How do you get to speak to your hero and assail him for three hours with the kind of trivial questions that heroes surely get asked every day?
The answer is: you become a music journalist.
This was the career swerve I took when I was introduced to Lee Allen by saxophonist Pete Thomas at a recording session in London, in 1981. It meant that I had a legitimate reason for interrogating someone who was a major influence on my own tenor playing. I would be able to ask mundane questions about his time in New Orleans, his music and his saxophone. Maybe, if his eyes didn’t become too glazed, I would be able to ask him what mouthpiece he used!
For recording this golden information I used Sony’s new invention, the ’Stowaway’ Walkman. After buying a bottle of whisky, myself and another Lee Allen fan, Den Hegarty, called round to his hotel room where we were made welcome by an affable, smiling and as it turned out, very willing interviewee. As I switched on my new gadget, he sipped a glass of whisky and spoke in his own sagely way about the music scene in 1950’s New Orleans, his tenor saxophone and the pitfalls of being a sideman.
Born in Pittsburgh, Kansas in 1926, he grew up in Denver, Colorado, and came to New Orleans on an Athletics scholarship at the age of 17. By the late forties, he knew most of the local musicians and says that he ’worked with just about everybody at this time’.
Around 1949-50, with the help of people like Al Young (a boxing promoter / talent scout who gave a lot of black musicians their first opportunity to record) the recording scene in New Orleans was gaining momentum.
Lee Allen and fellow saxophonist Alvin Tyler co-led the Cosimo Matassa studio band, which was responsible for so many hit records and the subsequent boom in the recording industry in New Orleans. ’After it started’ Lee Allen explains, ’other recording companies from New York, Los Angeles-all over-liked the New Orleans sound they were hearing on the records. So they would bring their artists down to Cosimo’s studio. People like Little Richard, Bobby Charles and Frankie Ford’.
Mac Rebennack, alias Dr. John, actually attributes the success of Little Richard to sidemen Lee Allen and Alvin Tyler (Baritone) saying that it was they who ’put that sound on him’. And Fats Domino’s repertoire would sound very different without the weight of the saxophone section and the solos of Lee Allen or Heb Hardesty.
Allen himself said: ’80% of the records that came out in the fifties were head arrangements done in the studio. All that Little Richard stuff? That’s Alvin Tyler and I…and Earl Palmer (drums). Same on Fats’ stuff too’.
With the recording, touring with Fats, and his own gigging band, work during this time was plentiful, but according to Lee, didn’t pay much, so in 1956 he accepted an offer to work as an A&R man for the New York record labels Herald and Ember. It was while he was working for these companies (he was responsible for the recording of Tommy Ridgley and Lee Dorsey) that somebody suggested to Allen that he make his own record. And no-one was more surprised when ’Walking with Mr. Lee’ reached No. 54 in the billboard charts than Mr. Lee himself: ’ I never had it in my mind I was going to be a front star. Six weeks later I got a call to go on ’Dick Clarks Bandstand’- where it stayed No.1 for six weeks’.
I met Lee twice (without my walkman) years after this interview. Once when I was in the back-up band at a ’Rock ’n’ Roll’ extravaganza and Lee was a guest artist. And the last time was in 1992 when, along with three other horn players, I was touring USA with UK guitar player Gary Moore. We were staying in a hotel in West Hollywood for a few days, so I decided to give Lee a call. He was only too glad to meet up.At this time, there were serious riots in and around the Watts neighbourhood, so Lee said he would drive over to West Hollywood, meet me at a landmark, and then I would guide him to my hotel.At about 3pm a large, midnight blue Cadillac, with white wall tyres, was gliding to a halt outside Barney’s Beanery. We drove to the hotel, met with the others, opened a bottle of scotch and listened to music until late.It was eleven years since our first meeting, and here we were, on the other side of the Atlantic, this time in my brown hotel room, with a gaggle of horn players talking about music: all music, not just R&B.
Lee was as enthusiastic as ever about music, and although he showed a few outward signs of wear, not unnatural in a musician in his mid-sixties, he still had some ambition: he wanted to record a gospel album. He said that he had always loved that kind of music. The first place he would head after arriving at the annual New Orleans Jazz and Blues Heritage Festival was the gospel tent.
As far as I know, this particular ambition was not realised; perhaps because he was too busy being a sideman. And doing all those other things a sideman has to do, besides play your instrument: like chase your money.
Throughout his years with Fats Domino, Lee had been paying a portion of his wages into a pension fund that Fats had thoughtfully set up for his sidemen.
But guess what? No fund, no pension.
He was having more luck with his local musicians union office. They were managing to claim some residuals for the use of some of Lee’s performances in a movie: it seems that some producers felt the classic Rock ’n’ Roll tracks were theirs to use without any attention to matters of copyright.
He appears philosophical about the ups and downs of being a sideman in the ’90’s. And he says he was kept quite busy through the 70’s and 80’s. But when he talks about his time in the multi-cultural gumbo of New Orleans, working with people like his old friend, the influential pianist, Professor Longhair, his eyes sparkle and he begins to smile: “He had a humour about him. He’d call his band anything he wanted to…. Shuffling Hungarians, Troubadours…Bums! ’Fess was like that. It was beautiful to be around him.”
And as the party wound-up in my West Hollywood hotel room, now suffuse by an earth-red sunset, and with the last of the ice being cracked into a glass, I remembered something Lee had said eleven years before, in London, just as my ’interview’ was ending: as the whisky drained and my tape spooled out. He had been reminiscing about his time in New Orleans, and even after filtering out a little end of party nostalgia, the words, in their simple poignancy made me wonder where me and my other musician friends in this room would be in 20 to 30 years time:” But those years…. it was a happy thing. Musicians knew almost all musicians. It was a family type thing. Everybody tried to help as much as they could to keep you going – more so than they do now”.
It turns out that I never ever needed the guise of music hack: Lee was perfectly happy to talk about mouthpieces, music and the music business for as long as anyone wanted. He was the same as any other keen sax player in that respect, even to the point of asking us questions about our set-ups.
Luckily, there remains a sizable legacy of his performances. Albeit sometimes hidden between a few Little Richard choruses, or cruising over a Fats Domino play-out. You start to recognise his style, and he can crop up on any number of records recorded in New Orleans between late ’40s to mid ’60s, and later contributions as a session musician when he was living in Los Angeles.
There is his album made as a front man, ’Walking with Mr. Lee’ and I noticed an album due for release (or re-release?) in March ’04 by Lowell Fulson and featuring Lee Allen, called: ’Blues Show Live at Pit Inn 1980’.
I hope musicians interested in R&B tenor will listen to Lee Allen. He is a sideman who doesn’t deserve to be overlooked.
So the following three years were taken up by touring with his own band. A sideman-turned-bandleader! An experience on which he reflects with a furrowed brow and a little reticence: ’much responsibility, a travelling band. I just got fed up with it and went back with Fats from 1960-’65’.
And five years with Fats meant steady work and some security at a time when the New Orleans music scene, with the help of the Beatles earthquake, was declining. Independent record companies were moving out of town. Musicians too, moved to the studios of New York, Los Angeles or the home of budding Tamla Motown, Detroit.
Eventually, after tiring of the road, Lee left Fats again and followed his friends to Los Angeles, where he lived and worked up until his death in 1994.
At first Lee found the studio network in Los Angeles difficult to break into. Musicians he’d known in New Orleans seemed to be too busy to help or were looking for work themselves. But saxophone player Clifford Scott put some jobs Lee’s way and so did Dr. John. Lee had known Dr. John since he and fellow piano players Alan Toussaint and James Booker were schoolboys hanging around Matassa’s studio, and now he invited Lee to play on his legendary ’Gumbo’ album.
In 1972 I did the debut gig with ’70’s pop band ’Wizzard’ at the Wembley Rock and Roll Festival. From what I remember, some of the headliners were Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Haley, Little Richard and Chuck Berry.
I enjoyed standing a few feet away watching all these people. But two things in particular stick in my mind from that day: firstly, getting hit on the head by a flying coke bottle, and secondly the sax player with Little Richard. His effortless rhythm and blues made a deep impression on me.
I hadn’t been able to put a name to this sax player, until halfway through this interview. Surprisingly, I had been witnessing one of Lee’s first live gigs with Little Richard, having previously only ever worked with him in the studio.
At the time of this interview Lee Allen was back with Fats Domino again. When he wasn’t touring with Fats, then he was back home hustling gigs for either one of his two small combos. With one he played Rock and Roll, the other Jazz.
“Every side musician has this to go through. Small gigs- big gigs. It’s either that or get a 9-5 job. We all understand that when it comes to eating!”
Stark words from my sideman hero. I realise, that in spite of playing and contributing ideas to classic, seminal R&B records, he has exactly the same worries as the rest of us sidemen,
Influences and equipment
For a first generation Rock & Roll saxophone player such as Lee Allen, the Jazz inherent in his playing is obvious.
So whom did he draw on as a young saxophone player?
He mentions the familiar triumvirate of Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster and Lester Young. Then he talks about the Texans; Illinois Jacquet, Arnett Cobb and especially Joe Thomas of the steaming ’Jimmie Lunceford Big Band’. “That’s where I got the growl from”, he says.
The interview was now hurtling towards the inevitable question: the question you always want to ask certain players but avoid because you don’t want to start a yawning epidemic. And so it was, that in a brown, London hotel room, sipping whisky and under the guise of interviewer, I broached the immortal question:
“So. What mouthpiece are you using?”
“I used to use a Berg Larson 120/0 (wide tip opening, brightest tone chamber), but then I had my saxophone stolen-so I went to Mannys music store and said I needed a mouthpiece quick. And I fished around this box of old mouthpieces and guess what I’m on now? A Selmer (D). That’s hard rubber-I don’t like that cold metal in my mouth.”
And the saxophone itself? “On all those recordings I used a Beuscher 400. But I had it stolen and now I’m a Selmer man (Mk V1)”,
On the subject of tone, he adamantly states:” Your tone depends upon yourself! When I was starting out I used to practice 3 hours a day. I’d spend an hour just holding one note and getting as much as I could out of it, keeping the same level on that note. When my note started to bend or I gave out of air, I’d stop and go back to the beginning.”
“So many guys were anxious to get to playing fast. They forgot about what that horn was supposed to sound like”.
I believe the last paragraph contains the essence to Lee Allen’s R&B tenor style, which is sparing, has air between the phrases and has the quality of timbre, which tells the listener: ’trust me’. It confidently states its intention. The right note in the right place. It is a style, which because of its deceptive simplicity could easily baffle a student of be-bop.
©1981 Nick Pentelow