Allen, Ricky (English) #127

Those who are familiar with the Chicago club scene know that the blues bands heard on any given night include in their bag of songs such classics as ”Sweet Home Chicago,” ”Buddy Buddy Friends” or ”Big Boss Man.” Another all-time favorite in this category is Ricky Allen’s ”Cut You A-Loose,” a strong R&B hit back in 1963 that has become since a blues anthem, recorded by the likes of James Cotton, Otis Rush and Koko Taylor.
In spite of this major achievement, the fact that Ricky Allen has chosen to play down his musical career in order to concentrate on less hazardous trades for the past thirty years explains why his name has faded into obscurity. Yet he once was a much sought-after vocalist whose popularity even challenged that of ageing blues stars like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf in the sixties when his career was in full bloom. The main man behind Allen’s career was Mel London, a fine producer and much respected writer who had already worked with Elmore James, Magic Sam, Junior Wells and Earl Hooker when he discovered 26-year old Ricky in 1961.
Richard Allen was originally from Tennessee where he was born on January 6, 1935. After a first recording attempt on a small pop label, the Dot Records-distributed Look imprint, Allen finally settled in Chicago at the turn of the sixties, soon opting for the gospel-oriented form of R&B soon to be known as soul. His chance meeting with Mel London was at the start of a fruitful collaboration as the vocalist turned into London’s favorite and most prolific artist on the Age label. In fact, it was through the efforts of Ricky Allen that Mel London got the long-awaited recognition his production work deserved, when several of Ricky’s singles met with unprecedented success.
As the Afro-American community’s interest in blues music declined, Allen adjusted himself quite well to the demands of the era, his soul-blues offerings appealing to record buyers and club audiences alike. Allen initial Age single, the ”You’d Better Be Sure”/”You Were My Teacher” coupling, was a fair hit on the Chicago market, taking the young singer by surprise. During the months that followed, London released more material by Allen on the market. At the beginning of 1963, the release of ”Ouch!” was to give the singer a second big seller. His next session proved even more essential however, as Ricky recorded ”Cut You A-Loose.” Upon its release, this London composition was an immediate smash, hitting Billboard’s R&B charts for a total of four weeks from August 31, 1963, eventually reaching the lower reach of the Top 20. In spite of the quality of Allen’s subsequent output on Age – including a fine version of Sonny Boy Williamson #1’s ”Early in the Morning” and a tribute to the Sonny Liston/Cassius Clay bout entitled ”The Big Fight” – Mel London, plagued with financial problems and disheartened by unfair competition from bigger firms that looked unfavorably at Age’s sudden growth, was compelled to close down shop in 1964.
London was soon hired by Paul Glass’s United Distributing Company however; and when he decided to take advantage of his new position to produce new recordings for the USA and Apogee labels, it was to Ricky Allen that he turned again. British blues fan Neil Paterson, visiting Chicago at the time, expressed his amazement at Allen’s popularity, finding it ”perplexing that such a singer should be rivalled as a crowd puller only by Muddy Waters.”
By 1966, as bookings in the better black Chicago venues did not seem to dwindle, Allen started recording for producer Jack Daniels. Alongside Junior Wells, Tyrone Davis and G.L. Crockett, Ricky was able to secure several regional hits on both Four Brothers and Bright Star with songs like ”Nothing in the World Can Hurt Me” (a song co-signed by Mel London), ”It’s A Mess I Tell You” and ”I Can’t Stand No Signifying.” As the sixties drew to a close, the more traditional Chicago soul-blues scene started losing its edge. The decline of his popularity as well as the fact that his friend Mel London had lost his combativeness incited Allen to give up singing. In spite of occasional club appearances, the next two decades found him working in the dry cleaning business.
When I met Ricky back in 1984 while doing research on a biography of the late guitar great Earl Hooker, he was living in suburban Blue Island; although he was eager to talk about his career, he didn’t seem to be willing to give up his day job for the stage. Things changed with the blues boom of the 1990s as he made appearances throughout the city, singing with local outfits at various Chicagoland clubs. ”It feels great to be able to sing on the stage again, and to realize that people still remember me,” Allen told me in 1993 at the end of a gig staged around Blues Fest time by Earwig Records’ Michael Frank. Over the years, I’ve had several more conversations with Allen – from which the following memories of his early career were excerpted – and although he recurrently expressed his desire to start his own band in order to make new recordings, a real comeback has yet to take place. We can only hope that the present article can help draw the attention of a record company worthy of Ricky Allen’s talent.

I was born in Nashville, Tennessee, Davidson County. And I started out with a guy who wrote a song and recorded it on the Prisonaires, out of Nashville. That way, I came in contact with quite a few people. Like Ted Jarrett, he was a writer for Gene Allison. You remember ”You Can Make It If You Try”? He was a DJ there. Larry Birdsong, Rosco Shelton, Earl Gaines, and Christine Kittrell–she was beautiful, boy, voicewise, you know. Big but she was strong in voice. I was singing spirituals at the time, see. ’Cause we used to follow the Skylarks, the Golden Harps, the Fairfield Four, the Harmonizing Four. We used to have Sunday teas. See, we’d go around to each funeral, and we’d do a number. Two selections maybe, if we was good enough. But we never did have a amplifier or guitar, we had to do strictly harmony. That’s when Sam Cooke was bad, then. And I didn’t do nothing there because I was immature, I just didn’t know nothing. In other words, I was just a kid singing in a group, just ragged and unexperienced, see. Yeah, you walking around, you get on the bus, man, you think you’re driving a Cadillac ’cause they put you in a suit and tie, you know, talk intelligent, if you can. But half of the time, you’d be afraid of the mike. I made a studio appearance for Look, and John R. played my records on WLAC, man, that was the onliest black station there. And I used to know everybody there, man.
I came to Chicago back in ’57, the first time. Then I left and I came back again in ’60, and I’ve been here ever since. You’d be surprised how I came. Two pair of pants, a half a pack of Camels, and thirty five cents. I was driving. My car broke down and L.C. Cooke, Sam Cooke’s brother, he picked me up. He had a ’59 Bonneville. I got here on a Sunday, I went to work Monday, and by me running around, getting around with the crowd, that’s when I met [drummer] Bobby Little. He was playing with Syl Johnson’s brother, Jimmy Thompson [now Jimmy Johnson]. And the Daylighters, do you remember the Daylighters?
Well, they was working at a place in Phoenix [a Chicago working class suburb] called Hawk’s White Rose. And him and my brother, I don’t know what happened, I think it wasn’t no obligation but he returned one favor for Bobby, so he told Bobby to let me sing. We had been doowopping all day, so they just said, ”Man, won’t you sing!” So after that song, me and Bobby got to be tight, we’d run around, we got along good together. We began to be traveling partrners, you know. We didn’t do nothing but music and I was making enough out of Hawk, you know playing there, ’cause we start on Thursdays and work ’til Sunday. It was a gambling joint, it was a hotel, a restaurant and whatever, it was just a party place, it never closed at that time. I had just came back from Nashville, and like I say, I had a record out but it didn’t do anything. I was doing some of Willie John’s stuff, everybody liked it. We did Ray Charles, ”Night Time Is The Right Time.” Man, we sang for hours. So Hawk used to give me a little money, come out there and let my partners in free. We’d go there anyway, so why not? So I wound up staying out there at Hawk’s I think about three years. The whole time Jimmy [Johnson] was there. Between ’60 and ’62. Who else was out there in Phoenix? Let’s see, we had Freddy King, Magic Sam. They were all playing ”Bobby’s Rock,” which is ”Hide Away.” They had a whole lot of commotion about the song, see. But Freddy made money off the record ’cause he made it ”Hide Away,” and ”Bobby’s Rock” was supposed to have been [Earl] Hooker’s, and Magic Sam had another arrangement.
I’ll tell you the way we musicians are. See, if Tuesday night’s a night off and they’re playing, we followed them. At that time Gladys was open. It was a restaurant. We’d go there, we’d get a couple of big biscuits, some jelly or whatever you could afford, come out and everybody gang up in one house. So I met Hooker at his house. Hooker had his own digs, and Bobby was staying with him. Bobby Little had been knowing Earl Hooker a long time, ’cause he used to tell me about Earl all the time and I used to be very inquisitive about Hooker’s music. Hooker was also working at the Trocadero. It was on 47th and Indiana, it was owned by Banks who ran the Tropicana Hotel. You go down there, man, you could see everybody. Dinah Washington, she used to come in there sometimes. And Lefty Bates, he would come in and play. We start like on Mondays about seven o’clock in the morning and we’d work a couple hours, another band come in and work a couple hours, see, it was a thing all day long. Different bands just coming in, it wasn’t no intermission.
Then you had bands coming to sit in, and I remember Jackie Brenston, he came in there. Me and him got to be kinda tight, ’cause you know, he had ”Rocket 88” out. He’s working with Ike Turner but he quit Ike Turner and came to Chicago and he stayed here a long time. Billy Gayles, Billy The Kid Emerson, they’d always come in to sit in. ’Cause a lot of times, musicians quit and they would be coming there looking for somebody who’d wanna work. Because everybody knew where to hang out. You either worked there or Pepper’s Lounge, on 43rd and Vincennes, or you would go on Oakwood at the Blue Flame, or another one, but that was ususally jazz there, it was a jazz club. Roberts’ Show Lounge. He had a Show Lounge upstairs, a restaurant downstairs and a bowling alley. Now I never worked there but Hooker did.
I met Mel London through Bobby Little. Bobby Little he got me to meet Mel. So he heard me, he heard my voice and he had me doing this thing by Faron Young, ”Hello Walls” [a #1 Country hit in 1961], a folk song, ’cause Mel liked this kinda music. He had me do that to get me out of the way. And Mel, he was big stuff then. Mel London had Chief Records, he had Lillian Offitt then. And Hooker was playing behind Lillian. And let’s see, who else Mel had? Robbie Yates and the Elites, and he had this white group, but he had them across the street at Vee Jay. See, Mel was what you call freelance. He had a contract, he had to do so many records for Vee Jay, I mean, turn ’em over two or three records a year. Maybe. If he could find the stuff and material. See, but his dedication was to his record company, ’cause he owned it. Now he had partnerships and things that he had to do to keep it up and make extra money. Because it wasn’t a whole lot of money.
So anyway, one day we went down to the studio with Bobby to cut stuff on Junior Wells and A.C. Reed. ”This Little Voice” and they cut this thing on Hooker. ”Blue Guitar.” That was done at the same session. A.C. did ”This Litttle Voice,” and then they put ”Blue Guitar” on the back of A.C.’s record. See, now, I’m gonna tell you how I got a chance to do mine. It was about eight tunes did. Not counting mine, ’cause mine wasn’t even supposed to be cut. I did ”You’d Better Be Sure” and ”You Were My Teacher.” What happened, they finished up ahead of time, see. And so they said, ”How much time we got?” ”We got fifteen more minutes.” Mel couldn’t even remember my name, man. He really couldn’t. And I was sitting in there listening to ’em, ’cause I was impressed, I was a youngster. Mel said, ”Tell ’em what you want.” So I told ’em what I wanted, I explained to the band, I say, ”I want the lead guitar with the ’Hide Away’ beat,” but Hooker, he pumped it up about four or five keys and he had me singing out of key, not where I wanted. We did it in two cuts. Two cuts, that’s all.
And then I left. I left town, man. I went to Nashville and stayed a while, and then all of a sudden I got a telegram telling me to come here. That ”You’d Better Be Sure” was number one. WVON was playing it–it was VOL then, though. And every time we changed the station, boom! And so me and A.C. Reed made a package out of ourselves and went on out. We used to drive with nine people in A.C. Reed’s car, instruments on top, trunkload of clothes. I’d dirty up ten, twelve shirts a night, ’cause I’m not gonna wear the shirt twice back then. And I’d press all the suits, my mother would help me and we’d load up. We just had a thing, man, we get on the road, we stayed out there sometime thirty days, sometime twenty days, sometime we’d make money, sometime we wouldn’t. It’s just a chance.
I didn’t travel with Hooker because, to tell you the truth, Hooker never paid me a quarter. I’m talking about when I’s supposed to been on salary. Now see, recording, although we recorded together, that was working together, but I wasn’t responsible for his pay and he wasn ’t responsible for mine. I went to three places with Hooker. I went to Champaign, Illinois, I played the West Side and there’s one more joint up here. Actually, I went more than that because Bobby Little paid me about three times. The whole band got together and paid me one other time, ’cause Hooker slipped out. Hooker had his ways, man, when you look back on it. I was sitting in a room one night, man, Hooker come by, and you know how he stuttered. He said, ”M-m-m-man, c-c-come one, g-g-go with me down here to S-S-St. Louis, I’ll g-g-give you 1-1-1-135 dollars.” I said, ”Man, you crazy,” I say, ”You didn’t give me my 25 dollars, now how am I gonna get 135?” ”M-m-man, c-c-come on.” So I’s sitting there and I called Bobby up, and Bobby come up, ”What happened?” I say, ”Man, Hooker talking about giving me 135 dollars to go to St. Louis,” I say, ”But I’m gonna check this out first.” And I called and the people gave me 395 dollars for one show. That was the American Legion.
And that’s when I really got hip to Hooker (laughs) then. Now let me tell you what happened to us down in Mississippi. Big Train [Earnest Johnson] was with me, and Erskine–he’s from St. Louis, he worked with Hooker a long time, he worked with Billy Gayles and he worked with Ike Turner. Anyway, I had nine peoples. Hank [Donald Hankins] and [Melvin] Draper on the horns, Big Train on bass guitar and Sonny Lantz on the organ, that was my band. And Frank Swan on drums. And we was at Indianola, at the Pelican, you know that’s B.B. King’s ex-mother in law, that’s in Indianola, Mississippi.
So anyway, we pulled up, I had my truck and my name all over it, all my records and everything. We unload the organ, and bass, Earnest’s amplifier was like that high. And we go all the way through, pass these kids. And they gambling, having a good time, it’s wide open, see. So when we start to get ready to set up, we tuned up, a little guy come over. He had a roll of money, man, and it looks like the oldest one in this thing was seventeen. If that old. He say ”Hey! You supposed to be Ricky Allen, aren’t you?” I say, ”Yeah, I’m Ricky Allen.” He says, ”Earl Hooker come down here with a guy called Ricky Allen, and he didn’t know but two verses to ’Cut You A-Loose.’ See, now, if you don’t sing ’Faith’ [the B-side of ”Cut You A-Loose”] we kicking your ass.” So I got mad, I told Earnest, I told him ”Gimme my pistol out of that case.” My pistol was in the back of that amplifier, that’s where I kept my stuff, right? Hey, I didn’t go no place, to no small town with nothing on me, hey, man! Average musician be crazy. And what made me feel more secure and protected, it was like forty or some people there from Chicago, that’s traveling, they go over there on vacation.
And they all behind us, and about three of ’em was policemen. And about twelve of ’em was from Chicago Heights, you know. Friends of mine. So I wasn’t gonna sing ”Faith.” You know, you just be pushed so far, you just fall off the edge, man. You get as stupid as they do. So one of ’em kept saying, ”Sing ’Faith,’ sing ’Faith,'” so I did ”Faith” and the kid come down and he put his arm around me, say, ”Looka here, now you Ricky Allen.” And I looked at him, you know, he said, ”You come on back here and let’s have a drink,” say, ”But anybody else come by here telling us about they’re Ricky Allen again, we kicking their ass.” You know, we couldn’t do anything but laugh, though.
But just to think how close you can get to having problems. Hooker used to put us in some trick bags. He had me booked all down in Mississippi, and I wasn’t with him no place! He had another guy, he looked like me. Hooker had him at Pepper’s one night, and I’m gonna show you how Hooker was at that time, I mean he’d put you in a trick bag in a minute to get hisself off the hook. I walked in, we just came off the road, and this is right after this incident I was telling you about the kids down South.
And I walk in, and Hooker jamming. Aw, man, we sitting there, and the place–he’d pack a house. He didn’t have to use no phonies, but he want more money, he’ll get any name to go with him. See, that’s a double crowd, that’s twice the money. So anyway, I walked in and he had a guy up here, I see him every once in a while now, I don’t know his name. Anyway, he says, ”Here’s Ricky Allen.” I’m looking around. ”No, I ain’t talking about you, I’m talking about you, come here, man.” The cat walked over there that made all that money imitating me. He won first prize doing ”You’d Better Be Sure.” So now he look at me and he say, ”H-h-h-hey, Ricky, I want you to m-m-meet Ricky Allen.” Man, I like fell out, he was just that bold. See, he was a hustler.


I had one good year if I’d never have any more, ’63 was my year. I did pretty good, ’63 and ’64. After ”You’d Better Be Sure” came out, I’s working like nine nights a week so I started my own band. Moose Walker, he wanted to come with me, but what happened, Sonny Lantz, man, he had a little self-made organ. I never will forget it. We used to rehearse on Ogden Avenue, over at the Imperial Lounge. And so Sonny Lantz wagged that organ out of his house, ’cause he used to be with Junior Walker and the All Stars. We heard about the man. And as small as that thing was, it sounded good. And so I picked him up. At that time, I had A.C. [Reed], Earnest [Johnson], Ivory [Parkes], and Sonny. We had five pieces. And we had every night in the week locked up. Plus dances. Then I had [Lafayette] Leake, he’s a piano player. And Hank Hankins, Draper and Beasley on horns. Julian Beasley. He did my arrangements for me. The only thing I didn’t like about Beasley. Beasley was intelligent, he could write, but see, his wife had just died, and he sit on my bandstand and go to sleep.
We used to drive from Greenville, Mississippi all the way to Nashville to sleep, and that’s a long way. And then come right back and play the next night. Drive from Lebanon to Hopkinsville, Kentucky to sleep, it’s a long way. And you get around, you get around, and you be trying to keep your reputation, ’cause if you miss a gig, nobody won’t hire you. After ”You’d Better Be Sure,” ”Ouch!” came out and did the same thing. I had my own show then. ”Wine Headed Woman,” the guy that made that song, Willie Williams! He was my drummer then. See, I brought him to Chicago, ’cause he was working in St. Louis.
And then I had my biggest hit, ”Cut You A-Loose.” Sonny Lantz played organ, Frank [Swan] was on drums, and I had a guitar player named Ivory, man, you probably heard of Ivory Parkes. And I know he was bad. He played behind B.B. [King] over at Big Bill Hill’s place, and B.B. had to turn around and look at him. That’s right. On ”Cut You A-Loose,” it was supposed to be Hooker on guitar. He came in and rehearsed with us some, but what was happening, he was trading spots. Hooker would show up, Hooker’d come around, and he’d show Ivory the tune.
But like I say, Ivory was consistent, and Hooker was maybe. Hooker traveled on the road all the time, and I stayed mostly around the city. See, my band was the house band at the Copa Cabana. It was [dee-jay and promoter] Big Bill Hill’s club. We had to back Albert [King], we had to back Jimmy McCracklin, J.B. Lenore, and B.B. would be our guest star, [Little] Milton would be our guest star. See, Milton is the one started me making money, though. When I recorded ”You’d Better Be Sure,” he called me from St. Louis and got me two weeks gig there, man, and all I had to do was just be his guest. And see, when you’re used to making 18, 19, 20 dollars a night, and you start making 125, 150 dollars a night, and nobody else to pay but you, that’s not bad!
Remember that song, ”The Big Fight”? That’s when [Muhammad] Ali and [Sonny] Liston was gonna fight, you remember they had such a controversy about it? We coulda made a million off it if we could have got it out in time but we couldn’t get the record out in time. ”The Big Fight”! [Drummer] Casey [Jones] was on that. Him and Saxy Russell was on that. ”The Big Fight” and ”Help Me Mama” was the last session on Age for me. But we didn’t follow up. After then, I couldn’t do anything else. See, Mel was putting all of his money behind Junior [Wells] because Junior was the hottest artist, then I went to Bright Star but it wasn’t the same. Mel London was working for another company. And then he came to me one week and telling me he didn’t feel good and he’s going to see his doctor, and then two weeks later, he is in the hospital, and then in another two weeks, he’s dead, you know. After Mel died [in 1975], his uncle called me and he wanted me to come over to look through some papers. But there was so much confusion about it, I lost contact with everything, man. But let me tell you one thing. I don’t regret a thing.
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