David Allyn is a singer's singer. All jazz vocalists with a heart have a tender spot for David's warm, passionate baritone. Leading arrangers and jazz musicians from the 1940s and 1950s, including Johnny Mandel, Hal McKusick, Joe Wilder and others who came up during this era, also love David's voice and intonation. Before Chet Baker, before Johnny Hartman and before Jackie Paris, David pioneered the sensitive male ballad, and his confessional phrasing remains remarkable today. [Photo: David Allyn, left, with Jack Teagarden at the 1959 Playboy Jazz Festival]
David began his singing career with Jack Teagarden in 1940, at the same time Frank Sinatra started with another famed trombonist, Tommy Dorsey. Drafted at the start of World War II and wounded in North Africa in 1943, David was sent home to recuperate. Once restored, David joined Boyd Raeburn's [pictured] band in 1945. By the late 1940s he was recording as a solo artist backed by Ike Carpenter, Paul Smith and Johnny Richards. But drug problems in the mid-1950s led to a two-year prison term. When he was released, David recorded several stunning albums with arrangers Johnny Mandel and Bill Holman. He also performed in the early 1960s with Count Basie and worked the Playboy Club circuit in the early 1960s. In the 1970s, David recorded a duet album with Barry Harris. Today David lives in retirement.
In Part 1 of my two-part interview with David, 90, the legendary vocalist talks about his first singing break, Jack Teagarden's driving habits, the psychological impact of his World War II injury, squabbles with Johnny Bothwell in the Boyd Raeburn band, and hitting pianist Dodo Marmarosa:
JazzWax: You grew up in Connecticut, yes?
David Allyn: Yes. I was born Albert DeLella and grew up in Hartford. By the late 1930s, I was singing on shows at the four radio stations in the Hartford area at the time. I wanted to become a vocalist. Bing Crosby [pictured] was a big influence.
JW: Did you start singing in high school?
DA: No, I started singing at my house, with my mom. I started to get serious about singing when I was 18 or 19 years old. I had a vocal coach and sang with a guy who had an eight-piece band. I paid $2 per lesson, and he paid me $2 per appearance. It was a wash [laughs].
JW: What was your first big break?
DA: Around 1939, I had a friend who owned a corner drugstore. His brother was Harry Goldfield, a famous trumpet player with Paul Whiteman [pictured]. Harry would come home from time to time on vacation. One time when he did, my friend urged him to listen to me singing on the radio. When Harry heard me, he said to his brother, “Jack [Teagarden] is looking for a singer. Maybe Jack would be interested in him.” My friend told me what Harry had said.
JW: What did you do?
DA: One night when Jack was playing with his band in Springfield, Mass., a friend drove me up. I mentioned Harry’s name to Jack. Jack said, “Oh, sure. Would you like to sing a tune?” I got up and sang Time on My Hands and The Very Thought of You.
JW: How did you go over?
DA: I brought down the house. Jack came up to me after and said, “We’re starting a gig next month at the Sea Girt Inn [pictured] in Sea Girt, N.J. I’d like you to join the band. I can’t pay you much but I’ll pay you what I can.” I was so excited.
JW: Did you join right away?
DA: Yes. Jack was pretty happy and announced to the dancers that night that "Albert DeLella was going to join the band" [laughs]. Soon after, I started getting hate mail.
DA: Mussolini had been giving the Ethiopians hell, and Italian-Americans were the subject of a lot of animosity. One of the guys in the band said to me, “What about changing your name to something more American, like David Allyn." That sounded good to me.
JW: What was Jack Teagarden like?
DA: Jack [pictured] was a beautiful man. He just loved everything around him and did everything with love and understanding. He got grouchy once in a while, but not much. You could always stand it.
JW: What did Jack think of you?
DA: Jack loved me. I was the young kid on the band and rode in his ’39 Chrysler. I sat in the back with trombonist Jose Gutierrez. Jack always used to drive the wrong way. When we’d pull out, we’d pass cars with band members going the other way. We’d tell Jack he was going the wrong way, but Jack would say, “No, no, we’re going right. They’re going wrong” [laughs].
JW: Was Jack a good driver?
DA: There was something off with his logic. One time in Miami, at dawn, he came to a stop light and instead of going through it when the light turned green, he backed up and drove across a lawn to make the turn. When he came up with a way of doing something, he stuck with it no matter what.
JW: What did Teagarden teach you as a singer?
DA: How to cry. He had a cry in his voice that was impeccable. He was so passionate. He made me think much harder about what I was doing and the lyrics I was singing.
JW: This is 1940, when Frank Sinatra was also singing with a trombonist. Did you learn breath control from Teagarden?
DA: No, from my dad. My dad was a French horn player. He used to practice and play with long tones. He’d tell me to put my hand on his diaphragm and hold it there. He’d demonstrate the long breath that he had. I built my diaphragm around that. I’d practice by holding long notes.
JW: Who stood out in the Teagarden band?
DA: Clarinetist Danny Polo and Jack were the main attractions.
JW: Did Teagarden tolerate quirks in others?
DA: [Laughs] No and yes. Jack [pictured] tended to be completely wrong about things. My thing was I’d leave things behind when we left engagements. One time I left my scarf in the dressing room of a ballroom. As we pulled away in Jack’s car, I said, “Jack, Jack, I forgot my scarf.” I needed it to keep my throat warm. Jack said, “You’re fired!” He’d fake fire me at least once a month for forgetting things [laughs]. He’d always say, “I’m going to drive you back to Hartford.” But he never did.
JW: You were pretty driven.
DA: My father used to have a phrase that always stuck with me: “There ain’t no such word as can’t.” I liked the double-play there: There’s no such word, it's a contraction, and if you don’t believe in the word's meaning, you won’t buy into it.
JW: You left Teagarden at the start of 1942.
DA: Yes, I went into the army. I was drafted soon after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. We were at the Hotel Sherman in Chicago when war was declared. My sister sent me a letter from the government instructing me to go to the nearest draft board to get inducted. So I did. After training, we went over to Europe on the Queen Mary as one of the first load of troops. I was in the 1st Infantry, the Big Red One. We were stationed in Kibworth, north of London. Then we were sent to North Africa, as the shock troops for the 16th Infantry.
JW: Did you see heavy action.
DA: Yes. That was a tough campaign. We didn’t encounter German tanks in North Africa until later. But we were up against seasoned troops from the start. When we landed in North Africa, we were fighting Vichy French troops led by German officers. The Germans told them they had to fight for four days straight or their relatives back home would be put in concentration camps. So the French fought like mad the entire time. I was wounded at the end of March 1943.
JW: What happened?
DA: We got the shit beat out of us by Rommel in a place called Kasserine Pass, a two-mile gap in the mountains in Tunisia. I was wounded at the Battle of El Guettar in Tunisia. They sent me back home. I wasn’t any good after that injury. [1st Infantry dug in at El Guettar, Tunisia, March 21, 1943; click to enlarge]
JW: The Kasserine Pass and El Guettar battles were brutal.
DA: North Africa was horrible. The heat was bad. We were green troops, and the tension was unbearable. Even though we were the Big Red One, that didn’t help. Rommel knew that, and when he opened up on us, he let us have everything he had.
JW: That experience must have been especially horrible for a sensitive guy like you.
DA: Well, I tried to hold myself together the best I could.
JW: When you were home, how long did it take to recuperate?
DA: I’m still recuperating.
JW: But by 1945, you must have been well enough to join Boyd Raeburn’s band.
DA: Well, I could get on the bandstand and sing. But socially I was nothing. I couldn’t stand people because of the war. [Pictured: David Allyn in Boyd Raeburn's band]
JW: How did you wind up joining Raeburn’s band?
DA: One day I was standing in front of Charlie’s Tavern in New York with Frank Socolow, the tenor saxophonist. He said that the singer Don Darcy had just gotten fired on Boyd’s band. Frank said I’d be perfect as his replacement. I went down to where Boyd's band was playing and got up and sang Laura.
JW: What did Raeburn think?
DA: I knocked Boyd out. This was at the New Yorker Hotel. He hired me on the spot, and then the band went out to California.
JW: You were in the band with arranger and pianist George Handy, saxophonist Hal McKusick, and trombonist and arranger Johnny Mandel.
DA: Yes. They were so great. George was a wild man. There were always issues with George and Boyd. Johnny Bothwell [pictured], who played alto saxophone, liked to play a little sharp, which tended to throw off the band and drive George nuts. At one point it got so bad that trumpeter Tommy Allison kicked the band’s entire book of arrangements up in the air in frustration [laughs].
JW: What happened after he did that?
DA: The band held an intonation meeting in Boyd’s hotel suite. Tommy Allison screamed at Bothwell, “You know where I get my A? From the singer.” Boyd used to play a tune called I Promise You. There was a part in the song where I would have to sing an A. Whenever I did that, Tommy played softly behind me. Tommy was letting Bothwell have it for always being sharp. He was saying, “If you listened to David, you’d be in key.” But Bothwell had too much ego for that. Hal [McKusick] had a great sound, even then. And Johnny [Mandel] was arranging terrific stuff [Pictured: Boyd Raeburn]
JW: Dodo Marmarosa was in Boyd's band, too.
DA: Dodo [pictured] was crazy. We had a big fight. I had had a nose job, and during a dance, he kept pointing at my nose. He’d look at the dancers and then at me and point to his nose and laugh. I told him to cut it out. But he didn’t. Boyd finally came over to me and said, “David, I know you’re going to hit him. Just please wait until after the broadcast.”
JW: Did you wind up popping him?
DA: Yes, sure. That’s what he needed because he never bothered me again.
Tomorrow, David talks about his years in prison and recording his landmark albums with Johnny Mandel and Bill Holman.
JazzWax tracks: David Allyn's vocals with Jack Teagarden (1940-41) and Boyd Raeburn (1945-46) are extraordinary. While David's voice isn't quite as modern as Frank Sinatra's was in 1941, there's a lush compassion in his phrasing that Sinatra adapted in the mid-1940s during his more romantic Columbia years. Sinatra would become a supporter of Allyn's in the late 1950s and 1960s, helping him land singing jobs in Las Vegas and remarking that "No one sings like David Allyn."
David's 1940-41 vocals with Jack Teagarden's orchestra can be downloaded from several different albums. David's Here's My Heart and It All Comes Back to Me Now can be downloaded from Jack Teagarden: Casey Jones here. David singing You're All That Matters to Me, These Things You Left Me and Made Up My Mind with Marianne Dunn is on Jack Teagarden: Off to the Races here. A Star Told a Story is on Jack Teagarden: Sugar here.
David with Boyd Raeburn in the mid-1940s can be found on Boyd Raeburn: Jewells at iTunes. David's vocal tracks are Forgetful, I Only Have Eyes for You, Blue Echoes and When Love Comes. If you want to hear where Chet Baker's phrasing on his 1957 recording of Forgetful came from, listen to David's version from 12 years earlier.
It Never Entered My Mind, Wait Till You See Her and It Can't Be Long from the same album weren't recorded with Raeburn. They actually are from 1949 with Johnny Richards' orchestra.
JazzWax pages: David's autobiography, There Ain't No Such Word As Can't (2005), is available here.