Ricky Allen -- January 6, 1936 – May 29, 2005
Ricky Allen was among Chicago's most popular soul blues artists of the 1960s. He was the first artist with commercial success bridging over from the electrified Delta blues of the 1950's to the soul music of the 1960's and a forerunner to many of the city's soul blues singers of the city that later achieved fame, like Bobby Rush, Bill Coday and Denise Lasalle, Though he had major hit records, he never “crossed over” to the white blues audiences.
Richard A. Allen was born on January 6, 1936 in Nashville, TN. It was in church that he started first singing gospel. Around 1957 Ricky received an offer from James Brown to play with him as a supporting act. But he turned the offer down because James didn't pay too well. Ricky started singing secular music because he couldn't earn any money from his gospel singing. He started hanging out with Earl Gaines and Larry Birdsong (the latter was also a schoolmate of his) and others in Nashville. During that time he was asked to go to Houston to record for Duke Records. Duke's owner, Don Robey, was looking for a similar singer to Atlantic's Clyde McPhatter and thought that Ricky could do. The intention was to record Ricky with a big band and put him between Bobby Bland and Junior Parker. His initial experiences at Duke were not the happiest and Ricky got fed up and went back to Nashville before recording took place.
The next recording experience came courtesy of the Look label, distributed by Dot. “They made me sound like Frankie Avalon. I bet that record sold 20 copies at most”, Ricky remembered ruefully. Later Ricky got a job in Chicago and moved there permanently in 1960.
Ricky Allen's recording break was by pure chance. In 1961 he accompanied Bobby Little, Earl Hooker's drummer, to a Mel London-produced session with Hooker for London's Age label. When the session ended they still had studio time left. That's how he got his chance. Ricky explained, “I had already written “You'd Better Be Sure” and “You Were My Teacher”. I did these two songs”. “You'd Better Be Sure,” released as Age 29102 became his first big hit in Chicago. Two year later Ricky recorded “Cut You-A loose”, Age 29118, which became his biggest hit topping #20 on the national R&B chart and #126 on the pop chart. The song has since then become a true Chicago blues classic, recorded by Otis Rush, Luther Allison, Koko Taylor and many more up till today. Ricky's band featured some of the best musicians in Chicago at that time, for example Frank Swan, drums; A. C. Reed, sax; Earnest Johnson, bass; Ivory Parkes, guitar.
After Age folded, Ricky was recorded for VeeJay by Al Smith but the recording was never released. Al Smith also tried to get Ricky a contract with Mercury. The same week he was shot, Sam Cooke called Ricky and wanted him to record for his Sar label. After Age Ricky recorded for a variety of labels in Chicago: USA, 4Brothers, Bright Star, Apogee, One–Way, Mel Records and Tam-boo. He still had several significant local hits in Chicago (“Going or Coming,” “Can't Stand No Signifying,” “Nothing In This World Can Hurt Me,” “It's A Mess I Tell You” and many more).
Ricky was at the height of his fame from 1961 thru the mid-'60s as one of the most popular artists in Chicago's black community, rivalled by Muddy Waters and Junior Wells. Despite his success, researchers and reissuers have neglected him for over three decades. With the exception of one unpublished 1964 appraisal, originally written for Blues Unlimited magazine (eventually published years later in 'Nothing But The), a few lines in album notes and the occasional mention in books or magazines, nothing in depth had been written about him up to 2000. For over 30 years there was also only one widely known photo of Ricky.
Over the decades three or four of his recordings have appeared on compilations, starting with one issued on Storyville in 1965 ('Chicago Rhythm & Blues Sounds', SLP176). Invariably the same few numbers can be found on 80's compilations such as those on Flyright, Charly or P-Vine. Even today only a few of his original recordings appear on compilations on Fuel 2000 in the U.S. Ricky's entry in Blues Records 1943-70 boasts an impressive list of recordings (over 40) made during a time when most blues artists were struggling with changes in public taste. Failing to cross over to the new, white blues audience and no longer making contemporary R&B, Rick disbanded his band in 1974 and retired from music, drifting into obscurity, working in his laundry business.
Ricky Allen made an attempt at a first comeback 1983. He recorded a single, “Hard Working Woman,” though can't remember for which label. He was not successful and had quit again. In 1993 he made a new attempt, starting a five-piece band. But after he had paid his band after some dates he was left with nothing himself. After that he started his limousine service. He drove his own car and was connected to a private stop. He was still driving his car up till his first heart attack in December 2004.
Ricky Allen was rediscovered by Jefferson, the Swedish blues magazine, which printed his biography in 2000, written by French researcher Sebastian Danchin, as well as several other articles about Ricky. Later a revised biography was printed in England by the renowned blues magazine Blues & Rhythm.
As a result of the rediscovery, Ricky Allen was booked for the 2001 M?nster?s Bluesfestival, the biggest festival in Sweden. When he played the festival, it was the first time Ricky had been outside the U.S.A., except for some touring dates in Canada in the 60's and also maybe the first time he ever performed outside of the black community. He was very well received and the highlight of the festival according to the local press. The first set was recorded and later released on the Swedish Jefferson label, “Ricky Allen – Live”, Jefferson Records SBACD 12657. The recording received very favourable reviews by important blues magazines like Living Blues (US), Blues News (Finland), Soul Bag (France), Blues News (Germany), Soul Bag (France) etc.
In 2002, Ricky Allen played at the Chicago Blues Festival, again very well received. He also made some occasional dates at clubs in Chicago. He was never recorded again.
The funeral will take place the June 6 beteween 10 AM and 12 PM at A.R. Leake Funeral Home, 7800 S. Cottage Grove Ave., Chicago, IL 606 20.
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