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Remembering Luther

Luther Allison
Paladin of the Blues: Luther Allison.

Photo by Les Gruseck.

Just as he achieved the homegrown success he craved, bluesman Luther Allison was gone

By Nicky Baxter

Last Wednesday afternoon, a musician friend of mine called from New York to tell me that blues guitarist Luther Allison had succumbed to a deadly combination of lung cancer and brain tumors. For what seemed like forever, time stood still. Allison was just five days shy of his 58th birthday.

Just a few months earlier, Allison had headlined at the Santa Cruz Blues Festival; he appeared to be in good health. Moments before he hit the stage, Allison and I had spoken for maybe 15, 20 minutes about the his career. With the media at last taking notice of his recent "comeback," showering him with praise, it seemed as if the Chicago blues-influenced musician was on the verge of stardom, American style.

Allison's Santa Cruz performance was awe-inspiring. He played with an intensity that was almost frightening. Even from distance, you could see the sweat pouring down his face in tiny rivulets as he delivered some of the hottest licks this side of the devil's kitchen. His vocals were equally ferocious.

I'd be lying if I suggested that I knew the man; a handful of phone interviews and face-to-face encounters do not a friendship make. But Luther Allison was awfully candid, and it didn't take a psychic to figure out that he had been brokenhearted over his lack of acceptance in this country. Meanwhile, in Europe, where he had resided since the late 1970s, he was revered as a kind of ambassador of the blues.

Allison was a proud man. Although he longed to return to the United States to live and work permanently, he was determined not to do so until America was ready for him.

Ironically, that time seemed at long last to be at hand. His appearance at the 1995 Chicago Blues Festival left the 200,000-plus fans screaming for more. And this past May, he was named the W.C. Handy Entertainer of the Year for the second consecutive time. A genuine paladin of the blues is gone; he will not soon be forgotten.

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Web exclusive to the August 21-27, 1997 issue of Metro.

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