"My dad told me to never be a copy cat," emphasized guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Bernard Allison in a recent telephone interview. "He told me, ‘you'll have influences and idols, but you'll need to put yourself into what you play.'" Allison, son of late titan Luther Allison, has taken his father's message to heart in a career that reaches back more than 15 years. "I'm doing what I've always done – mix a 12-bar blues tune with a couple of rock tunes, and a couple of funk tunes."
Contrary to many perceptions, the senior Allison was not the foremost musical teacher in Bernard's early career. "There wasn't that much teaching at the musical level," Allison said. "I taught myself how to play guitar and sing pretty much on my own, although he showed me how to play a few things. But Our relation was more like brothers than father/son." Bernard did note that his father gave him sage advice on other aspects of the business, however. "He did teach me about the road – but I also learned a lot from my 3 years with Koko Taylor." That apprenticeship with Taylor, and later with Willie Dixon's Blues All-Stars, saw the teenage Allison emerge with more of his own voice, further developed through tutoring by Johnny Winter and Stevie Ray Vaughan. So zealots who expect – or hope – that Bernard will develop into a clone of his father will be disappointed. "A lot of our music is naturally the same," Allison said. "Early on, there was a lot more stuff where I sounded like him. But now, you can hear a song and tell if it's Bernard or Luther."
Allison's ability to reflect his father's influences through his own style have placed him in the much-watched "next generation" of blues: children whose parents were (and in some cases, still are) premier musicians in their own right. Family names such as Kimbrough, Burnside, Bell, Lane Rogers, Copeland, and Baker Brooks have inter-generation legacies, and it has helped form a bond between Allison and another young guitarist. "Ronnie (Baker Brooks), Wayne (Baker Brooks), and I all grew up together," recalled Allison. "We talk just about every other day. When he was younger, Ronnie was pursuing basketball. But when he saw me play with my dad at the Chicago Blues Festival (in 1983), he decided that he really wanted to play with his dad. He stuck to that – now he's on his own, and he tells me that he learned so much from his dad – as well as from Buddy (Guy) and Koko (Taylor) – but now it's time for him to show. He's another son of a creator."
But Allison cautions against painting younger blues musicians with too broad a brush. "I see Shemekia (Copeland) as another generation after me – she's younger, like Johnny Lang or Susan Tedeschi. We all have different approaches to blues - that's what it takes now. We follow our own direction – draw upon our influences, and utilize what's there. We can't continue to play the old "Hoochie Coochie Man" songs – we need to create things for ourselves." He also cautions against the perception that family legacies give young musicians an edge. "We're keeping the family thing together – representing our families now," he said. "But a lot of people think that everything has been given to us because of our name – and that's totally wrong. We've had to prove ourselves – and to not rely on the name alone. Now people who hear us know the difference."
That sound is evident in Allison's handful of recordings to date; most have been for European-based labels. On his most recent release, Times Are Changing (Ruf Records), Bernard pays homage to his father – recording three of his dad's tunes (Luther recorded two of Bernard's songs on his final album). Now signed to Tone-Cool, Allison's first major U.S. release is scheduled for August. "We recorded it in Memphis, and I just listed to the finished tracks when I was there for the Handys." Jim Gaines, one of the top blues producers, lent his handywork to the recording. "The release will be pretty much the same as the others I've recorded – a couple songs by my father, about 6 songs I wrote, and a couple songs from other places." Look for more of Allison's own songs on future releases. "My method is that I start with the music first, then I take time with the lyrics later – it's more difficult otherwise. I find that as I write more – and the older I get – that I have more of an urge to write even more tunes."
Allison's touring band is comprised of several veteran players, including drummer Joel Richmond, previously with Shannon Curfman's Band; and bassist "Zamp," a member of the last Junior Wells Band and formerly with Otis Rush. On keyboards, Mike Vlahakis' presence brings poignancy – and a family connection. "Mike had been with my dad for years, and he stopped playing after my dad died," Allison said. "I'd asked him a few times to perform with me, but he said no several times. After a while, though, he called me and said he'd like to join my group – he said, ‘if I do it with anyone, it has to be with you.' He'll be with me until he's ready to leave music for good. We have a good friendship, and are enjoying working together."
After living in Paris for the past 11 years, Allison's success there places him on a par with major rock artists. "The major difference between the states and Europe is that there, we play much larger venues – mostly concert halls – with at least 1,000 seats each," he said. "And on the festival level, I play more music festivals – not just blues festivals. My shows there are a mix of my influences – including the rock and funk influences." Allison's stateside acclaim is quickly catching up to his European status, however. "When I came back each of the last two years, I had no idea what to expect – I'd been away for so ling. But blues societies across the country are strong, and every state has at least 2-3 festivals." Nevertheless, don't hold your breath awaiting Allison's return to the states as a resident – all the more reason to catch his infrequent shows on this side of the Atlantic. "It doesn't matter where I live," Allison explained. " I'm performing in Europe from January through March, then I take 4 weeks off, then I go to the states for a few weeks, take a few more weeks off, then tour the rest of the world. I could live here, in Hawaii, or stay in Paris."