True confession: I probably listen to David Allyn's A Sure Thing (World Pacific) from 1957 at least once every two weeks. The album features soaring charts by Johnny Mandel, and it's among the most perfect male vocal packages ever recorded. That's a pretty big statement, but you won't find much pushback from those who own it or know it. David's vocals on the record are crushed velvet valentines that never feel sticky or forced. On each track, David delivers an intimate, sincere interpretation with just the right level of passion, romanticism and storytelling.
David began singing professionally with Jack Teagarden's orchestra in 1940, and he worked with many different bands and groups throughout the decade. But David was poorly managed, and his recording opportunities dwindled in the early 1950s. Arrested for forging drug prescriptions in 1955, David was in prison until 1957. Upon release, David recorded several stunning albums and continued to record into the early 1990s. When you speak with David today, what you hear is the same firm tenderness present on his recordings. There's a courtly grace in David's voice, a sincerity and sensitivity from another place and time. [Pictured: David Allyn, left, with Tony Curtis, at a Los Angeles recording session for This is My Lucky Day, a mid-1960s album for Everest Records]
In Part 2 of my two-part interview with David, the legendary vocalist talks about Boyd Raeburn, his growing dependence on drugs, imprisonment, kicking the habit while serving time, emerging to record albums with Johnny Mandel and Bill Holman, and what Frank Sinatra did for him that Sinatra didn't do for anyone else...
JazzWax: You sang with Boyd Raeburn's band in 1945 and 1946. What was Raeburn like?
David Allyn: If it was about jazz, Boyd would pick up on it. He was loyal to jazz. He had Dizzy [Gillespie], Oscar Pettiford, Lucky Thompson and other great jazz guys in his orchestra.
JW: When you were singing with Raeburn, was it hard to focus with arrangements that had instruments coming and going?
DA: No. I found it easy. [Arranger] George [Handy, pictured] would tell me what to do, and I’d do it. Sometimes he’d take the band up a half step to change the key, and I’d do that, too. George shook his head in disbelief at everything I did. I approached singing like a musician. I just found where I was supposed to be and was there. I mostly stuck with the melody, but sometimes George’s influence would excite me to do something or tack on a certain phrase. George’s writing sometimes was so soulful and inspiring. I couldn't help it.
JW: Were you always sensitive?
JW: Where did that come from?
DA: My mother and dad. They were sensitive musicians.
JW: Why did you leave Raeburn in late 1946?
DA: Boyd’s band broke up, and I did some records with Ike Carpenter for about five minutes [laughs]. I also recorded in 1949 with pianist Paul Smith [pictured] and then Johnny Richards.
JW: How did you deal with the drug scene?
DA: Not very well. I started to get strung out on Boyd's band. The band came back East and then went West again and stayed in California. My drug use got worse out there. Those were horrible years.
JW: How did one get into that scene?
DA: It was easy. Bird was the kingpin. He was on junk and everyone knew that. Everyone followed Bird.
JW: Did drugs improve what you were doing as a vocalist?
DA: The power of concentration on junk is phenomenal. You can block everything else out. As an artist, your concentration is more intense. But it literally destroys you. In 1955, I finally got busted for forging drug prescriptions.
JW: What was addiction like?
DA: You can’t do anything without it. You get sick if you don’t get the drugs in you. You start yawning, You get cramps. Your nose starts to run. There are all kinds of physical signs that your body needs the drugs. You're basically killing yourself.
JW: Did you think you sounded better on drugs?
DA: I never liked the way I sang on drugs. But there were some things that I liked and some things that I didn’t like.
JW: What didn’t you like?
DA: The concept you use on a song, how you're approaching it. That’s what changes.
JW: What did you like?
DA: There was no one else doing the same thing I was. The drugs made me feel original. But in truth, that was an illusion.
JW: Where did you kick the habit?
DA: At the Tombs [New York's House of Detention] shortly after I was convicted. Then I was sent up to Sing Sing in Ossining, N.Y., before being transferred father north to Dannemora. It took a year for my body to clear up. One day you stand up against the wall, put your shoulders back and say, “Oh, this is the way it’s supposed to be.”
JW: In the Tombs [pictured], did you panic that you weren’t going to be able to get drugs to relieve your pain?
DA: Yes. I had this thing with my hands. I’d lay on the floor and bang my hands against the concrete. It was as though my sickness was escaping through my hands.
JW: Were you able to sing in prison?
DA: A little, but mostly in my mind.
JW: What do you mean?
DA: I used to lie on my cot, cross my arms on my chest, and imagine going on stage and singing. I’d do a whole show that way, and when I was done, I’d be sweating bullets, just like I did when I came off stage, from the exertion I put into it.
JW: When you were released, were you a different person?
DA: Yes. I was much more aware of what was good for David Allyn and what was bad. My concept of rehabilitation was that you can’t do anything to hurt yourself. You have to like yourself. In other words, you can’t do anything against yourself as a human being.
JW: Things were different before?
DA: Before I had no self-respect and spent way too much time hurting myself. After this experience, I realized that being a human being can be a destructive force. That’s what addiction is. You get a hold of yourself, and you want to destroy yourself.
JW: You recorded in November 1957, soon after your release.
DA: I was paroled to my sister in California. About a month after I got out, we went over to Dick Bock's house in Los Angeles for dinner. Dick was the owner of World Pacific Records. Johnny Mandel was there. Johnny and I had been in Boyd Raeburn’s band together. At Dick's house, John and I got together with a piano, and I sang. [Photo of Richard Bock by Ray Avery/CTSImages]
JW: What did Bock think?
DA: Dick went nuts. He said, “My god, he sounds better than he used to.” Johnny said, “and on some new songs, too” [laughs].
JW: Had you been singing before getting together with Mandel?
DA: I hadn’t been singing at all up to that point with anyone. I had a little pump organ, a chaplain’s field organ, and I used it to accompany myself after I got out of the joint. My sister had bought it for me for about $200.
JW: What happened next at Bock's house?
DA: Dick had the idea to do an album in tribute to Jerome Kern. Johnny [pictured] and I spent weeks choosing offbeat Kern tunes and arranging. I went over to Johnny's house every day, and we shut everything out and just worked on it. At his house, Johnny would work out things on the piano and say to me, “How do you like this?”
JW: How did it go?
DA: We worked perfectly together. Boy, I’ll tell ya. We worked for weeks, nonstop. Johnny still calls me to talk about that record. For the session, Johnny brought in pianist Jimmy Rowles. But for one date [November 26, 1957], Johnny couldn’t get Jimmy so he hired pianist John Williams.
JW: Which track?
DA: In Love in Vain. Johnny [pictured] said, “Let’s start cold. No piano, no introduction, nothing.” John Williams played in octaves, two in his left hand and two in his right. I didn't like that. It was too simple. I said, “Come on, don’t palm it out like that." So John Williams did it the way you hear it on the album, and it sounded much better.
JW: Your next album was Yours Sincerely, in 1958.
DA: That was arranged by Bill Holman. One time, the bass trumpet player was off key. I said to Bill, "The bass trumpet is flat.” Bill said, “Oh man, don’t tell him.” I said, “What do you mean don’t tell him.” I said to the guy, “Hey, push it in man, you’re flat” [laughs]. The guy did it.
JW: How did you adjust to California?
DA: Fine. I was in El Segundo, CA, one time doing yard work. I had on Levis and a T-shirt. I got out of my car to go into a store. Suddenly I heard a live band. So I turned and followed the sound to an outdoor concert. Local musicians were playing, and I saw some of the guys I knew. Toward the end of the concert, a woman came out and sang. She had a marvelous voice, like a bell. At the end, the guys were all coming off the stage. I said to the woman, “Oh, Miss, your voice is so beautiful and wonderful.”
JW: What did she say?
DA: She said, “Thanks.” I told her I was a singer, too. She asked my name, and when I told her, she said, “Oh my goodness, of course. I’m married to Paul Smith, the pianist.” I had worked with Paul in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Soon after Paul and his wife invited me over to their house for dinner. His wife taught singing and told me, “The first thing I play for students is your recording of The Folks That Live on the Hill. I tell my students, 'That’s what we’re shooting for.' ” What a great thing to tell me. I was so flattered. [Pictured: David Allyn with Sammy Davis Jr.]
JW: You collaborated again with Johnny Mandel in 1966, on In the Blue of Evening.
DA: Johnny's wild to work with. You should see him in the studio. Wow. He’s Johnny Mandel. He’d call out notes for the string section to play or pick out exactly which musician had played a wrong note. What an ear.
JW: Give me an example of Mandel at work.
DA: We were getting toward the end of the 1966 session and were about to record And Now Goodbye, the last track. Johnny said to me, “David, I only wrote the beginning and the end. There’s nothing in between.” I said, "What do you want to do?" Johnny said, “You know that part we worked out for you to sing? Go and give it to Vince DeRosa. He'll play that behind you.” Vince was playing one of the three French horns in the orchestra. Jimmy Rowles played the celeste.
JW: Did Mandel add anything?
DA: Johnny said, “In the meantime, I’ll give the front line [of strings] some footballs," which are whole notes. So I went back and sang the part for Vince [pictured], who took it down. Johnny wrote the footballs. And we put it together that way. We finished the song in two takes.
JW: Did you and Frank Sinatra meet?
DA: Yes, many times. We also stayed in touch by mail. We first met in Chicago, when he was with Tommy Dorsey in 1940 or 1941 and I was with Jack [Teagarden]. I said, "You're great," and he said, "No, you're great." Frank was a greater supporter of mine and helped me out whenever he could.
JW: For example?
DA: Frank got me work in Las Vegas and told me that if I ever needed something to let him know. But I never bothered him. Except one time, in the mid-1980s. I was leading a band in New York and was short about 10 charts. I had no time to get them written. So I called Irving Weiss, who was known as "Sarge." He had been a song-plugger at the Brill Building and was Frank's musical coordinator. He also was taking care of Frank's music.
JW: What happened?
DA: I called and said, "Sarge, I started a band and need some charts. Please tell Frank that I'd like to borrow a few."
JW: What did Weiss say?
DA: He said, "Oh David, Frank never gives them out, not even to Frank Jr." I said, "Please just do me a favor. Tell Frank it's David Allyn."
JW: What happened?
DA: A few minutes later Frank called. He told me no problem, to put together a list of what I wanted and Dorothy Uhlmann, his secretary, would send them over. When they arrived, I used them straight out of the envelope for a few days. Then word got around that I had them.
JW: Was that a problem?
DA: Well, Dorothy called me and said a lot of different people were calling the office asking to borrow charts, saying that I had gotten them. She asked if there was anything I could do to get his name off of the arrangements.
DA: I didn't know what to do. I told Dorothy I didn't want to ruin them. Frank called, and I said sincerely, "Frank, they're obviously your charts. Everyone with an ear knows that. I can take your name off with Clorox or something, but I'll ruin them, and everyone will still know they're yours."
JW: What did Sinatra say?
DA: He just laughed and said, "Yeah, I know what you mean. Just keep singing David. You’re the best." What a great guy.
JW: When you look back on your career, what would you have done different?
DA: No. I'd do it all exactly the same.
JW: What is it about David Allyn that’s so essential?
DA: The sensitivity, the understanding for the lyric. I went into those lines wholeheartedly, like I was living the lyric myself.
JazzWax tracks: Sadly, David Allyn's finest recording, A Sure Thing (renamed Sings Jerome Kern), is not available as a download or CD. It is available on LP, and copies surface occasionally on eBay for around $20. The same is true for David's other great recording with Johnny Mandel, In the Blue of Evening. As for This Is My Lucky Day, a session arranged by Bob Florence in the mid-1960s, that's available only on a Japanese CD here (with David's last name misspelled). David recorded several other albums over the years, including a duet date with pianist Barry Harris in the 1970s for Xanadu Records. But it's rather uneven and not a favorite of David's.
Now for the good news. Someone has posted three tracks from A Sure Thing on YouTube: A Sure Thing, The Way You Look Tonight and the definitive The Folks That Live on the Hill. Here's A Sure Thing (for the others, type in David Allyn + Jerome Kern in YouTube's search engine)...
JazzWax pages: David's autobiography, There Ain't No Such Word As Can't (2005), is available here.