Some children rebel against famous parents. But from the moment Bernard Allison heard his daddy’s records, he knew he would follow iconic guitarist Luther Allison into the family business.
Luther tried talking him out of it. Basketball scholarships were dangling in front of Bernard. Playing the blues is a tough living. Yet when your old man brings home guys like Willie Dixon and Stevie Ray Vaughan and Johnny Winter, really, what other career could compare?
Now 52, Bernard Allison is confident he made the right choice. And the Minneapolis resident aims to prove it at 4 pm this Saturday, Aug. 18, 2018, when he takes the stage for the eighth annual Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival.
How did Bernard, the youngest of nine kids, emerge from the shadow of his late father, a Blues Hall of Famer? How did he dodge temptations that have burned generations of bluesmen? What secrets helped this ace axe-man master blues, funk and rock?
Here’s our edited conversation.
Morristown Green: I read somewhere that you knew from about age 7 you wanted to do this for a living.
Bernard Allison: I knew right away I wanted to be able to do what my dad was doing. Go across the world and share his talent, and put some smiles on people’s faces. I have no regrets at all. I’m still loving to tour and make music. I’m just blessed to have the opportunity to do it.
MG: What’s your advice for following in the footsteps of a famous parent?
BA: I always say it’s very difficult to follow in my dad’s footsteps. I prefer to say I’m here continuing the Allison legacy, doing my thing. My dad told me early on: ‘I know you can play anything I play, and sing anything I sing. But you have to find your own within that. Why don’t you lean more toward what you grew up with, as opposed to what I do?’
Being the baby of nine, all my older brothers and sisters had their personal likings. So I grew up with everything, from gospel to funk to rock to blues. That’s what I utilize today, and have on every recording.
All my fans appreciate the fact that I can stretch like that. You never know what I may do. That keeps the excitement for myself and my band members. We all can play different things, as opposed to just playing straight blues every night.
MG: If blues wasn’t your base, what style would you lean towards?
BA: It definitely would be funk music. My band is heavily funk-rooted. I just enjoy the old Parliaments and George Clinton and Bootsy Collins, the danceable stuff. I’m not a big fan of the hip hop scene and rap and stuff like that. I like acoustic instruments. Everything’s digital today. But I can hear digital, and for me, it doesn’t really sound good. [Laughs.]
MG: Being the youngest of nine kids–what was that like?
BA: My family was very tight-knit. I won’t say we had strict parents, but we had our duties we had to do. Our main goal, my father’s and my mom’s for me, was, ‘Once you get that diploma, you can do what you want. But until you get the diploma, you’re not going to play this guitar….’ So I did exactly what they asked. Because one day, my dad would always say, ‘you may be in the same position, and have to deal with your kids that way.’
MG: Do you have kids?
BA: Yes, I have a daughter and two grands. I’m a proud papa and grandpapa.
MG: When you were growing up, did the family travel with your father?
BA: Yeah, in the summertime we’d always go to festivals with him. The older I got, once he really realized I was interested in playing guitar, he’d take me on trips with him.
Two days after I graduated from high school, Koko Taylor called me to be her lead guitar player with the Blues Machine. My dad tried to sway me away from it, because he didn’t want me to go through the struggles he had just to get to the position he ended up.
I had scholarships to pursue a basketball career. But I just knew I wanted to play guitar. And I’m here today, still trying to do it.
Video: Luther and Bernard Allison
MG: Was there a bus to take all nine of you to festivals?
BA: I’m the baby, so a lot of the older siblings were already married and moved on. It was pretty much myself and Luther Jr., the bottom four kids. My dad bought a limousine when we were in grade school, so we’d pile in the limo, and the band would take his van, and we all just caravanned to the festival.
MG: Are any of your siblings musicians?
BA: We all come from a gospel background, so we have a lot of singers in the family, as well as a lot of nieces and nephews. They’re more into the R&B scene. But we’ve got a couple that have the potential to do [the blues]. I leave it up to them. I say, ‘Hey, always reflect where you come from, because that’s where your natural strength’s going to be. You can do any genre of music, but don’t forget about your bloodline. Follow your heart. But don’t forget where you come from.’
MG: When you gather as a family, does it become a musical event?
BA: Oh yeah, always. A lot of dancing, a lot of joking around. My family likes to cook and eat, and it’s all about having a good time. Now we’re all older and have our own families. We just get along very well.
MG: As a young musician you lived in Paris. How was that?
BA: It was awesome, just to meet a lot of the French artists. My main thing was the African artists that I never really got exposed to [in the States], and I learned some rhythms that I’d never hear here. I had a chance to really develop my career there, just like my dad.
Once he moved over around ’76, they just allowed us to be who we are and play what we want, as opposed to putting a label on you. They love to do it here in the States. They want to say, ‘He’s a Chicago blues guy, or he’s a Texas blues guy.’ I like to be called a musician.
We don’t use ‘blues’ in our title. We’re the Bernard Allison Group. We make music. We’re not false advertising that we’re a Muddy Waters-type band. We go from blues to rock to funk. We do a lot of our own writing.
You’ve got to develop with the times. You can’t continue to play the old things. You have so many players coming up, and I try to tell them: Listen to some of the old stuff. Don’t just start at Stevie Ray Vaughan and forget about where he comes from.
If you do your research, you’ll find everything that’s been presented to you, or everything you’re interested in, comes from somewhere else. Once you know that root, now you can really develop, and take bits and pieces of each genre.
Video: The Bernard Allison Group
MG: Aside from your dad, who had the biggest musical influence on you?
BA: For me, Albert King was really where I focused after learning all my dad’s stuff, and listening to his collection and where he got his thing from. There was something about Albert King’s tone and just the force of his guitar. When I heard Stevie Ray [Vaughan] come up–he had known me as a child–I thought it was Albert King on the radio at first.
Then he called. He was playing in our home town in Illinois that night, and he called my mom and said, ‘I hear Bernard’s playing. Bring him to the show.’ We went to the show, he started naming all my sisters. He knew everything. I was too small to remember him, but it was like, ‘He knows us!’ [LAUGHS.]
Our relationship became really tight after that. Also with Johnny Winter. Johnny taught me how to play my slide guitar. We just never knew who was going to come home after a show when my dad was playing in Chicago, or someone who was just passing through.
We had everyone from Willie Dixon, Koko Taylor, Otis Rush, the Winter brothers, everybody was coming to our household. I’d just sit and suck it all in, like, ‘Wow, this is crazy! I’m listening to this guy on the record the other day, and he’s right here.’ So I was blessed.
And once I started playing and touring with Koko, I started meeting a lot of the legends. Like John Lee Hooker, for example. My grandmother on my mom’s side, they were boyfriend and girlfriend, down in Mississippi. Bobby Rush introduced my parents. So it’s a very small world.
And they all were big, important pieces for me, and taught me the do’s and don’ts of the road. More so than on a musical level, because I pretty much learned how to play just from listening to records. The support that I got from all these guys and women–it made me the musician I am today.
Video: Bernard Allison
MG: Some of the names you rattled off had reputations for living pretty hard. What did you learn about that from those guys? What behavior did you observe?
BA: The whole blues genre, it’s known for the whiskey, and the drugs and the women. The rock players have got it too: Sex, drugs and rock and roll. I think it was just part of the times. Because back then, they weren’t making a lot of money.
I remember my dad telling stories, they’d have a jam session on the West Side of Chicago with the South Side players. Every weekend Buddy Guy would come to the West, and battle with my father and Magic Sam.
And the winner basically won a bottle of whiskey, which they all shared together. It was like the trophy: ‘Okay, you got me this week, now you gotta come to our side.’ That’s how they grew up. That was part of the game.
We’ve all been through that highway. But at a point, being on tour that much, you gotta be careful with people giving you things–you never know what they’re going to put in your drink.
It happened to my dad. In the ’70s he had a headache on stage, and asked a fan if they had aspirin, and they gave him acid. He said after awhile he saw, like, eight guitar necks. He couldn’t play. And some very important record companies were at that show to sign my father, and they declined because they thought he was a drug addict.
I appreciate the up and coming kids, but it’s not about that. You may think you’re a better player intoxicated or on your drug of choice. In reality, you’re not listening with a clear mind. You’re in another zone. It doesn’t look good, and it doesn’t sound good. I try to avoid it.
There’s no drinking or drugs in my band. I drink. But I do it afterwards. After my performance, I like to have a glass of wine, maybe a beer, and I’m fine.
MG: So you don’t have to live the blues lifestyle to play blues music.
BA: The blues is one of those genres of music that you can’t write on a notepad. You can’t write the notes and read it, because the outcome is going to sound like that square paper. The blues is all about feeling and ups and downs and struggles of everyday life. You’ve just got to find the happiness in it.
A lot of the youngsters, especially a black youngster, will say, ‘I don’t like that, it’s something that my grandparents would listen to.’ You have to figure out a way to draw them in, and that’s my thing. I can lean on those different genres of music to draw them in, and explain to them: That’s the blues, too!
Listen to some of what you’re listening to today on the radio, the hip hops and all this stuff. They’re sampling blues tracks! But you don’t like the blues?
MG: But you don’t need drugs or booze to convey the blues?
BA: No. If you play pure, anything, not just blues, you’re going to be okay with it. If you induce yourself with drugs or alcohol, to make yourself comfortable to do it, then it’s not for you. If you need a substance to make you perform…it’s going to come to an end very fast.
MG: Many icons you grew up with did not live long.
BA: Oh yeah. It’s like Stevie Ray’s example. He went through his whole thing, and he got clean. And he had the tragic accident [a fatal helicopter crash, 1990] right after he got clean. But if he hadn’t had that accident, who knows what Stevie would be doing now?
He went through it all, he knew he had to change some things. And he did change some things. And you could hear it in his recording, his playing, his conversations. It’s just sad that he had the tragic accident.
MG: You must have confidence to play alongside people like that, a real belief in yourself and your ability.
BA: Yeah. B.B. King told me, ‘Don’t go up there and try to battle with someone. It’s not a competition.’ Play with the person you’re up there with. Don’t be intimidated. Don’t try to showboat. Play you. Because nine times out of 10, you can’t play like that other person. You can maybe sound like a B.B. King. But B.B. is B.B., Stevie was Stevie. You’ve got to listen, and learn [from] what’s being played around you.
MG: Have you performed with anyone else in the Morristown lineup? (The Air Force Rhythm in Blue ensemble, Canadian singer/trumpeter Bria Skonberg, La Bamba & The Hubcaps, guitarist Davy Knowles.)
BA: I’ve seen some clips with Davy Knowles. Me and Eric Gales are really tight, he had mentioned that they had done some things together. We should have a good time. We’ve got a diverse lineup.
MG: For people who have not seen you before, what can they expect?
BA: We’re going to have a show! We’re going to play some old, we’re going to play some new. It’s all about interaction with the fan base. I don’t like to go on stage and be treated like you’re at a movie theater. I feed off of the people.
We love to go out and have conversations after our set. Even prior to the set, you might see me walking around. I’m not going to write a set list. I’m going to feel what the people are feeling. And we’re going to take them on a roller-coaster ride.
MG: Who is in the band?
BA: I’ve got my drummer of almost 12 years, Mario Dawson. I got my bass player of almost 10 years, Mr. George Moye. And I have the legendary John T. McGhee on the second guitar. He comes from the group, back in the day, L.T.D., and Betty Wright and all those classic R&B songs. He’s just the sweetest cat, and an amazing player.
And we just go out and have a great time. I feature all of my members during my set at some point, and we always give a tribute to my father. So you’re going to see some Luther Allison, some Bernard Allison. You’re going to hear from Hendrix. You’re going to hear something funky. We’ll be bringing our new record, Let It Go. When we come, we do it!
MG: Any tips for aspiring guitarists?
BA: Listen to every style of music. Store your vocabulary. I encourage people to read music. I can’t read music. I can play anything I hear. Now, you’ve got the technology, you can find the tablature for anything. And then you have the potential of being a studio musician.
You have to put in the work. It’s not going to come overnight. Some people are born with it. But the more you can listen and grasp to find your own way, that’s going to be your best outcome.
MG: Are you big on practicing scales?
BA: No. I’m not a technical player. I play what my heart tells me to play. I know not to play what’s being played around me. I play with it. My dad was the same way. Even a B.B. King, they couldn’t read music. They played their feelings. I think blues is a feeling thing.
MG: Ever play the ukulele?
BA: No. But if it’s got strings on it, I could figure it out. [LAUGHS.]
MorristownGreen.com is a proud sponsor of the 2018 Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival, which runs from noon to 10 pm on the historic Morristown Green on Saturday, Aug. 18, 2018. Bring a lawn chair or blanket. It’s free, it’s rain or shine, and it boasts an all-star lineup, starting at noon with the U.S. Air Force Rhythm in Blue ensemble. At 2 pm, Canadian singer/trumpeter Bria Skonberg returns for her second festival here. LaBamba and the Hubcaps follow at 4 pm. The Bernard Allison Group plays at 6 pm, and Chicago-based guitarist Davy Knowles headlines at 8 pm.