Music Review: Luther Allison Underground
People should just know better. In this day and age, you might be able to get away with faking something's provenance for a little while, but with information being so readily accessible and data so easily checked, you're going to get caught out one way or another. What's amazing about the circumstances surrounding the supposed lost Luther Allison recording, Underground is how close they did come to getting away with it.
No one is pointing any fingers at anybody, and maybe it can all be put down to an honest mistake, but recordings claimed to be from a private session Luther Allison did in 1958, seem to really have been made at least ten years later in 1968-69. It wasn't until after Thomas Ruf, and Ruf Records had released the ten track CD, and begun promoting it as the lost recordings of Luther, that Rein Wisse, publisher of Block Magazine in the Netherlands smelt something wrong.
Once the can of worms was opened it didn't take long for the truth to come out. Ruf has published on its site Wisse's article on his investigation. Aside from subjective statements, "it doesn't sound like it was recorded in the fifties", the fact that "Cut You Loose", a song originated by Ricky Allen, appears on the '1958 recording' is enough to create serious doubts about the discs authenticity, as it wasn't recorded by Ricky until four years after that date.
It wasn't just Thomas Ruf who was fooled by these recordings either. Both of Luther's sons, Bernard and Luther, genuinely believed they had unearthed a treasure in their father's collection. Bernard is quoted as saying the songs on that disc were the first ones that he and Luther sr. had jammed to when he was twelve. What is true about these recordings is Luther did go into a studio by himself and laid down ten tracks in the late 1960's while he was under contract to Delmark Records
In fact, there a quite a few people out there, including the above mentioned Rein Wisse who own bootleg recordings of those sessions. Instead of some third party making money off the deal like is normal in these situations, Allison himself was selling them. Delmark Records knew what was going on, but turned a blind eye to his breaking their contract.
Almost lost in the confusion are the actual contents of the disc. There's only about thirty minutes of music on Underground and as is to be expected the sound isn't of the greatest quality. The material itself though is an interesting mixture of instrumentals and songs that give the listener a good idea of the sound Luther was after in those days.
It's no wonder he was recording this on the sly behind Delmark's back, as it wasn't stuff they were going be overly interested in recording or publishing. You can hear Luther's interest in the rockier side of things on some of his instrumentals, (remember this is the guy who played guitar with his teeth as much as Hendrix did), but you can also hear his affection for the smoother sound of R&B coming through.
What I found the most interesting about these recordings is just how laid back they are. All descriptions I've heard of Luther, and any other music I've heard of his, has been driven and intense. Normally he played like he was propelled by Rocket fuel, but here it sounds like he's just kicking back and exploring some mellow licks with Bobby Rush's band.
If one were to believe Bobby Rush, this is the work of an eighteen-year-old Luther Allison, unsure of himself and his abilities. But even before I had heard the revised history of these recordings I had a hard time matching what I heard to that description. Nothing about these recordings, from the vocals to the guitar work sound tentative.
Insecure guitar players in my experience don't normally play leads near the tuning pegs; they usually go for the flash of bending notes high up the neck by the body of the guitar. Luther uses his whole fret board when picking out leads on this disc, and puts on a clinic for anybody wanting to learn how to build a lead. (It's easy to believe that Bernard Allison taught himself to play using this record when he found it floating around his mother's house) While there are eighteen-year-old guitar players who can play hot licks, there aren't many who can apply the same intensity to playing slow.
That's what distinguishes the playing on this disc, is Luther Allison's ability to enjoy a note. Sure he could play fast, but so could a million other people, on Underground you have the opportunity to hear him play slow and relaxed. Not maybe something you've heard before.
Thomas Ruf's commitment to expanding and developing the Blues in Europe and around the world is well known. Ruf records was awarded the Thomas Handy for "Keeping The Blues Alive" in 2007, the first European record company to be recognised in that manner. For someone to take advantage of Thomas' personal affection for Luther Allison by attempting to pass off a late sixties bootleg as an early, previously unreleased, recording is disgusting.
If anything, Underground shows how seriously Thomas Ruf and Ruf Records take their responsibilities as a record company. Instead of trying to deny the controversy, or try to discredit information that is embarrassing, they have openly admitted there are questions in regards to Underground's provenances.
If it were really from 1958, it would be an interesting curiosity, but if, as it appears to be, merely a bootleg that was recorded in 1968, it's of little significance. All that it has served to do is embarrass a company who has given a home to Blues musicians across North America when no one else was signing them while developing new talent both there and in Europe. It's a shame that Luther Allison, the man who encouraged Thomas Ruf to follow his dreams and form Ruf Records, has had his name used in such a way as to cause them embarrassment. I'd like to think he'd be royally pissed off.