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A Fond Farewell

A humble history-maker

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The first time I met Hoss Allen, he told me a story about the day he cut Jimi Hendrix out of the mix at a recording session. As Allen recalled, he was booked to produce some long-forgotten R&B record but couldn’t find an available guitarist. So bassist Billy Cox told Allen, “I’ve got a great guitar player,” and brought in Hendrix. Allen was just looking for a basic “chunka-chunka” rhythm track. But Hendrix, as we know, played in quite another style altogether. As the session progressed, Allen grew so exasperated trying to get Hendrix to lay off the screaming flights of electric fancy that he finally told the engineer, “Just turn him off.”

Looking back, Allen laughed and said, “When I think what those tapes would have been worth now....”

This, I came to learn, was the Hossman’s favorite kind of story to tell on himself: one that threw the spotlight on his career foibles and blown opportunities. If not the Hendrix episode, then he’d relay how in 1950 he turned down an opportunity to join Randy Wood of Randy’s Record Shop as a partner in the fledgling Dot Records. Six years after Hoss passed on the deal, Dot was so successful that Wood took the label to Hollywood. Another time, Allen would recall how Bobby Hebb once left him the demo of a song he thought Allen might be interested in publishing. Allen never bothered to play the tape. The song turned out to be “Sunny,” a tune that now ranks not far behind the Beatles’ “Yesterday” in the realm of BMI multi-“million-air” compositions. And still another time, Hoss would shake his head and laugh while remembering a road trip he took up the East Coast to promote some obscure white vocal group that he and a partner had just recorded. While approaching the station where Baltimore’s top jock held sway, Allen tuned in the car radio to hear that jock spin for the first time Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me.”

“And here I was, wanting to get him to play our little record,” Hoss would say.

In other words, Hoss Allen had in spades a characteristic ever in short supply in Music City—the ability to laugh at himself. One of the absolute giants of R&B and gospel radio, he nevertheless delighted in calling attention to the many career missteps and bumbled near-fortunes that marked his journey to broadcast fame. I believe he told these tales not only for their humor but also because he knew such failures for the inconsequential matters they were. He knew such things because, along that same career journey, he had come so very close to failing in important ways, the pain of which no laughter could have salved. An alcoholic for many years, he knew the torment he had caused his family during the worst of times, and he knew how much of his children’s upbringing he had missed. Having recovered—he stayed sober the last 25 years of his life—he also knew how lucky he was to have survived and been forgiven. The tales no one heard were from his later years—about the friends he helped pull through the same kind of trouble he’d known.

There was always more to Hoss’ yarns than self-deprecating irony. For within his litany of lost riches and errant enterprise reverberated the rhythm of the North Nashville combos and gospel choirs he so loved. It was the rhythm of history being made by hopelessly underpaid men and women. Allen and his friends left great wealth behind, but theirs was not, for the most part, a community that grew wealthy while changing the world. Most of the pioneer R&B jocks lived from one single to the next, from one spin to another, working whatever angles were available and taking whatever cut of the action was offered. Payola was legal until 1960; after that it simply changed forms. The deejays were taken care of, but you didn’t see many lasting empires built. To Allen, who loved the music, it hardly mattered. He only needed to hear the voice to send James Brown’s “Please Please Please” into maximum-wattage rotation, which is what he and his WLAC buddy John Richbourg did before anyone else in the country.

Make no mistake, it did matter to Allen that credit be given where credit was due. It bothered him if some R&B legend wrote his or her autobiography without mentioning any of the jocks who had helped along the way. It also disturbed him that he and John R attracted so much more press than their ’LAC colleague Gene Nobles. “Gene’s the one that started the whole thing,” he’d say. And though he knew that Alan Freed has always been credited with broadcast innovations more accurately due the WLAC crew, it offended Allen’s sense of justice that Freed took the fall for an entire industry when America declared war on rock ’n’ roll.

“Everybody turned their back on him,” Hoss said, “all the record guys, all the people that he’d helped.”

Still, bitterness was not a mood that settled with Hoss. On the contrary, his sense of the absurd was far too acute for him to rage at gods or record men. This was, after all, a deejay whose marvelous voice sold baby chicks notorious for the havoc their evil breeding could sometimes wreak on a barnyard. “One woman wrote in, said it attacked their dog,” he told me.

As much as anything, Allen simply loved the unregulated chaos of radio as he knew it in the 1950s, of an era when simply to play James Brown was to rewire the circuits of the American psyche. “There was never a night that I could not wait to get here,” he said. “At 4 o’clock I started getting nervous. I started thinking about—‘Gee, what’s gonna happen tonight?’ ”

Which is precisely the question a generation asked while tuning in to the Hossman. He and his friends gave an electric vibe of immediacy to the midnights of cold-war dread. In the end, Allen’s best story was the one too vast for him to tell or even know: that he not only made history, but also helped people engage with history as it broke apart around them. With transistors humming and Hoss Allen shouting, “It’s git-down time!” the question was never will there be a tomorrow, but what’s gonna happen tonight?

A man who loved music

The death last week of legendary disc jockey Bill “Hoss” Allen marked the end of an era that forever changed the face of music. One of Middle Tennessee’s most celebrated sons, Allen was responsible for helping to bring the vibrant music of black America into homes all across the country and even the world. During the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, he and cohorts Gene Nobles, John Richbourg, and Herman Grizzard broadcast blues and R&B over WLAC-AM’s 50,000-watt signal. In the process, they exposed 15,000,000 listeners to some of America’s most celebrated performers and helped to launch the careers of such artists as Muddy Waters, James Brown, and Otis Redding.

Allen died Tuesday, Feb. 25, at St. Thomas Hospital, where he’d been for several months after suffering a thoracic aneurysm. Born in Gallatin, Tenn., 74 years ago, he had dedicated his entire life to music, whether working as a deejay, as a producer, or as a record label talent scout.

After graduating from Vanderbilt in 1948, Allen began his career as host of the “Harlem Hop” on WHIN-AM in Gallatin. One year later, he took a part-time position at WLAC, hosting audience-participation shows at the Hermitage Hotel and filling in for Gene Nobles. He took over Nobles’ 10:15 p.m.-to-midnight slot when the deejay retired in 1956.

All told, Allen spent 46 years at WLAC, surviving six owners, two location changes, and countless program directors. Throughout his career, he managed, booked, and produced a number of acts, including the Fairfield Four, Joe Tex, Lavern Baker, and Earl Gaines. Even as the glory days of WLAC’s R&B programming waned, Allen remained with the station, hosting a gospel broadcast that ran for over two decades.

In an interview last year, Allen said it never occurred to him that he was making history. “I was just so knocked out that I could make a living by coming in and sitting down and playing records that I loved to listen to,” he said. “I would have probably been playing them at home if I hadn’t come into the radio station. It would’ve been a hobby.”

Allen’s influence is indeed immeasurable. Countless teenagers hid radios under their pillows so that they could listen to this seductive music without their parents’ knowledge.

Perhaps even more remarkable is the number of people in the music industry today who cite Allen as a direct influence. Waylon Jennings listened to WLAC, as did Bob Seger, Charlie Daniels, and Tracy Nelson. Wolf Stephenson, vice president of Malaco Records, purchased his very first record “with a little hole” after hearing it on WLAC. That record was Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Two Steps From the Blues”; Stephenson now produces Bland. Producer Bill Szymczyk ordered his first “race” records through WLAC while growing up in Michigan. The first time he heard B.B. King was on WLAC; he went on to produce King’s “The Thrill Is Gone,” one of Allen’s favorite songs of all time. Also tuning in early on were Alan Freed and Wolfman Jack, two deejays whose fame eventually eclipsed that of their role models on WLAC.

Allen, for his part, downplayed his on-air performance. The music, he argued, was the star. “I have heard many many DJs who were a lot more personable, professional, and maybe even knowledgeable,” he said. “I was just myself. I was just the Hossman. It was a name that grew into a personality. It might never have happened without the power of the radio station or the music that we were playing, which was so new at the time. I guess it’s the old adage, the right place at the right time.”

But Randy Wood, whose Randy’s Record Shop sponsored Allen’s show, argued that Allen’s personality helped sell records. “He was completely unique, you might say. He had his own personality, and he was very creative.... He didn’t copy anyone, he was an original.”

Yet Allen did more than bring R&B to the American people and to the world—no small achievement in itself. In an era when both laws and social mores kept blacks and whites apart, Hossman taught his listeners that music was colorblind. In the process, he helped to break down some of the barriers between races.

“The civil rights movement was contentious, and a lot of people resisted it,” says Dr. Paul Fischer, a professor who teaches about Allen and WLAC in a recording-industry history course at MTSU. “But popular music was irresistible. It was the music and the pioneers who brought that music to mass audiences who were some of the most successful and most public renegotiators of race relations.”

Allen didn’t just talk the talk, though. He was fair to all of the R&B artists with whom he worked—an uncommon practice at a time when white music executives quite frequently took advantage of black performers. “He had not a prejudiced bone in his body,” blues great Little Milton remembered. “He treated me with total respect and friendship.”

Just as remarkable is the fact that Allen felt as much at home in Belle Meade as he did on Jefferson Street. A true Nashville blueblood, he was a descendent of one of the city’s first settlers. But much as he enjoyed the Belle Meade Country Club, he was just as comfortable in the New Era nightclub.

Allen’s ability to navigate such diverse social circles was quite evident at the funeral service held for him this past Friday at the Cathedral of the Incarnation. The diverse, racially mixed crowd of 400 that had gathered to honor him included affluent Nashvillians, music industry veterans, friends, and fans. Everyone present had been touched by Allen in a different way. Some bought radio advertising from him, some were the faces behind the music he played, while others had simply listened to him for decades.

Bobby Jones and four other singers began the service with “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” followed by “I’ll Fly Away” and “Amazing Grace.” With the exception of remarks made by Hoss’ son, Rogan, the music was the most moving tribute of the day. It was scaled down, reduced to pure harmony and passion—a testament to the very music that had inspired Hoss throughout his life.

Rogan Allen remembered his father as a personality who was hard not to admire. “Dad had a hard time finding balance between an exciting career and his family,” he said. “My mother put up with him through some hard times, but their love never wavered.” Indeed, Allen’s radio heyday was in many ways a difficult time in his life. Alcoholism cost him his marriage in the 1960s, and it wasn’t until 1971, when he sobered up, that he reunited with his wife, Nancy.

As he continued, Rogan Allen made it clear why Bill “Hoss” Allen had made such an impact on so many people’s lives. Hoss didn’t just love music, he pointed out. Hoss also loved people—all people: “He saw past all divisions and boundaries and showed us all what love was really about.”

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