Born Lee Francis Allen, 2 July 1926, Pittsburg, Kansas
"Lee Allen was the greatest sax player of all time" - Dave Bartholomew
One of the most important ingredients of the excitement of early rock 'n' roll were the blasting saxophone solos somewhere halfway through the song. Back in the 1950s we knew nothing about the identity of these sax players, as sidemen never received any credit on the sleeve notes of LPs or anywhere else. By the mid-1960s this began to change gradually and one of the first names of session musicians that I became familiar with was Lee Allen.
Born in Pittsburg, Kansas, Lee grew up in Denver, Colorado, and became interested in the tenor sax in his early teens. He came to New Orleans on a music and athletics scholarship in 1943, played with some big bands on campus and soon he knew most of the local musicians. Big bands were declining in popularity after the war ; smaller "jump blues" combos took their place. By October 1947 Allen was a regular member of Paul Gayten's band and as such he was spotted by producer Dave Bartholomew, who was in the process of forming a studio band for sessions at Cosimo Matassa's J&M Studio in New Orleans. Besides Allen, the key members of the studio band were Red Tyler (baritone sax), Ernest McLean (guitar), Frank Fields (bass), Edward Frank (piano) and Earl Palmer (drums). With this talented unit at his disposal, Dave Bartholomew was able to shape a distinctive New Orleans sound to the records he produced, best typified by Fats Domino and Smiley Lewis on Imperial and Shirley and Lee on Aladdin.
Following the fantastic success of Fats Domino, several independent record companies from California and New York started coming to New Orleans to use the band and the studio. The band hardly ever worked with written arrangements. Lee Allen and especially Red Tyler were well-versed in the art of creating quick "head arrangements" in the studio. As a consequence, the independents didn't have to pay a separate fee for an arranger, as they would have been obliged to do in NYC or L.A.
Lee played his searing solos on a countless number of Crescent City classics. A short list of some of my favourite solos follows at the bottom. He played on most of Fats Domino's sessions, but the sax breaks on those recordings were usually assigned to Herb Hardesty. As Lee's style is easily identifiable, I would say that he plays the solos on "I Can't Go On", "I'm In Love Again", "It's You I Love", "Wait And See", "The Big Beat", "Telling Lies", "Ain't That Just Like A Woman" and perhaps a few other Domino tracks. Mind you, it's not just the sax breaks that make Lee Allen great. Red Tyler and Lee Allen riffing in unison behind Little Richard ("Good Golly Miss Molly", "All Around the World" etc.) or Paul Gayten ("Nervous Boogie") - it doesn't get much better than that.
But despite his sax mastery, Allen failed to sustain a brief solo career. In 1956, Aladdin's Eddie Mesner approached Lee about making a record on his own. The result was "Rockin' At Cosmo's"/"Shimmy" (Aladdin 3354), the A-side a blistering instrumental that hardly warranted its poor sales. After signing with Al Silver's New York-based Ember label in 1957 (both as a recording artist and an A&R man), Allen managed one decent-sized hit in 1958, the rocking instrumental "Walkin' With Mr. Lee" (# 54). Five singles and an LP (all recorded in New Orleans with the studio band) appeared on Ember, but of the follow-ups only "Tic Toc" met with modest chart success (#92, September 1958). Somehow Lee's solo records seemed to lack the fire which characterised his session work.
When the New Orleans sound shifted to a funkier beat in the 1960s, Allen's muscular sound fell out of favour on the local recording scene. He joined Fats Domino's band in 1961 and though he still was present on a few isolated recording sessions, he now concentrated on touring with Fats, displaying an intense power and showmanship that raised the musicianship of the entire band. However, the strain of constant travelling dissolved his family and in 1965 Lee decided to pull up stakes and move to Los Angeles. He got a job working in an aeronautics factory, but was still playing music. During the mid-seventies he returned to the Fats Domino band, touring extensively throughout the United States and Europe. I have seen Fats on seven or eight occasions, but the best concerts were those with Lee Allen. The one in 1976 (in Amsterdam or Rotterdam, can't remember) was possibly the best show I ever saw, with a 6-piece horn section led by Lee Allen, Herb Hardesty and Dave Bartholomew.
By the early 1980s Lee was suddenly in demand from a new generation of rockers. In 1981 he played on the second LP of the Stray Cats ("Gonna Ball") and also on the second LP of the Blasters, with whom he toured for many years and recorded three albums. Lee even filled in briefly on the Rolling Stones US tour in the autumn of 1981.
As suggested by his impassioned solos, Allen was a man who lived life full throttle, with a voracious appetite for music, women, smoking, golfing and drinking. At some point in 1992, he apparently drank so much that Domino fired him from his band, though Fats himself hardly set a good example, drinking beer, wine and scotch heavily. Lee was a big man, six foot four. Fats called him 'Long Tall Sally', while Lee called Domino 'Short Fat Fanny'. Allen remained active until his death (of lung cancer) in 1994, the year in which he recorded the fine CD "Crescent City Gold", with his old New Orleans buddies Alvin Tyler, Earl Palmer, Mac Rebennack, Edward Frank and Allen Toussaint.
20 great solos by Lee Allen (the year is the year of recording) :
Paul Gayten, Gayten's Nightmare (1949)
More info : http://tamingthesaxophone.com/saxophone-lee-allen.html
Further reading: Jeff Hannusch, I Hear You Knockin' : The Sound Of New Orleans Rhythm and Blues. Ville Platte, LA : Swallow Publications, 1985, page 239-244.
CD : Walkin' With Mr. Lee (Acrobat ACMCD 4267, UK). 24 tracks, 18 from Ember (1957-58), 3 from Aladdin (1956), 3 from Savoy (1954). Released 2008. Annotated by Bob Fisher. Unfortunately, the sound isn't too good on some tracks (Cat Walk, Strollin' With Mr. Lee).
Acknowledgements : Jeff Hannusch, John Broven (book "Walking To New Orleans"), Bob Fisher, Rick Coleman (Fats Domino's biographer).
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