Across the Water, and Back Again
An Interview with Bernard Allison
by Michael Buffalo Smith
Bernard Allison was born the son of a blues legend, the late Luther Allison, and with eight big-brothers and big-sisters surrounding him, the young Allison was weaned on everything from rock and roll to funk. The 35-year-old guitar slinger spent several years as band leader for blues diva Koko Taylor, as well as a period as musical director for his father's band. In this exclusive interview, Allison speaks candidly about his music, Koko Taylor, Luther Allison, his special memories of Stevie Ray Vaughan and his latest album.
Growing up the son of a legendary blues player, when did you first become interested in playing guitar?
I started playing at age ten. I played for three years, just teaching myself by listening to records in my dad's collection. My family's collection as well, combining blues, gospel, funk, rock- I'm the baby of nine, so all of the older brothers and sisters were into different styles of music from The Isley Brothers to Parliament, to Mahalia Jackson. Basically, that's what I do live and in recordings, I play what I grew up with. Many people think it's strictly blues, but that wasn't the case in our household. I pretty much started listening to my father's early recordings, and picking up the guitar and figuring out the notes.
Besides your obvious influence from Luther, who else influenced your music?
At the beginning it was like Muddy Waters, Lightnin' Hopkins, T. Bone Walker, all the Kings- Freddie, Albert, B.B. - Magic Sam. A lot of West Side players, and some Texas players with T. Bone.
Is it true you learned slide guitar from Johnny Winter?
Yes. When I was with Koko. Actually, I met Johnny when I was a kid, and he was good friends with my dad as well. Once I got with Koko, Johnny was also on Alligator Records at the time, and we would do package tours. We'd go out with Johnny, Lonnie Mack, Lonnie Brooks. On the tour we got to know each other really well, and Johnny was just kind enough to sit down with me and teach me his style of playing. Like I was trying to play slide in a regular tuning, where he basically plays open tuning. He taught me how to tune and I took it from there.
What kind of slide do you use, glass or metal?
I use a lap steel slide.
You became Koko's bandleader in 1983. How long were you with her?
The first time I stayed '83-'85. And I came back in '86 and played about a year and a half with her.
Tell us about Koko from your perspective as an artist as well as a friend.
First of all, her and her husband at the time, Pops Taylor, (now deceased) who was her driver and road manager were my guardians. At the time I joined Koko, I was about three days out of high school. I had just graduated. They were my legal guardians in the clubs, because I was too young to be in there. Her and my dad were really close, like sisters and brothers. I did some festivals when I wasn't in school, around Springfield, with Koko. She always told my father, when he graduates I want him to come and play with me, because she understood that my father was really into playing Europe at the time, so she just kind of took me on. It was an honor for her to call me, because there were just so many other more qualified guitarists out there to be in The Blues Machine. Her whole approach, and my dad's as well, was to support the up and coming generation of players, and to let them know what the real deal was. The main thing I learned from Koko was how to be a rhythm guitar player, rather than the leader, whereas if I'd done it vice-versa and said I want to start my own band, that would have put me into the position of being a leader, and not knowing how to play behind someone, or how to orchestrate a rhythm section for example.
But Koko, she's the sweetest person. I just opened up for her at the Fort Lauderdale River Rock Festival, and it was just a treat to see her on the side of the stage like, 'wow, he's come a long way and now he's doing his own thing,' and she's really supportive of it. And I'm glad to see that things are still going real well for her, because I know she's getting up there in age, and most of our traditional players and creators of the music are leaving us very fast, but she's hanging in there. She's the best.
How did you come to move to France in 1989?
I went over to record on my dad's live album, "Let's Try Again," in Berlin. There's a part one and two. Part two is called "More from Berlin." After the recording, he asked me to become his bandleader. So I kind of stayed there with him, and I received my first record contract while playing with him. So I gradually branched off playing with his musicians, and when he was off the road, I would take his musicians out, touring under my own name. That lead to the next record. But we stayed out on the road until about 1992. Then in April of this year I moved back to the States.
Is it a lot different living in France?
Totally different. A different culture. A lot of the children speak English, but a lot of the older people, I think they can speak English, but...(Laughs)
But they don't want to.
(Laughs) Right. You can't blame them.
Would you tell us a little about your special relationship with the late Stevie Ray Vaughan?
Stevie knew me from the time I was a kid. He and my dad were also friends probably from the time Stevie was just beginning and maybe wasn't even on the scene yet. Same with Jimmie (Vaughan). The first time I ever met him, I vaguely remember, my father had taken us to The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, it must have been in the seventies. I remember Stevie from wearing the hat - he didn't have the Stetson on, he was wearing the baret. In 1983, I was living in Peoria, and he was playing at Illinois State University, and I was supposed to be his opening act with one of my first bands, Bernard Allison and Backtalk, but something came up where the college couldn't afford to pay their opener. My brother Luther, Jr. was actually on the board that brought in the entertainment for the college, and he got a chance to speak to Stevie. Once Stevie found out about it, he was upset. He said all they had to do was tell him, and he would have gladly paid the band himself. He said, 'What I'm going to do is, I'm playing Peoria tomorrow night.' And he called me and my mom and invited us down to the show. The techs were all preparing the stage when we got there, and I heard that guitar and I said, 'Wow, that's Stevie.' But it wasn't him. His tech sounded just like him. Then he and Chris came in and walked right over and said, 'Hey, it's been a long time little brother. I remember you when you were in diapers. And now you're playing a little bit.' So from there, we finished the show and then we did some shows with Stevie when I was with Koko. From there on, we ran across them quite often, and like Johnny Winter, he'd bring me on the bus and we'd talk about music and him knowing my dad and everything. And he'd show me little things on the guitar.
After I left Koko and had my own band, Stevie would pop in periodically. On my 16th birthday, I was booked to open a new club in Peoria called Duffy's Rooftop. Stevie was playing at the civic center the same night, and in fact, I didn't want to play the show that night because I wanted to go see Stevie. And my mom's like, no, this is your chance to show yourself. So we went to the sound check and did all of that. During that period, Stevie contacted my mom and told her not to tell me, but that he was going to come in to my show. He cut his show short that night so he could come to the club where I was playing. So we played a couple of songs, and people are standing outside just trying to get in. The manager runs to the stage and says we have to stop. He wants me in the office. Automatically I think, we're fired. (Laughs) We're playing too loud. This is it. But as I'm walking toward the office, I saw the bus through the window and I knew it was Stevie.
So I walked in the office and he was sitting there. Him and Tommy and Chris, and at this time Reese was with them. Sitting in the corner with his mink on, and he looks at me and says "You want to play a little bit?" So we had to rush him around the back to the stage, there was no way possible to get him through the crowd. People knew he was there, people who had been at his show followed the bus to the club. Which brought in even more people. And we had people on top of people. We brought him on stage and the place just exploded. You know, if you're standing onstage looking at the back of the stage you can't see anything because they are standing on top of everything. So he came in and joined my band to play "Pride and Joy" and "Texas Flood." Then he brought up his band and we played "Scuttlebuttin" and "Mary Had a Little Lamb." We played for about an hour. I have a friend who captured it on video, so I have that in my personal collection. From that point on, we stayed in touch. Then I moved to Europe, and we were touring with my father when we got the news that Stevie had passed. He had previously given me one of his hats, which I always kept with me.
We were touring in Germany, and for some reason we had to take a train to make another show. We were all dead tired, and we were sitting in the cabin, all the musicians. My dad was sitting right across from me. I must have dozed off for no more than ten minutes. There was no one on that train other than us. But when I woke up, my hat was missing. So I'm thinking that it's probably one of the musicians trying to make a joke about it. But it wasn't a joke. When we got to the next gig, that's when we got the news that he had been in the accident. My dad said that must have been a sign. That kind of hit me really hard. I always think that some day I may run across the hat, but whoever has it, they have a piece of Stevie Ray with them.
Hopefully it won't end up on eBay.
(Laughing) Right! Right.
Are you still touring with Chris Duarte?
No, we finished last Saturday. It was good. I had met Chris a couple of years ago. We were at a festival where he had opened up for us in Kentucky. That was the first time I had met him. I had heard his records and stuff- an amazing guitar player. It went well together.
Did you do any jamming together?
I went up a couple of nights and sang with him, but we never did play together.
We saw Chris a couple of times last year, and really enjoyed it. I'd love to see you two in one show. According to your schedule, you're set to play with B.B. King in a few weeks. Have you played with him before?
I've been on shows with him when I was with my dad's band overseas. I've never played with him as a solo artist. I am really looking forward to that. He's a super nice cat.
Koko Taylor had a lot of nice things to say about B.B., and I just wondered if he was really as nice as everyone says.
Oh yeah. He's a sweetheart. It's an honor to play these shows with him. I think it'll bring back a lot of memories for him too once he realizes who I am. Him and my dad were pretty close. He was one of my dad's biggest idols as well, so.
I know some of your dad's last album was recorded at The Zoo Bar in Lincoln, Nebraska. I was just up there myself recently. Do you play the Zoo?
Yes, we do. It's probably been three years since we played there. They also have a very nice festival very close to the Zoo Bar in the summer, which we play. But we've moved out of a lot of the smaller venues, and started playing bigger places, like with George Thorogood, Johnny Lang, that type of thing.
Give us your thoughts on your latest album, "Across the Water." It seems like there is as much rock and roll on the album as there are blues tunes.
Yeah. I think it's a great album. It is really no different than any of my six previous albums. Like I told you, I don't just stick to one style. I play everything I heard growing up. Basically, what "Across the Water" is, you got some rock, you got some blues, you got some funk, you got some r&b- and that's always been my method of recording, to play what I know. I try to reach a wider variety of audiences and radio as well. And I think that's one of the pluses we have. We can stretch out and go funky, or go rocky, and still be able to compete with the rockers. "Across the Water" has something for everyone. It makes me feel good because they allow me to be myself, and if I wasn't doing it that way, then I'd be holding back.
What's next for you and the band?
We'll be touring Europe in January. It's a tour that my dad had been doing for years, and I started doing it with him in 1989. Since he's passed away, I took it over. There are so many fans over there that rely on the tour, they decided to give it to me to see if I could add on with my dad's public as well as my own public. It's great, because I see people who kind of coached me along when I first came to Europe, and friends that I have met. I normally go out for four weeks, and then take a month off and hit another country. That way we aren't any one place all of the time. It's like once a year for everybody. That's the way I like it. I like to keep it movin. And we have enough material recorded that we haven't used, as well as new material to record a new album. But our next album may be a live album. We're getting demands for a live album. Some of the fans are saying they would like to see my current show on a live album. So I will discuss it with management and Tone Cool and see what they think. I think it could work. And then concentrate on another studio album.
Be sure to visit bernardallison.com!