Dave Allen and his blues are an eloquent but regrettably overlooked slice of Texas music history and of American blues history. His work is a diamond that was polished to perfection, admired and appreciated by a fortunate few and then sealed in an airless vault, the key to which was long misplaced by the unaware.
Dave was a consummate showman, an exciting guitarist and an inspired singer who could hold virtually any audience in thrall. He could give them the songs they wanted to hear and songs they didn’t know they wanted to hear until they heard them. Most of all though, Dave loved to play the blues. He had already discovered his innate musical talent when he encountered the esoteric world of late-1950s rhythm and blues radio. Galvanized by its overall brilliance and struck to his core by the records of Jimmy Reed, B.B. King and many others, Dave wanted to play this special music and play it well. Regardless of all his other accomplishments and despite any of his shortcomings, he unquestionably achieved and even surpassed that goal.
Dave led a bluesman’s life, with all the personal glory and artistic satisfaction, and with all the self-inflicted strife and sharp disappointment that can result. Lasting fame remains elusive but no one can say that Dave Allen didn’t pay his dues in full.
Although born in Houston on September 27, 1941, David Allen Stich (pronounced “stitch”) spent his childhood and early adolescent years in the small town of Franklin, Texas. A musical prodigy, he began playing the mandolin and fiddle at a young age and was a frequent performer at the Franklin Hillbilly Jamborees in the mid-1950s. His professional career as a guitarist and vocalist began at age 14 when he was recruited by Richard Smith and the Hill Boppers, a local group with a weekly radio show on WTAW in College Station. Specializing in rockabilly and hit pop songs of the day, they played dances and private parties in and around the Central Texas area.
Dave and his family moved back to Houston in 1957 where he took the professional name Dave Allen. He joined Jesse Martinez and the Blue Notes, who were the house band at Van’s Club, later known as Van’s Ballroom. After playing Van’s for over a year, Dave and two other band members, Kenny Lund and Nick Ortega, left Martinez’s band and formed Rockin’ Dave Allen and the Thunderbirds.
In the fall of 1959, Rockin’ Dave Allen had his first record release on Jin records, “Give Me One More Chance” backed with “Rose Marie.” Both were original compositions by Dave who was 17 at the time. “My Broken Heart” followed and was his first record to hit the southern charts. With his third release “Shirley Jean” and then with his fourth “Walking Slowly,” Dave broke into the Top 10 charts of the south. These pop singles led to numerous TV appearances, concert tours and dates at the largest clubs across the southern U.S. alongside such stars as Jimmy Clanton, Roy Orbison, Bobby Vee, Charlie Rich, Mickey Gilley, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Jimmy Reed, Roy Head, Doug Sahm, Chuck Jackson, T-Bone Walker, Bobby Vinton, Gene Thomas, Johnnie Allan, Rod Bernard, Joe Barry, Jivin’ Gene and Doug Kershaw.
An automobile accident that occurred just outside of Texas City in 1962 nearly took Dave’s life. He was thrown from the back seat of a friend’s Chevrolet coupe upon impact, resulting in a deep muscle tear down to the bone of his inner thigh and a critical loss of blood. The driver and the two remaining passengers were even more severely injured when the car was subsequently crushed after rolling over multiple times. Following a long hospital stay during which he heard from almost a hundred of his female fans and after a shorter period of recuperation at home, Dave went back on the road.
Musical trends changed following the British Invasion but Dave was capable of playing rock, blues, jazz and country with equal proficiency. He formed the Flamingos Four with Jerry Woods—a close friend and business associate—and toured the small club circuits, including Las Vegas, before disbanding the group in 1967. A year later, Dave returned to Houston to work as a producer and arranger for International Artists Records.
Although primarily known as the record label of the 13th Floor Elevators and other Texas psychedelic bands, International Artists was also the label for Dave’s masterwork, Color Blind. A guitar-based blues album of original compositions drenched in soul, it was recorded passionately by Dave but released half-heartedly and promoted not at all by IA, which was already beginning its slide into bankruptcy.
With the Dave Allen Trio, he continued to perform around the Houston area with various personnel throughout the 1970s until a serious heart ailment exacerbated by earlier periods of substance abuse sent him into seclusion near the end of the decade. He briefly came out of retirement to work as a producer for Big Orange Records, but mostly divided his time between his residence in Houston and the family farm near Franklin. After years of cardiopulmonary problems, Dave succumbed to pneumonia on April 28, 1985 at the age of 43. He was survived by his parents, his younger brother, his ex-wife and his lovely daughter.
On the day of his death, Dave had felt an overwhelming need to escape the city. He had received an invitation to come to a kind of retreat, a ranch owned by an acquaintance in a rural area of East Texas where musicians would gather. Already desperately ill but wishing to be with the friends and colleagues who spoke his language, Dave got into his car and headed north on Highway 59. Before he could reach the Houston city limits, Dave pulled off the road and slipped into a final unconsciousness mere blocks away from Jensen Drive, where he had blown the roofs off the clubs, where he had made his audiences forget to breathe, where he had played his exquisite blues so many times, where he had shined.
There’s little room for halfway when it comes to the blues nor should there be. Those who play the blues and those who love to listen to the blues understand this essential truth. To those who cannot or will not hear, Dave Allen’s blues made little difference then and will make no difference now. But Dave Allen the musician did nothing halfway.
Dave must share in some of the responsibility for the somber reality that he became marginalized in later years, but others are also culpable and certainly life itself played its own hand. Those of us who carry his torch, who continue to find delight and solace in his recordings and in his memory, may now lift our voices so that Dave Allen’s voice may once again be heard.
Dave’s story must be regarded as a tragic one but, like many tragedies, not without its own unique greatness. He spoke through his Gibson guitar and that guitar spoke for his anguished but beautiful spirit. The proof is still out there patiently awaiting a rediscovery. Some of that proof is on these pages. If you can hear Dave Allen’s blues, if you can feel them, then you will have secured a gift of inestimable value.
— September 27, 2008