Born: July 2, 1926, Pittsburg, KS
Died: October 18, 1994, Los Angeles, CA
Chuck Berry’s electric guitar, Earl Palmer’s propulsive drums and Lee Allen’s honking saxophone comprise the instrumental Holy Trinity of rock ‘n’ roll. Although not a Louisiana native, Allen’s session work with Little Richard, Fats Domino and Huey “Piano” Smith more than justifies his recognition as a “Master” of the state’s unique sounds.
You may not know who Lee Allen was, but you cannot have listened to American popular music in the late 20th century and not have heard his saxophone. Quite simply, Lee Allen’s sound is one of the defining sounds of rock ‘n’ roll. Just like Chuck Berry’s guitar, Bo Diddley’s beat, Earl Palmer’s drums, and Dave Bartholomew’s arrangements, Lee Allen’s sound is one of the DNA strands of rock. You can hear it on Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti,” Shirley and Lee’s “Let the Good Times Roll,” Fats Domino’s “I’m Walking,” Tommy Ridgley’s “Jam Up,” Huey Piano Smith’s “Don’t You Just Know It,” Etta James’ “Tough Lover,” any of Paul Gayten’s recordings, and, of course, the classic “Walkin’ with Mr. Lee.”
The man whose saxophone style would define rock ‘n’ roll was born in Pittsburgh in 1926 two days before the Fourth of July. When he was one, his parents moved to Denver where he was raised. He listened to saxophonists such Illinois Jacquet, Lester Young, Ben Webster, and Louis Jordan. His main influence was Coleman Hawkins. In 1943, he received a double scholarship to Xavier University in New Orleans. Besides being a musician, he was an excellent athlete, and he lettered in track, basketball, and football. He also played in bands around town at such hideaways as the Dew Drop Inn and the Tiajuana Club. Failing to graduate by 1947, he was playing steadily with Paul Gayten and Annie Laurie at the Robin Hood.
At the same time he was playing with Paul Gayten and Annie Laurie, he had also had fallen in with what became known as the Studio Band. This was the band that did most of the 1950s recordings in Cosimo Matassa’s J & M Studios on Rampart Street. It included Red Tyler joining Lee on saxophone, Frank Fields on bass, Ernest McLean on guitar, Ed Frank or Salvador Doucette on piano, and Earl Palmer on drums. This was the band that recorded most of the early rock ‘n’ roll that came out of J & M. Specialty Records’ Bumps Blackwell used this band behind Little Richard, as did Imperial’s Dave Bartholomew with Fats Domino. Allen recall in John Broven’s Rhythm and Blues In New Orleans, “Little Richard used the original studio band…That’s when we recorded him, and from then on everything else started. Recordings kept being hits, and they kept on flying down to us. We had the foot-stomping, hand clapping thing. Of course, we usually had a lot of fun in the studio as well, I guess, as you can hear on a lot of the stuff we do, this comes straight from the heart.”
It was during this time that Allen played solos on everything from Smiley Lewis ballads to Guitar Slim burners. Cosimo Matassa remembers him as “an easy-going, soft-spoken man. He was quiet and nice. But those solos! When you turned him loose, look out!” Earl King also confirms this, “He was on my first recording. I mean, he was part of the wallpaper at Cosimo’s studio. Every time you walked into Cosimo’s, you’d see Lee and Red (Tyler) and Earl (Palmer). Lee played solos on everything on Ace. He’s on all the Huey “Piano” Smith records.”
Lee Allen’s solos on these singles are classic. Each one has that joyful, knowing tone, professional approach, and simple notes that either complement or define the song perfectly. Dave Alvin, who toured with Lee Allen in the 1980s with Alvin’s group the Blasters, grew up listening and trying to identify Allen’s solos with his brother Phil. Alvin recalled, “Melody was his passion. When I listen to his solos, even on fast rockers, it’s his subtle, playful, instantly hummable melodies that separate Lee from the less sophisticated honkers. Lee never honked. He could groan, moan and wail a bump and grind blues better than anyone but, as he pointed out to me on several occasions, never honked. I don’t think that I’m going out on a limb by saying that half the reason that so many of the records he played on were hits were because his melodic solos were as much a part of the structure of the song as the chord progressions and lyrics. Fats Domino’s ‘I’m Walkin’’ being a perfect case in point.” Earl King also agreed about why Allen’s solos were instantly memorable and saleable. “He had that commercial appeal that most saxophonists shied away from. Other guys would get too jazzy. Lee stayed commercial and stuck pretty close to the melody of the singers.”
With all this time spent backing others, Lee Allen stepped into the spotlight in 1956 when he recorded “Rockin’ at Cosimo’s” and “Shimmy” for Aladdin Records. “Rockin’ at Cosimo’s” was a terrific instrumental and yet another single that summed up that Studio Band New Orleans sound. However, its limited sales prevented it from becoming a hit. The next year Lee went back into the studio and recorded “Walkin’ With Mr. Lee” for Ember Records. Another instrumental, “Walkin’ With Mr. Lee’s” less frenetic pace led it to the Billboard charts where it spent 11 weeks and peaked as high as #54. Allen told John Broven “We were on a big show with Fats Domino, and at the close of the show Fats was playing ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ and on this show they had Paul ‘Hucklebuck’ Williams’ Big Band, and they were playing with us on that particular tune…I’d come up with this little riff of mine, and these guys (Williams’ band) from New York City said why didn’t I record that. I would play anything the man asked me. That’s how that came up. This guy from New York called up and said, ‘You got a hit.’ It was the time of Dick Clark’s Bandstand, and the tune had hit Dick Clark’s Bandstand and was Number One for about six weeks.”
The follow up to “Walkin’ With Mr. Lee,” “Tic Toc” charted briefly at #92, but Lee now had a band that kept him on the road for the next several years. It included Gerri Hall on vocals, Curtis Mitchell on bass, Placide Adams on drums, and Jack Willis on trumpet. According to Gerri Hall, they played all over the South from North Carolina to Arkansas. All of Allen’s singles are collected on the CD “Walkin’ With Mr. Lee.” They include other great songs such as “Creole Alley” and “Promenade.” When not on the road, Allen produced several records for Ember including tracks by Joe Jones.
Allen rode on the popularity of “Walkin’” for several years. By 1961, he had rejoined Fats Domino’s band and played with the Fat Man until 1965 when he moved to Los Angeles. Allen told Jeff Hannusch in the book I Hear You Knocking that there was still some session work, but that he also took a non-musical job in the aeronautics industry.
Allen lived in Los Angeles during the ’70s and rejoined Fats Domino on several tours. By the early 1980s, he was playing with several rockabilly bands looking for that authentic early sound. These included New York’s Stray Cats and Los Angeles’ Blasters. He had met the Blasters’ Dave and Phil Alvin through a singer named Mary Franklin. He attempted to teach the brothers tenor sax. “Lee was also a very, very, very patient man when it came to teaching and dealing with my brother Phil and I from our adolescence through the Blasters. I still cringe in embarrassment at the memories of him trying to give me tenor sax lessons when I was 14,” says Dave Alvin.
Allen remained in Los Angeles for the rest of his life. One of his final sessions was the Crescent City Gold album in 1994. This reunited him in New Orleans with many of his studio buddies such as Alvin “Red” Tyler, Earl Palmer, Ed Frank, Allen Toussaint, and Dr. John playing new versions of the classic New Orleans canon. After returning to Los Angeles, Allen soon passed away of cancer on October 18, 1994.
Some say that Allen was bitter about not getting the credit he was due for making so many songs hits for so many different artists. He made millions for others while personally earning $42 per session. Dave Alvin says, “He did feel that sidemen deserved more cash if a record was a hit. I can’t imagine those songs without Lee in the same way I can’t imagine Chuck Berry without Johnnie Johnson, Elmore James without Johnny Jones. We can only hope that Lee will get some of that credit now that the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame is finally acknowledging sidemen. The tragedy is that he won’t be around to blow at the ceremony.”
Alvin made sure to add, “I miss him everyday when I wake up and everytime I walk on stage. The nice thing, though, is that whenever I walk into a bar with a decent jukebox or eat in an all night diner or turn the radio dial to an oldies station or see some R&B classics CD compilation being hawked on late night TV, there’s a damn good chance I’ll hear Lee Allen playing. And when I hear him playing I can once again see him smile.”
Lee Allen and his Band: Walkin’ With Mr. Lee (Collectables)