One of my favorite male vocal albums is A Sure Thing: David Allen Sings Jerome Kern. Recorded originally for World Pacific 55 years ago this November, the album was arranged and conducted by Johnny Mandel. Johnny and David were both in Boyd Raeburn's band at the same time in the mid-1940s and maintained a lifelong friendship. A Sure Thing—long out of print—also happens to be available again. More in a minute.
A Sure Thing was recorded just after David was released from prison in May 1957 where he had been since 1955 after a grand-larceny conviction for check forgery, a result of a runaway heroin habit. After leaving Dannemora Prison in New York State, David moved to his sister's house in Baldwin Park outside of Los Angeles.
"While in Dannemora, I read an article in Metronome magazine about my old friend, Dick Bock, who once worked in Music City on Vine Street behind the record counter learning the record business. Now almost 15 years later, he had worked himself up to being President of Pacific Jazz Records and their subsidiary World Pacific Records. Again, I mention that Dick and I almost had success together when he managed me, while I was signed to Discovery Records. I gave him a call.
"He was surprised and glad to hear from me and stated he heard I was doing time but didn't know any of the details. Dick said he would like to see me and arranged a dinner at his [business partner] Phil Turetsky's house. Unknown to me, Johnny Mandel [pictured] was there, too. After a wonderful dinner and a brandy, John played for me while I sang. I found myself engrossed, completely unaware, unconnected with the past two years, and for an hour or so, I broke free.
"One week later we were planning the Jerome Kern Album for World Pacific. Being on parole, I was forced to get another job and I found one at a gas station just a block from the house in Baldwin Park. It was part-time, three nights a week. In Southern California, the night fog rolls in like a cloud of pneumonia, and I caught a cold, which turned into laryngitis just two days before the first record date, which set the album back one month."
David talked his parole officer into letting him move into Hollywood to be closer to Johnny and Capitol Studios, where the session was to be held. David's parole officer also let him quit his job a week before the recording, adding the words, "Don't screw up."
"I was staying very close to Johnny as we chose the songs for the album, meeting in the mornings, afternoons and late P.M. sessions, planning every phrase. John wrote romancing strains around my phrasing and it was a simple, natural marriage of concept. The scores were taking shape and the excitement was building.
"The recording dates were getting close and I was beginning to feel I was destined for something good. I started to record my album, one session each week for three weeks. [Pictured above, David Allyn at the A Sure Thing recording session in 1957]
"Whenever my friends or fans talk about the Kern Album, you can be sure someone always asks, 'Why the Folks Who Live on the Hill wasn't a single record?' It should have been because it was obviously the best track on the album, musically and commercially. But on the day of the mastering session, I joined Woody Woodward at Radio Recorders to supervise the proper splicing for the single that would precede the album.
"As it was, the track was too long for a single record, and in the mastering room, the incompetent engineer assigned to the job could not splice the verse out of the track. I never met such a clumsy idiot—completely tone deaf. He kept jockeying the tape back and forth trying to find a simple bass note on which he was to make the splice and couldn't do it. [Pictured above, David Allyn and Tony Curtis at the My Lucky Day session in 1964]
"I offered to push the 'stop' button myself but they wouldn't hear of it. Imagine, my album, and they wouldn't let me touch the 'stop' button. It was the fate of the album and, as most people say, might have been the fate of my career. The engineer handled the tapes so badly and clumsily that he stretched them, which forced us to go to the B-roll, which is known as the safety roll.
"I wanted Woody to postpone the splicing [until Dick Bock returned from vacation], or at least demand a competent man in the studio. And again he wouldn't hear of it because it wasn't that important to him... Those of you who wish The Folks Who Live on the Hill had been a single, you can blame Woody Woodward, as I do, for bungling the job. [Photo above of Dick Bock by Howard Lucraft/CTSImages.com]
"But then again, it was me who wasn't strong enough with Woody. I should have punched him out right there in the mastering room. That would have stopped everything because I was still on parole."
As Claiborne writes: "I am a big fan of David's. I heard him occasionally at the Red Blazer on 46th Street in the '80s or '90s. He sings in tune and has all the warmth of Dick Haymes—without being in any way saccharine. Doesn't show off much. Doesn't have to."
My advice? Grab them fast, while you still can. Both have been out of print for some time and cost a fortune from independent sellers.
Oh, one more thing: Why did David start spelling his last name Allyn? As he told me during one of our conversations, "To change my luck."
JazzWax note: You can read my interview with David Allyn here. The link will take you to Part 1. For additional parts, look above the red date at the top of Part 1, where you'll find a link to the next part. Also, here's another one of my conversations with David.
JazzWax clip: Here's David Allyn singing The Folks Who Live on the Hill. Dig the tender, enveloping arrangement by Johnny Mandel...