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Bluesman Bernard Allison returns home to Peoria and talks 'Highs and Lows' of long career

Bernard Allison plays guitar at the Peoria Blues & Heritage Festival on the Peoria riverfront, Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023.
Tim Alexander
Bernard Allison plays guitar at the Peoria Blues & Heritage Festival on the Peoria riverfront, Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023.

A highly regarded, world-class bluesman returned to Peoria last week for a short but sweet set of high-octane soul, blues, funk and rock at Riverfront Park, setting for the 2023 Peoria Blues and Heritage Festival. The homecoming for the 57 year-old singer, guitarist and songwriter was witnessed by several thousand appreciative festival goers, including Allison’s mother, Fannie Mae, and several siblings and relatives.

“I want to thank (festival promoter) Jay Goldberg for the opportunity to return to Peoria. We got the call to replace another band, and were lucky enough to be off that day as we wind up our U.S. dates for the summer,” said Allison, just hours before taking the stage on a beautiful Saturday, Sept. 2 in his hometown. “I’m looking forward to seeing my family, high school friends, teachers and old friends I haven’t seen in forever. We’re going to have a good time.”

Peoria experiences led to 'Highs and Lows'

Allison’s latest album, Highs and Lows, was recorded in Tennessee last year with production by Jim Gaines (Stevie Ray Vaughan, Buddy Guy). It was released by Ruf Records, the German label co-founded by Bernard’s late father, the blues legend Luther Allison.

In an interview with WGLT-WCBU, Bernard Allison described some of his earliest memories of his father and his famous musician friends, including blues pioneers Muddy Waters, Hound Dog Taylor and Albert King, among others.

“I was too young to be in the bars when he was performing but every chance he got, like at festivals, he’d grab us all up, myself and the family, and take us to places like the Ann Arbor Blues Festival or Chicago Blues Festival. I was able to meet a lot of the creators of the music. And the amount of people who came to our home, well they included Otis Rush, Bobby Rush, Koko Taylor, Edgar and Johnny Winter…it was just insane, being a young boy, and it just nailed down that this is what I wanted to do,” Bernard said.

The younger Allison would keep his career goals-- and talents-- hidden from his father until the fateful day in 1979, at age 14, when Luther Allison returned home for a two-night engagement at Peoria Pizza Works.

“I played along with my dad’s records’ learning the notes and the fingering, and it turned out it came pretty easily to me. I actually played for three years before my dad knew I played,” said Bernard. “He came home (from the road) the night before to prepare for the recording of the album. That (next) morning I was in the basement (practicing on his equipment) and playing along with his first album, Love Me Mama.”

Later, his mother told Bernard the impromptu and unapproved jam session had woken Luther and brought him from his bed in wide-eyed curiosity. “I heard the basement door open, and I thought it was my mom. Then I saw the legs coming, (and) I knew I was busted, so I just kept playing. (Luther) just kind of looked at me, and then said ‘so you’re playing now, and you haven’t just started.’”

Caught red-handed, the younger Allison expected a chastising and perhaps some light punishment. Instead, his father’s reaction surprised him and set the sail for his son’s life journey.

“He said, ‘well tonight, you come and play on this record with me,” Bernard recalled.

Luther Allison’s performances over the next two nights were recorded for his acclaimed (and now hard to find) album There’s Gonna Be A Live One in Here Tonight (Rumble Records) and featured the onstage and recording debuts of Bernard Allison on rhythm guitar. The 14 year-old played his father’s beloved Gibson Custom B.B. King “Lucille” 335 guitar.

“I played on two songs, and that was my first time recording and being onstage, as well as the day my dad learned I was playing guitar,” said Allison.

Emerging talent becomes international star

Shortly after graduating from Richwoods High School in Peoria in the early 1980s, Allison was asked to join Koko Taylor’s touring band to replace the late Emmett “Maestro” Saunders, another Peoria blues veteran and friend of his father’s, who had recently left the band for a solo career.

“Pretty much already knowing all her music as a friend of my father’s helped me immensely as a teenager stepping in on lead guitar for Koko’s Blues Machine,” Bernard recalled. “I credit both Koko and (husband) Pops Taylor with (me) being the blues guitar player I am today.”

Alternating between tours with the Blues Machine and his initial solo forays, Bernard also spent much of the 1980s in touch with the blues circuit of central Illinois. He was a frequent performer at open stages and jam sessions at such venues as the now defunct D.R.’s Lounge on MacArthur Highway or the Silver Dollar in Peoria Heights, often appearing with local musicians such as the late Eddie King (another Blues Machine alumnus), the late Danny Meyers and Dave Chastain, with whom he formed the Allison-Chastain Band.

1989 was a breakout year for Allison. After alternating between living in Miami and Peoria, Allison became the bandleader for his father’s touring band and recorded his first solo album, The Next Generation, in Paris, France, where the pair moved. He also made great strides as a songwriter and composer, co-writing and arranging material on his father’s final three albums while mentoring under the blues legend during his final years before succumbing to cancer.

His 2002 album, Storms of Life, soared to number five on the Top Blues Albums chart and established Bernard Allison as a top-shelf blues musician and bandleader. A U.S. tour followed, though Allison remained rooted in Paris, where he is based today. In the past two decades, he has made his mark as a bonafide international touring artist while releasing around 15 more albums on the Ruf, Jazzhaus and Tone-Cool labels.

Allusion’s latest album, 2022’s Highs and Lows, was largely written during the Covid lockdown and its aftermath. “But it’s not just a Covid album,” he said. “I think everyone can relate to the highs and lows of life. (During Covid) we were all in the same boat. The high point of it is that we did write these songs over the Covid period, so now we’re so excited to be back on the road and doing what we love to do.

“It’s a very compact album that shows just what the Bernard Allison Band is all about. Everything is rooted in blues, but I’m known to take people on a roller coaster ride through all the influences I grew up with, as opposed to just the blues side.”

A bluesy, triumphant return to Peoria

During his return to Peoria on Saturday, September 2, Allison’s hour-long set showcased an array of musical styles and directions. It featured a few of his own compositions including “So

Excited” and “Night Train,” along with extended covers of the standard “Rocket 88,” Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” and his father’s own “Bad Love.”

During the latter, the now-veteran bluesman’s family supported their matriarch, Fannie Mae, now 90, as she approached the stage and began clicking photos and shooting video of her son at work. The performance marked the first time Bernard Allison had played in central Illinois in the past decade. Though his set was short, the bluesman’s homecoming sure was sweet.

(Bernard Allison’s latest CD, as well as earlier recordings and merchandise, can be ordered through his website, www.bernardallison.com.)

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Tim Alexander is a correspondent for WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.