Interview with Bernard Allison
By Martine Ehrenclou
World class contemporary bluesman Bernard Allison is a virtuosic, blues guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter. The son of Blues Hall of Famer Luther Allison, Bernard grew up with many of the blues greats who influenced his style, among them his father, Edgar Winter, Johnny Winter, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Muddy Waters, Albert King, Hound Dog Taylor and Bobby Rush. Having himself to play guitar at the age of ten, Johnny Winter taught Bernard how to play slide guitar and Stevie Ray Vaughan coached him about life on the road. Blues legend Bobby Rush is his godfather.
At age 18, Bernard Allison toured with Koko Taylor’s Blues Machine as bandleader and guitarist. After years as bandleader, guitarist, songwriter and arranger for Luther Allison’s band, Bernard continued forging his own solo career, his music a blend of blues, rock, funk, soul and gospel. With 20 albums to his name, his last two highly acclaimed releases are Let It Go (2018) Songs From The Road (2020) produced by Grammy Award-winner Jim Gaines and released on Ruf Records.
Bernard is set to release his new albumHighs & Lows, Produced by Gaines, out February 25 on Ruf Records, featuring two-time Grammy winner Bobby Rush and Canadian multi award-winning bluesman Colin James.
Highs & Lows might just be Bernard Allison’s best album yet. A six-string guitar master, his vocals have never sounded better and this time out he emphasized songcraft. The COVID-19 pandemic forced him and his band off the road, allowing Bernard the time and attention to make the 11 tracks as good as he knew they could be.
Bernard explained, “Highs & Lows is pretty similar to my other albums, to take fans on a rollercoaster ride where each song is totally different. I really felt good creating good songs with good lyrics, opposed to dominating the album with guitar solos. There’s still plenty of guitar there, but I really wanted to be cautious with not over-playing.” He admitted to two things he didn’t want to do on the record—“I didn’t want to make a pandemic record, and I didn’t want to make a guitar infested album.”
When asked if the pandemic was a creative time for him, Bernard replied, “I pretty much worked on the tunes. I was really focused on getting these tunes right. My household, we’re fully vaccinated. You couldn’t go anywhere, so what better time to really focus on the music? And I always said that safety’s best. If we’re not healthy, there’s no more music.”
Since he hadn’t done co-writing for a while, I asked him about it for the songs on Highs & Lows.
Bernard said, “My whole concept for the album was to do some co-writing. I really wanted to take more time with these particular songs and also had the idea of bringing in some guests and co-writing with Jim Gaines and my ex-drummer Andrew Thomas, as opposed to me just doing everything on my own. I wanted to save these tracks to get the best out of them.
At the risk of gushing about Highs & Lows, I said, “It’s such a great album. I love the songs. It must have been a blast recording it.”
Bernard shared, “After we finished the tracks, even Jim Gaines said, ‘BA, I think this just might be your best album.’ We were just really happy doing it, and we had a ball.” (Friends and fans call Bernard ‘BA’)
I added, Highs & Lows has a little more of a funky edge to it than some of your other albums.”
“That’s what my dad always said. He’s like, ‘People are going to expect you to be very similar to me, but why don’t you use what you grew up with?” Bernard continued. “We had a lot of funk music in my household, so I do at least one or two on every album. But this one, by having Bobby Rush on it, it’s like we have to make this funky,” he laughed.
“’The Hustler’,” I said. “Perfect song for Rush too.”
Bernard elaborated. “When Andrew started writing, he sent me his idea of the music, and I told him, ‘That sounds like Bobby Rush to me.’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah. The words are basically written for him.’ I said, ‘Well, okay. I’m going to call him.’ Andrew knows the family history between Bobby and I—he’s my godfather. He said, ‘Really? You think he’ll do it?’ I said, ‘Oh, Bobby’s going to eat this up.’
Bobby came in the studio and just blew it out the water. It’s just a pleasure and honor to have him, as well as Colin (James). We’re great friends, and for many years, I just felt I really wanted to do something with two guest stars since I haven’t actually had any guests on my album for quite a while.”
I said, “Great choices, too. “My Way or the Highway” with Colin is a great song with you both singing and playing guitar together. Tell me about it.”
“’My Way or the Highway'” is another Andrew Thomas collaboration with me. What he sent me was a little bit too straight blues. It was actually a lot slower. I had the perfect idea for this song and treated it like a Colin James-style song. I called Colin, he’s like, ‘Really? You want me to play something with you?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, dude. I sent you the lyrics and charts. Just play the whole song, and then we’ll figure out how to do our parts.’ Being the pandemic, Colin did his part in his own studio at home in Canada. I sent the tracks to him. I had no idea what he would do. When I heard it, I’m like, ‘Wow. Do I really need to do anything?’ (Laughter) Colin said, ‘The fans will appreciate it more if we both sing and both play guitar. Man, I really enjoyed playing it. It’s like the band really kicked in towards the end. You got a good record here.”’”
I mentioned that there are some wonderful, inventive guitar riffs on the album.
Bernard shared, “On quite a few of the songs you can have a hook lyrically or you can have a hook with a guitar line. And that’s a part of, like you say, crafting the song and the arrangements. You hear all the parts, get in, get out. Say your message. That’s what we created.”
Known for his guitar playing, I asked Bernard about his guitars.
“On this album, I used all my Gibsons for the majority of my tracks. I used my Gibson professional, which I call the Blueberry Burst, pretty much for all the solos.
My number one is the white Les Paul, which I used on Let It Go and Songs From the Road. I wanted a different sound for this one, so I leaned more on the Blueberry. And then on the slides, I used my Gibson SG. I use a total of five guitars on this record, depending on the tracks.”
I asked Bernard to tell me about his band as the musicians are top-tier. “George Moye has been with you since 2010 hasn’t he?”
“Yes,” he said. “George is the sweetest guy. Amazing bass player. Out of all of my band members, he sat with me most. I played all these tracks on my multi recording, and he’d come over, and I’d say, ‘Now, here’s the idea but I want your feel to it.’ And right away, he’s all over it. We have a lot of the same ideas because George comes from funk and grew up playing funk music so that gives us that element right there. I grew up with it too.”
Allison added, “It was the same with Dylan (Salfer). He’s a young kid and just an amazing guitar player. He knew his role as a rhythm player for the project. This is his first album. And to be under Jim Gaines, he was just blown away. (Laughter). We decided to use Steve Potts on drums, which worked out really good. Pretty much every song, either we got it on the first take or on the second. He recorded with my dad before.”
Since Jim Gaines has been an integral part of Allison’s last few albums, I was curious about what it was like working with him in the studio.
Bernard said, “Jim Gaines and I have very good chemistry. He is so much fun to work with, and he has all the things we don’t hear. He’s like, ‘Try this, try that.’ He has that special ear. That’s why everyone wants to work with him. And just our family relationship with him recording my dad. This is my fifth recording with him. We know each other very well, so things go very smoothly. I’m very openhearted because I know he’s going to tell us what’s best for the track. And he loves the record, and we all love him.”
“Speaking of your dad,” I said, “he advised you to not allow your music to be labeled. Did you decide to blend blues, rock, funk, and R&B into your music because of what your dad said?”
Bernard said, “Exactly. Because he had that happen to him early in his career here in the States, and that’s why he moved to Europe. The crowds were wanting him to play straight Chicago blues, where my dad was a big fan of Chuck Berry, Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett. Because he grew up underneath the gospel.
He went to France, and they allowed him to play what he wanted to play, as opposed to the blues, Westside Chicago blues. When I moved to Europe, when I saw how popular he was, it didn’t surprise me. Because I knew his range. I knew the music that he loved to play, and the European crowd just took it in with open arms.” He paused. “And as well with me. Because I wasn’t straight blues, I would give them what I grew up with. And I carried it since my first album. The older I get, I rely a lot more on it, because it becomes difficult to not do a 12 bar blues song and I try to avoid it. I always think about what my dad said, ‘Go back to your roots.’ I’m like, ‘What would George Clinton in Parliament do?’
Bernard summed it up. “It’s still blues based but we’re going to sound like Prince to Parliament.”
I asked him about honoring his father with two songs on each of his albums.
Bernard explained. “It’s always keeping his name alive. Because without him, I don’t exist, first of all. And a lot of the youngsters coming up may not know of Luther Allison, so they’re going to reference me, and find out about my dad. We just want to keep the Allison name alive in both directions, me respecting my father, and keeping his name going, as well as my own. That’s how I try to explain it to upcoming young players. Because a lot of them have the tendency to start at Stevie Ray Vaughan or Eric Clapton, and I tell them, ‘Now, if you like that, figure out where they came from. Go backwards on the ladder.’ I had the opportunity to play with Stevie quite a few times. When you hear that guitar, you say ‘Wow, he sounds like Albert King, he sounds like Hendrix.’
I asked Bernard to share memories about jamming with Stevie Ray Vaughan on his 16th birthday.
He laughed and said, “That blew me away, because he totally surprised me. We were on stage, grand opening of the club, and I think we probably played four or five songs. And the owner comes up and said, ‘You got to stop. You have to stop.’ I figured we were fired, were too loud, or something’s not right. The owner said, ‘You got to come to the dressing room.’ I go to the dressing room and there’s Stevie in this big mink coat, Tommy Shannon, the Whipper–they’re all there. There was Stevie Ray. He’s like, ‘You ready to play, little brother? Happy Birthday. We’re going to jam.’ And we jammed. We played four or five songs. It was one of the biggest highlights of my life.”
Bernard continued. “Our relationship became, like he said, brothers, and he taught me a lot about the dos and don’ts of the road. We came from the same influences. When I first heard Stevie on the radio, I thought it was Albert King. It was the same with Johnny Winter. We knew him as kids. Johnny sat me down and taught me how to play the slide. I had a chance to do some stuff in Europe with Edgar (Winter). That whole family history– I have so many stories from who would come into our household.”
And to say Bernard Allison comes from blues royalty, is no overstatement.
For more information on Bernard Allison and Highs & Lows see his website here.
Listen to “So Excited”