Ricky Allen and Sebastian Danchin. © Sebastian Danchin
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.
HAWK'S WHITE ROSE (Ricky Allen. Publicity photo, 1960s. © Sebastian Danchin )
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.
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.
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.