Mose's better blues

A trip to Long Island reveals an Allison wonderland

It was at this gas station in the 1930s where Mose heard 78s by Tampa Red, Big Bill Broonzy, Memphis Minnie, and Roosevelt Sykes. A bit later he became entranced with the Buddy Johnson Band, which had great vocalists, including Allison's favorite, Arthur Prysock. Blues balladeer Percy Mayfield was another unique influence. Mayfield's band had four saxophones for whom he wrote a lot of 32-bar blues, a sophisticated lyrical departure from standard Mississippi stuff. Allison recorded three Mayfield songs, which he still performs--"Life is Suicide," "Stranger in My Own Hometown," and "Lost Mind." Allison tried unsuccessfully to get into a Percy Mayfield show at a black club in Jackson, Mississippi. Whites couldn't get into black clubs down South.

Like the great R&B songwriter Doc Pomus, Allison was one of a handful of white blues musicians in the early 1950s. They couldn't play the chitlin circuit, though: During that period the term "Crow Jim" would have had meaning only to the few white blues musicians--it was the reverse of Jim Crow. In the South, whites legally couldn't go to black clubs or play with black musicians, except on the sly. So black friends would sneak Mose into the Blue Moon R&B club in Baton Rouge, where he sat in. Allison was tight with Bill Harvey, B.B. King's first musical director, who'd sneak him into the horn section, where Allison could play trumpet. B.B.'s first bass player, Sheeny Walker, had Mose over to his house for jam sessions and snuck him into other joints on Beale Street, especially the Mitchell Hotel in Memphis, for gigs.

Allison can remember no ill will directed his way at any of the all-black establishments. He was a musician; he came in connected. Only whites gave him a hard time, such as the time a couple of detectives in Chicago ran him out of a black club, warning he'd get his throat cut in there. Since he couldn't read music well, he didn't get hired for Southern variety shows, featuring comedians and dancers with their own music. But the R&B bands on Beale Street rarely used horn charts or written arrangements; everything was done by ear.

Mose and Audre Allison moved to Dallas for a few months in the early '50s to be near his good friend, drummer Bill Patey. Audre got a job at the Adolphus Hotel. Local variety entertainment agent Chick Scoggin sent him to Waco; Longview; Jackson, Mississippi; and Louisiana. He was never employed by Jack Ruby, but did work a strip club in Odessa. "That was like the other side of the moon or something," he recalls. "Lotta oil money. The strip club was run by the sheriff. 'Night Train,' that's all you had to know for the strippers. It was easy. I was there a couple of weeks, and they had three murders locally. So the sheriff had to keep leaving the club."

Allison took eight years to get through college, beginning at Ole Miss, with an 18-month interruption for the army at the end of World War II. He played trumpet with the 179th Army Ground Forces Band in the States. Finishing with an English major at Louisiana State, Mose wrote a few short stories in college. He recalls a literary magazine's rejection letter from the late 1940s. It said his story showed promise but didn't flow. "It was a bunch of vignettes about Tippo, Mississippi," he says. "It wasn't supposed to flow." This single rejection stopped him in his tracks; he never tried his hand at fiction again.

Allison first went to New York in 1951, the only destination for an aspiring jazz player. "I played with Brew Moore, a real good tenor player from Mississippi, one of my favorites of all time," he recalls. "He knew everybody in New York. There were lofts where you'd go around for jam sessions. Hardly anybody was working during the summer of '51. All these people I'd been readin' about were standing around scufflin'. Miles Davis was workin' only an occasional Monday night at Birdland. Gerry Mulligan was workin' only an occasional night out in Queens someplace."

Allison's point man in New York was legendary jazz player Al Cohn, who set him up in Manhattan. "When I came back to live there in '56, it had perked up a lot. I'd met Al's wife, a singer named Marilyn Moore, when playing down in Galveston. She sat in singing, and she liked what I was doing, and told me if I ever came to New York to call Al, and gave me his number. Al picked me right up, had me and my wife out to dinner and the whole number. He referred me to people. He was writing arrangements for everybody at the time. Then he and Zoot Sims started playing a lot, and Al got me on my first record date. Al and Zoot swung so hard. They were two of the most respected players; they had fans among everybody--there was no racial thing."

The 1960s were golden years, when labels like Atlantic could afford to have prestige artists, who brought respect to the company without necessarily toting in bags of loot. Respect alone, and all its abstract benefits, was actually worth something. In the early '60s, Atlantic might sign someone like Solomon Burke or Mose Allison within minutes of their merely walking through the office door on Columbus Circle in New York.

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