on all the guitar playing. Because it's not a guitar song. It's more directed with the lyrics and being vocal. And then you have the aggressive sax playing on it. And that kind of separates it from that next song.
And from song one to the end of the album, they all have their diverse [sounds], kind of like riding a roller coaster. You don't give it all the away in the first five songs. You've got to leave something for the end. And I really like how we chose the order because it does allow the record to breathe and it allows the listener to be like, 'Wow, it never lets up.'
WM: So as you're writing songs, are you thinking about the order? Are you thinking like, 'Okay, we need a change-up here, we need a big finish...'
Allison: No, actually, I prefer to get through the recording. Once we got the basic tracks, we can start considering how we want to line them up. But in the early stages, it's very difficult to say how things are going to sound, or what Jim Gaines is going to suggest.
Gaines and I often do it once we're in the mixing stage of the record and say, 'Okay, I think we need to start with this. And end with this.' It was very difficult to do it because we were like, 'Wow. Maybe this one should go first. OK, we have to decide. So let's start with something up and then kind of fall off' [laughs]. But yeah, this probably was the most difficult recording I've done to actually put songs in order.
Interview edited for brevity and clarity.