By the end of september Ruf Records sent out a press release that mentioned the find of 'historical recordings by Luther Allison, found in a safe by Bernard Allison in the house of his mother Fannie Mae Allison'. Furthermore it was mentioned that the recordings dated from a session done in the Wonderful Studio in Chicago in 1958.
I checked my record collection and found out that Luther had made his first recordings at - indeed - the Wonderful Studio in Chicago on March 8, 1967. Those were released on the Delmark-anthology 'Sweet Home Chicago' (Delmark LP DS-618/CD DD-618).
After putting the message regarding the '1958-sessions' on the post-war-blues discussion-group firstname.lastname@example.org it became quickly evident that the eight songs on the Ruf-album 'Underground' were more likely recorded almost a decade later. Some of the listmembers had bought the bootleg-LP titled 'Underground' in the early seventies.
I consulted Delmark-owner Bob Koester about it and he replied that he believed that the recordings were made during the term of Luther's exclusive contract with Delmark which was registered with the Union, so Luther was aware of the fact that he could have been fined if he had these recordings released anywhere commercially. Koester saw no sense in making a complaint, because, as he writes 'you cannot force creativity and we might have gotten a record even worse than the one he bootlegged. Luther wanted a more 'produced record' so he was apparantly happy with the Motown-stuff'. Luther recorded his first album 'Love Me Mama', his only one for Delmark, (Delmark LP DS-625/CD DE 625) in 1969.
Upon request Koester gives some more details about the Wonderful-studio. 'It was owned by the brothers Ernie and George Leaner, who owned United Record Distributors. They distributed labels like Prestige, Savoy and various r&b/jazz/gospel product'.
The Leaner's also had their own labels, such as One-Derfull and Mar-V-Lous. In their second location (1827 S. Michigan) they had their own studio. The book 'The R&B Indies' learns that the company existed from 1962 untill 1968, so the session organised by bandleader/bassplayer Bobby Rush must have taken place before the company folded in 1968.
Considering the sound after hearing the recordings there are more cues that lead to the conclusion that it's impossible that these recordings should date from the late fifties. There's no fifties sound at all on the record and the recordings of 'Cut-You-A-Loose', 'You're Gonna Miss Me', 'Rock Me Baby', 'Easy Baby' and 'Driving Wheel' sound like demo's made prior to the versions of the same songs that Luther would record in the first half of the seventies for Motown. 'Cut-You-A-Loose' has almost an identical arrangement as the version that Luther recorded for Motown.
Outside that it is very unlikely that Luther would have come up with the idea to record a funky version of Sonny Boy Williamson's 'Don't Start Me To Talking' in 1958 or that he would have recorded 'Cut-You-A-Loose' almost four years prior to the version of the originator of the song, Ricky Allen.
Finally the sticker 'first time ever released studio recordings from 1958' on the jewel box on this cd-release might raise a few eyebrows, since the label of the original bootleg-LP 'Underground', obviously pressed in the early seventies, has been printed on the inside tray-card.
publisher Block Magazine,
original release notes:
The discovery and release of Luther Allison's 1958 debut recording represents a blues find that surfaces with all the excitement of some long forgotten historical document. After sitting for 50 years in the home of Luther's wife, Fannie Allison, Luther's son Bernard unearthed these monumental recordings to show the music world the portrait of this artist as a young man.
"I look at this as discovering something like Robert Johnson's lost songs," said Bernard. "I think a lot of Luther's fans are going to be so amazed with what he was playing at 18. This half hour is Luther Allison raw and pure. It's the birth of what was to come. You can hear the artist portraying what he was about to do."
Imagine it's 1958 and Luther Allison is 18 years old. He's playing guitar in a local Chicago blues band. The band leader, a more experienced 25 year old named Bobby Rush, had access to Wonderful Records' studio and offered Luther the opportunity to record. Unsure of himself, but with a burning intensity within, he and Bobby go in to the studio, cut songs, and cull about 30 minutes worthy to press onto a demo record. Then the record is joked about, stashed away and ignored until Luther's young son Bernard discovers the vinyl in his mother's effects. Prodigy like Ken Griffey Jr. learned their father's trade by sitting with him, absorbing lessons, and going onto the field to practice. Growing up in Peoria, Bernard's instructions from his dad Luther were condensed into one 30 minute record by Luther. This record wass Bernard's locker room.
"I learned everything note for note. When I was 12, I told him I learned guitar from this record," Bernard continued. "He told me that Underground was the first thing he ever recorded. Actually the first recording I did with Pops when I was 12. We did a live thing in Peoria, and we played "You Don't Love Me" from these recordings together. We played it exactly like the way it was on this Underground record."
Almost 50 years later, only Bobby Rush can shed light on this discovery. "Luther was about 18-19 years old," remembered Bobby. "He was playing in my band. I think it was probably the first band he'd ever played in. We got together and went down to Wonderful Records and just started fooling around with some songs and it just come out. We didn't know how good it was. It was just what went down. Luther was on guitar and singing, I was on the bass, and we had another bass player we called Mule also with us on bass. He was green in the studio and I was green as a producer. Back then I didn't know how to produce like I do now. But Luther believed in me and knew I could get it done.
"We were young and didn't have any money for the studio time. I worked out a deal with the guy who was running the studio for some time at night because we couldn't get it during the daytime and afford the day rate. I negotiated with Wonderful because I knew some of the people there," continued Bobby. "We just played off our stomachs. It wasn't any particular songs. We're just going in there to do what we would do on the bandstand at night. Cutting the kinds of things that we were playing for audiences every night. At that time, you just turned on the tape. If you were wrong, you didn't stop the tape. You had to live with what you had. We cut the thing in one take because we didn't have the money to do things better."Some of it was unfinished, some of it was OK and some wasn't. After Wonderful folded we didn't know what happened to the tapes from those recordings."
Bobby remembers Luther as an artist with huge potential, yet feeling self conscientious about emerging into the spotlight. "I kinda pushed him to do this. He was the kind of guy who'd be sayin' that he wasn't good enough to record. But I was always telling him that he had the talent to record and sing like everyone else," remembered Bobby. "I knew that he was talented, but he wasn't confident to do it. He said, 'Do you think I can pull this off?' and I just told him to go into the studio and play like B.B. or Freddie or Elmore. I encouraged him to do better then them cats. He was just as good or better on that day. Once he heard himself on the tape, he knew he could do it. By recording him, I could give him a shot like I had. I knew if I could let people I knew hear him that he could take it further then I could take it."
Though most of us knew Luther Allison as an energetic 50 year old whose four hour, non-stop shows were legendary, through this discovery, we can hear Luther as a hot blooded young gun, ready, like every invincible 18 year old, to take on the world. What do Bernard and Bobby hear in this back to the future vinyl. Bernard: "You definitely know it's Luther when you hear this. I hear a lot of where he was headed. Once I got to Europe and got into the band, I always told him to go back and listen because what he was playing at 18 was amazing. Musically, his guitar playing didn't change much. Over the years, it improved in that it's more consistent and he worked on his tone, but I hear where he was going." Bobby:"I could see when he was 17 what he would be at 50. I could foresee where he was going. The potential of a guy who's growing into something great. You can hear that it's raw Luther. It's not manufactured, it's him. He was doin' stuff off the top of his head, playin' whatever he felt. There are mistakes, but we lived with them. If I'd told him that some things he was doin' weren't right, he'd have lost confidence in himself. I tried to let him feel himself out and learn through his mistakes."
Like a Dick Waterman black and white photo from Newport, this is an important record of the non-Chess music that was popular in Chicago blues saloons. These werre the head cutting songs that guitarists like Otis Rush or Hound Dog Taylor or Freddie King took on new comers with. These were the songs Buddy Guy or Paul Butterfield might have heard in places like Sylvio's or Pepper's Lounge.
In this world of Youtube videos that capture children playing their first scales or cell phone cameras recording every human movement, we tend to forget how many careers in the past went undocumented. This vinyl turned digital captures a passionate voice from the past destined to become the soul of modern blues.
One researcher note. The first tune here is titled "Hide Away." Research shows that Freddie King took portions of "Hide Away" from Hound Dog Taylor instrumental and that King didn't record that song until 1960. Could this then be the first recorded version of "Hideaway"? Gentlemen, start your search engines.
Art Tipaldi is a Senior writer for Blues Revue and Blues Wax and also author of the book, Children of the Blues which profiles 49 blues musicians including Luther Allison, Bernard Allison, and Bobby Rush.
Don't Start ME Talking
Cut You Loose
You're Gonna Miss Me
Take My Love
Rock Me Baby