Oral History

Dave Allen’s family and friends are constantly looking for stories about Dave for this oral history page, along with any rare recordings, photos, film or memorabilia. We will never use your name without permission and your e-mail address will always be kept confidential.

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Charles Ellison, 72, is a singer, songwriter and artist. He lives in Central Texas. When David was eleven years old, he wore a size twelve shoe. I remember that very well. That was odd that somebody had that big a foot when they were eleven years old. David and I had been playing straight country music in Franklin off the back of a flatbed truck in the summer of 1954. David played the guitar and I sang and played the rhythm guitar. Bill Haley and the Comets had just come out with “Rock Around the Clock” and then about a year later Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, all of those people came out, and we liked that kind of music.

David was playing lead guitar, mostly what Scotty Moore from Elvis’s band would play, an early version of rock guitar. Back then, it was unheard of for anybody to play a lead guitar around Franklin. The electric guitar was just starting to come into existence. He was super talented and his fingers were long. He could reach the frets that others couldn’t reach. He wasn’t at that time a great singer, but he developed that later on. His voice was breaking and he couldn’t hit some notes at that time. He wasn’t interested in singing anyway, although he did have an ear for singing harmony. All the musicians really respected him as a kid because he was better than most of them.

Kenny Lund, 66, is a pianist. He lives in Houston. As best I can recall, Rockin’ Dave was introduced by Nick Ortega as a possible guitar player for the house band at Van’s Club on Fulton. He came there one night and sat in. The first song he did was “Long Tall Sally” and did it in a key that was too high and his voice broke. The audience wasn’t responding real well and I turned to Dave and said “Do you know ‘Okie Dokie Stomp’?” He said “Yeah.” I said “Key of C. Go!” We played it and we brought down the house. At least three hundred people in Van’s and they all were screaming. I’m getting goosebumps just remembering it.

The house band at Van’s was a little bit better than average and then when Dave joined it, it took a huge turn upward. I was already in the band and it seemed like we changed our name every couple of weeks. We were the Fabulous Flames until Nick realized that that was the name of James Brown’s band, then it was the Blue Notes. The next name was almost the Hustlers after the Paul Newman movie that was popular at the time, and there was also the B-58 bomber jet that was called the Hustler that, as an airplane nut, I really liked. And then somebody said “Thunderbirds” and that became it.

We had started out with Top 40 since everybody else played those songs in the clubs. Rockin’ Dave and I started drifting off of Top 40 and into the two black radio stations in town, KCOH and KYOK, and listened to Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and Little Richard. Dave got way into Jimmy Reed. Sometimes we would hear someone we knew from southern Louisiana. We had started a more or less weekly thing of driving to Louisiana to the bars that were right across the border. Some of the bands were worth driving a hundred and twenty miles to see. We got to know Rod Bernard, Jimmy Clanton, John Fred and all the south Louisiana entertainers.

Dave was playing a Fender Stratocaster at about that time and then he moved to a Jazzmaster because his fingers were unusually long. The Jazzmaster had extended spacing between the frets and should have easier for him but I don’t know that it actually was easier because it doesn’t seem like he had that guitar for long. Dave could play anything. He was very good at jazz, but Houston in the fifties would not support jazz. He and I once had a little jazz combo together and we got so good at it that we couldn’t get a job anywhere.

D. Patrick, 64, is a bassist. He lives in Leesville, Louisiana. When I was a kid, David was working at Van’s on Fulton. The bandstand was in the back of the club and, outside the club in the back, they had air conditioning units. I used to sneak out of the house at night and lay on top of those air conditioning units and listen to David work. He was hell on wheels as far as I was concerned. I was an aspiring musician and I was off into the blues, and I had never heard a white guy play like that.

The difference between David and, say, another musician who might have it all technically was that David had heart. David had soul. I recognized it and that’s what inspired me. It’s a certain feeling. I can’t explain it to you, but if you get a few people on a stage and they’re all of one mind, it’s like magic. It’s a feeling better than drugs or booze, like no other I’ve ever had in my life. And David could give me that feeling when we played together. He could bring you to tears. I could get on a stage with him and just be floating up there. It’s like you come out of your body and only the sound exists and you’re part of it. I don’t care what you play when that’s happening, you cannot make a mistake.

Unlike me, David didn’t have to practice much on his own. He would rehearse with his band in the afternoons sometimes, but he was like a kid in school who made straight A’s and never had to crack a book all year. David was just gifted. I don’t remember him ever sitting down and trying to figure out a lick. He could hear it and then pretty much play it. So if you got on the stage with David, you’d better have your ducks in a row. Once he started counting, you were off to the races. He could come up with some wild improvisation. He could blow your mind. That’s the kind of player he was. He was that good. David would put you through the paces, make you work hard and get as much out of you as you had to give.

Gene Thomas, 70, is a singer and songwriter who has written several hit songs, including “Sometimes,” “Playboy,” “Rings of Gold” and “Lay It Down.” He lives in Fredericksburg. I met Dave in the sixties, can’t remember exactly where or under what circumstances, but somehow we hit it off. We played a thousand games of all-night poker and you could never win against him because he would always borrow back until he won. We drank a lot, played places here and there—some together, some apart. Dave was one of the great guitar players. It was obvious. Dave and I shared a big liking for Jimmy Reed, simplistic though his music may be. It was pure and it was real. Dave played a lot of Jimmy Reed, a lot of B.B. King and all the old-time blues stuff, but he could play all kinds of music, like “Misty” or “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” He just didn’t choose to because he mostly focused on blues, his version of the blues.

The last time I saw Dave was when I came back to Houston around 1984 after a reclusive period I spent in East Texas. One time, he called and it bothered him that I had gotten sober through A.A. and he couldn’t see me doing that. I didn’t have any real explanation for it other than I had reached the end. He wanted to know how I had bought into the program. It was almost like he thought it was kind of a sell-out. Even before that though, he had started calling me “Clean Gene” and I called him “Dirty Dave.” He called me that so much that other people started calling me that. My drummer even put it on his drumhead: “Clean” Gene Thomas.

But Dave was a mighty player. A lot of guitar players, they’re all hotter than the other guy is and they’re all the next somebody or another. Mechanically speaking, a lot of them are fast and this or that. But guys who stand out like Jimmy Reed or B.B. King have their own styles and so did Dave.

Wil Stich, 55, is Dave Allen’s brother. He has residences in Franklin and Houston. David was twelve years older. That’s significant because when I was six, he was eighteen and had been playing in clubs and living the life of an adult for two or three years. Early on, he was mostly a mystery to me. He came and went at odd hours and disappeared for weeks at a time, but when he was around, you knew it. The household was disrupted by a strange energy he projected. He was always late for something, anxious to get to the next thing whatever it may be.

In 1960, I was dimly aware that he was a successful musician, but I was too young to understand or much care. He was my big brother who took me to a movie once in a while or taught me card games or pulled pranks on me. He would almost never sit around the living room and play the guitar. The only exception was when Gene Thomas visited. David would break out his Silvertone acoustic, rusty strings and all, and trade old country songs against Gene’s original compositions. There wasn’t much possibility of fancy guitar work on such an instrument, but I remember that David’s mournful vocals would give me the chills. I loved watching and listening to him and Gene play.

I must have been sixteen when I first heard Color Blind. David was very excited about the album and played some cuts on our crappy record player. I was mortified when I first heard it. I had no knowledge of the blues, no experience with that type of music, and I didn’t know what to make of this screaming, anguished sound coming at me which was, supposedly, issuing from my brother. As idiotic as it seems to me now, I was embarrassed for him and at a loss for the words of praise that I knew the occasion required. The only thing I could think of to say was that I thought his guitar sounded like a saxophone. It turned out that I was more right than I knew and the comment actually pleased him.

About a year or so later, around 1971, my parents got a call from David that his wife was leaving him and he needed to come home. Up to this point, David had always seemed to be a so-called type-A personality. He was energetic, opinionated, informed on many subjects, and the only strong emotion I’d ever witnessed from him was anger or outrage. But a broken man walked into my parents’ house. He took the extra bed in my room and that’s when I finally got to know my brother. Unfortunately, this was also the beginning of his long downhill slide into debilitating depression, aggravated by substance abuse, from which he never recovered.

It was unpredictable, but he sometimes rallied in short spurts in the subsequent years. He’d forget the death wish temporarily and try again, but it never quite worked out for him and each failure reaffirmed his commitment to his own destruction. In my teenage years, I would drive him around Houston, mostly in the worst parts of town, on errands unknown. I would wait in the car, especially at bars because I was too young to get in. One afternoon, we stopped at a bar on Telephone Road and for reasons I don’t recall, I was allowed to go inside. There was a band playing and David was greeted as some sort of celebrity. The bandleader literally begged David to sit in and play. At first, he declined but eventually relented and went out to the car to get his Gibson. I didn’t quite know what to expect.

The first thing I noticed was a physical change that came over him when he stepped on the bandstand. His face changed somehow. There was a look of seriousness and quiet competence about him. It was as if the stage, that small platform, was the only place in this world where he truly belonged. My God, I’ll never forget what happened next. He did his version of “The Thrill is Gone.” He loved B.B. King and the opening instrumental section was faithful to the original. Then he gave it the Dave Allen treatment. His fingers flew in a combination of speed runs and staccato jazz riffs that’s impossible to describe, all the while weaving in and out of the melody of the song in a way that was a respectful and heartfelt homage to King. The bar went absolutely wild.

It was like a religious experience. It wasn’t simply a good or great performance of a song. Something else happened that day. David called it “getting his soul” and it was probably the most astonishing thing I’ve ever seen in my fifty-plus years. In the years to follow, I saw David do this a few more times. He always played well but the magical transformation was never guaranteed. Frankly, he would sometimes just phone it in. He just wanted his fifty bucks and a bottle of vodka.

I’ve seen a couple of other guys connect like David did on Telephone Road though, in a spiritual way. I saw a sax man named Bobby Jett do it. I saw Johnny Winter play like that one time at Liberty Hall. After that day, I learned to love the blues. I bought every blues record I could find from country blues to Ray Charles to Bobby Bland. I came to love Color Blind and appreciate the genius of the work. I regret that there weren’t more recordings like it, but the label folded shortly after the album’s release. Because of that and other reasons, David’s life ceased to have any meaning for him. Color Blind tells his story though. It tells what happened.

Gary Redeker, 54, is a writer and Dave Allen’s biographer. He lives in Houston. While it was no secret that Dave enjoyed his vodka, usually Popov mixed with an Orange Crush when I knew him, it never appeared to affect him. I had gone to high school with his brother Wil, and I had hung out with both of them at their house frequently over the course of many years. At one point, I even lived there for several months. Dave would almost always have a Marlboro 100 going with a drink near at hand—regardless of the time of day—or he would be sipping from his glass flask of terp when he could still find the right pharmacy, but he never seemed to be obviously high. I realize now that he must have been inwardly unhappy with himself much of the time, but he was invariably jovial and friendly whenever I happened to be around. I still think of him as a guy who loved to laugh and joke around with you.

Dave was a voracious reader, mostly of what would now be called the canon of New Age literature: Edgar Cayce, Carlos Casteneda, Paul Twitchell, Patrick Flanagan when he was in vogue. He loved that stuff. He probably took it too seriously, but he was way ahead of the public trend because those writings became more popular and well known in the following decade. It wasn’t in any way what one might think of as occult material, though. It was more related to esoteric paths towards self-actualization. For instance, yoga is mostly about that. The physical exercises and stretching are a very small part. The idea that a higher level of consciousness was methodically obtainable, without the use of drugs, greatly appealed to Dave. I wouldn’t necessarily call that a bad thing to wish for, but it’s not a socially acceptable goal in a conservative Christian culture.

I think it’s fair to say that Dave aspired to mysticism, as countless others have done throughout thousands of years of religious history, from Hinduism to Catholicism. It only recently occurred to me to look at it this way, but I believe that he had sometimes achieved a certain personal form of spiritual transcendence playing his music and—no longer having that outlet due to his stalled career—he was looking for some way to re-create those experiences. I also believe that these experiences happen primarily to people with a well-developed artistic imagination, but similar types of revelatory sensations are not really all that uncommon. They can take various forms. How many otherwise rational people have you heard say that God or Jesus spoke to them? It’s all ultimately the same sort of thing, but as an actual intellectual pursuit it’s probably one that’s best kept to yourself, because a lot of people are going to react unfavorably if you talk about the specifics of it too much, which Dave had a tendency to do.

The Dave Allen Trio frequently played in Houston in the mid-seventies. I’d try to see them whenever I could, but one night really stands out in my memory. It was at a club on Jensen Drive that I think was called the Horseshoe Lounge. It was a regular, run-of-the-mill bar that featured live music, which was a lot more common in neighborhood clubs back then than it is today.

Dave was always worth seeing but, for whatever reason, on this particular night at the Horseshoe he was really on. He had been playing with the McClain brothers for some time and the band was tight. Widdy was a solid drummer before he retired from music and Pat was, and still is I’m sure, a phenomenally gifted bass player. I’m talking about somebody on the same musical level as Jack Bruce. Dave would never announce what song he was going to play next, he would just launch right into it to create a seamless set. I’ve seen him totally surprise other musicians when he did that. It was easy to get caught flat-footed. But Widdy and Pat were right there with him.

Now this was an average Northside joint, nothing fancy. I don’t recall that there was even a cover charge. But on that night, that place turned into a concert hall. Everybody in there, absolutely everybody, even the cocktail waitresses, had their eyes and ears glued on that bandstand all night. No one was even ordering drinks during Dave’s sets. They were cheering, standing up and applauding like I had never seen in a nightclub before.

The closest thing I can compare it to in terms of intensity and crowd reaction in a confined area was about ten years later when I saw Stevie Ray Vaughan in a relatively small venue shortly before he released his first album. But Vaughan was already a known quantity around Texas at that point. People came out specifically to see him. At the Horseshoe with Dave, I’m not sure how many of those people just happened to be there not knowing that they were about to be treated to this incredible show. A lot of people seemed kind of stunned, including me even though I was somewhat familiar with Dave’s music. It was a very long time before I understood that Dave used to do shows like that almost every night for years on end.

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Franklin Farm Landscape of the farm where Dave spent his childhood. (2009 photograph taken in Franklin.)
Franklin Schoolhouse Dave attended Franklin High School until he moved to Houston with his family. Although referred to as a high school, this was in fact the only school in town and taught grades 1-12. Dave was in the first grade when this photo was taken for the school yearbook. (1949 photograph taken in Franklin.)
Robertson County courthouse Robertson County Courthouse grounds where Dave performed in the Franklin Hillbilly Jamborees as a preteen and teen. (2009 photograph taken in Franklin.)
New Baden Jamboree building The country music jamborees moved four miles east to New Baden during Dave’s tenure with the weekly event and took up residence in this building, still in operation. (2009 photograph taken in New Baden.)
New Baden general store New Baden General Store, built in 1906 and still in operation, where Dave bought soft drinks and snacks during his participation in the New Baden Jamborees. (2009 photograph taken in New Baden.)
Dance Town U.S.A. Dance Town, U.S.A. was a landmark honky-tonk on Airline Drive where Dave performed in the mid-1960s. Now a bingo hall, Dance Town has not operated as a music venue for many years but retains its original and distinctive sign. (2008 photograph taken in Houston.)
Cedar Lounge SugarHill Recording Studios is the oldest continuously operating studio in Texas. Dave recorded Color Blind here in 1968, when it had been leased by International Artists for all of its recordings. The current, more attractive entrance is to the right but, in the late ’60s, the blue door on this side of the building was the primary point of access. (2009 photograph taken in Houston.)
Cedar Lounge The Lidstone Street first-floor apartment, just around the corner from SugarHill, where Dave, his wife and their infant daughter lived in 1968 during the recording of the Color Blind sessions. After many years of neglect, the building is now undergoing a degree of renovation. (2009 photograph taken in Houston.)
Cedar Lounge One of only two Houston clubs still in operation under their original names where Dave is known to have performed in the latter part of his career. The Cedar Lounge on Airline Drive (coincidentally across the street from Dance Town, U.S.A.) was a notorious “pressure cooker” club that would have a full band playing as early as 1:00 p.m. on weekdays. (2008 photograph taken in Houston.
Ollie Motel The Ollie Motel is a weekly-rate motel on Airline Drive. Dubbed the “Sheraton Unusual” by a member of the Dave Allen Trio, the Motel Ollie was Dave’s home for a significant period of time during which Dave performed at the Cedar Lounge and at the Vagabond Club on the North Freeway near Airline Drive. (2008 photograph taken in Houston.)
Oasis Lounge The second of only two Houston clubs still in operation under their original names where Dave is known to have performed in the latter part of his career. The Oasis Lounge on Irvington Boulevard was a neighborhood nightclub with a live band featured on the weekends. (2008 photograph taken in Houston.)