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"Please Give Me Something"
Interview By Steve Kelemen
Many things can be said about Bill Allen. He is personable. He has wit and humor and he is responsible for one of the 'wildest' rockabilly songs ever recorded. Here is his story:
Dean Hanley - Bill Allen - Jonny Seli
Imperial Records promo picture. Bill's mother made the shirts.
Our family emigrated from Europe to the United States prior to the Revolution and participated in every war, including the independence of Texas.
Grandfather was a farmer and town blacksmith in Sullivan, OH.
Grandmother was the church organist and choir director. They had four children.
Father was Wilfred A. Snivley (German-American). He was a pilot, wing-walker, race car driver and master mechanic, and has a good voice.
Mother was Violet L. Snivley (Irish).They had four children.
I was born June 5, 1937, just south of Akron on the east shore of Portage Lakes. My brother, Jack, followed 18 months later.
My mom said the only thing that would quiet me down as a baby was when I heard Burl Ives on our radio. By the age of two, I knew several of his folk songs by heart.
In 1940, my father was transferred to Austin, TX. along with the Firestone Test Fleet. The first song I learned there was 'The Eyes of Texas'.
In 1941, we were transferred to San Antonio immediately after Pearl Harbor and assigned to the US Army Motorized Test Unit . We lived off-base in a suburban area. I was enrolled in Will Rogers Grade School. My father was involved in releasing shipments of new army vehicles to war zones. Jack and I just had fun playing with our toys and singing war songs and Christmas carols.
In 1943, my father was sent back to Akron and a few days later my mother drove us boys home in her '1936 Ford' two-door sedan. No power steering or air (long hard trip). God bless that woman.
In 1944, by the time my younger brother, Jim, was born, I would sing most of the songs I heard in movies. I saw - Over The Rainbow, When You Wish Upon A Star, Zipadee Doo Dah, etc. My parents then bought a small house in Goodyear Heights that became our permanent home.
In 1945, I joined the boys choir at our Baptist church. We had about twenty voices and a great female director.
1n 1946, we had a baby sister Judi. Suddenly, she had three older brothers as body guards. We got a little over-protective at times.
In 1949, my dad bought a small black and white TV set. Arthur Godfrey had a weekly show where he played a ukelele and sang Hawaiian songs. So, I got a cheap uke, taught myself how to play along with him, and sang those silly island songs. I soon graduated to folk and R&B music. Obviously, I wasn't a purist. I liked any words and harmonies that told a story. Teenage motivation was mostly puppy-love and sexual awareness.
My personal income came from doing odd jobs for neighbors, washing cars at a local gas station and being a soda jerk in the corner drugstore. I worked as hard as I played.
Around the age of 15, on the way home from baseball practice one day, I met two guys (Bill Pappano and Gene Darrah) sitting on a retaining wall playing Gibson 3/4 cut-away guitars. I asked if they would let me sing with them. Later, I bought a Martin Tenor Guitar and a whole new world of music was ahead of me: country, folk, popular, blues and, of course, rock & roll. The three of us played at parties, teen clubs and anywhere we found people who would listen.
The local 50's scene in our area was typical of the rest of the country. Uniform of the day was t-shirts, jeans, loafers, blue suede shoes, white bucks and crew cuts with long sides combed in a ducktail, hot rods, drive-ins and drag racing and teen clubs and, of course, girls. I sang at parties, played baseball, football, field & track, boxing and, occasionally, did homework.
Country music and bland pop songs were acceptable on AM radio. Rock and Rhythm & Blues were not. Guess what we played! I was a member of several garage bands in those years.. Then, I met Johnny Seli, a hot country guitar player. We teamed up and started entering talent shows in some pretty rough biker bars to win the $10 prize. We got to be pretty well known before I was old enough to be in a bar, thus the name Bill "Allen" so my dad wouldn't know I was playing there. (Allen is my middle name). What started as a hobby soon became an obsession.
Johnny and I were the taken rock 'n' roll act in an upscale supper club that also featured a comedian, a well-known national singer on tour and a good house band 5 nights a week. It was "THE" place to go when you came to Akron. We were located near the YWCA, which didn't hurt our drawing power.
Lakeland, FL at Garrets Picnic, 1981
(An upper-end seafood restaurant)
We were seen there by the owners of Eldorado Records, located in New York City. They contacted us after our show and showed us the sheet for the song "Butterfly" (by Bernie Lowe), and asked if we would be interested in recording it. Of course, we said "yes". On the way home late that Saturday night, we stopped at a drive-in, went inside and saw three guys (The Keynotes) in a corner singing a cappella harmony. Other then them the place was empty. They sounded great so I asked if I could join them in a song or two. Several hours later, we went home and "crashed".
The next day, I got a call from Bill Buchanon and Dick Goodman. They wanted Johnny and me to join their label and asked if I knew a good backup group. I said, "Hell, Yeh", I just met one. They're called the Keynotes. I asked them if they were interested and they agreed and we were on our way to New York City. We recorded at Bell Studios that Sunday morning and, by 3 PM Butterfly was on the air. (I wrote the flip side, "Oo-Wee-Baby".)
It took off right away. Every station in the city was playing "Butterfly by Bill Allen and the Keynotes". We were officially BORN. The record was selling so fast they couldn't press enough copies to keep up. In a few weeks we were out of records to sell. Andy Williams, who was already famous, covered our recording and poured thousands of copies in the outlets. Eldorado went "belly up". So did our recording career.
Then Bill Allen and the Keynotes were part of a mid-western Rockabilly tour with a group of major stars, including Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, George Hamilton !V, Jimmy Bowen, Buddy Knox, Johnny Burnette, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and many others. We learned a lot and had a great time. We met Lou Josie in a Cleveland studio. He was overly ambitious and tried to talk Johnny Seli into leaving me. Johnny wasn't interested and life went on.
Roulette talked to our manager, Bob Ansel of WCUE Radio, simply because we made friends with Jimmy Bowen & Buddy Knox. No deal. Then everything seemed to fade - the group fell apart and Johnny and I were again on our own. It was a fun six months or so!
PLEASE GIVE ME SOMETHING
Johnny and I settled down, started families and did real 'people' jobs. After a few months, we decided to put a new group together. We knew Dean Hanley had just left a jazz quartet. We were already friends, so the three of us playing together was a natural, not to mention fun.
We started with songs that were hot at that time, and soon we were giggin again. Another local DJ, Art Roberts (WCUE) asked if we would record "Since I Have You" by Lou Stallman, a new country song of his. We said "Why not?" Lou flew down from New York City and stayed with me and my new wife in our log cabin in the woods (another story). We liked his song and started working on it. Like Butterfly, which did not have a second side, we decided to write one. Johnny and I wrote "Please Give Me Something" to be the "B" side, the same as I had to write "Oo-Wee Baby" for the "B" side of our Butterfly" recording.
We thought up our "own lyrics" and melody for our rockabilly tune "Please Give Me Something". We were later told that "some of our lyrics" were copy-written by someone for a "Big Band" in the 30's or 40's. It was news to us. They didn't have anything to do with our "tune", but we were denied "song-writers rights". (Lou Josie did not have any part in our group. We hardly knew him.)
We recorded both sides on tape in an ad studio at radio station WCUE in Akron, OH. It took several takes to get "Since I Have You" but, we got "Please Give Me Something" on the first take. Our only effects were a Fender reverb unit and Johnnys Les Paul and Fender Bassman amp. I played rhythm guitar and Dean kept time with a muted snare drum, desk top and an Akron Telephone Book. We sent the finished tape to Imperial Records in Los Angeles, CA, in care of Lou Chudd. He produced some 45 rpm copies and tested the market, The results were great! We were the #1 pick "nationally".
Left to right: Dave Thomas, Bill Allen, Dave Lawson & Kenny Later
THE BACK BEATS (Art Roberts, Mgr.)
Bill Allen - Lead vocals, Martin D28 Acoustic Guitar (Effects Fender Reverb Unit) (Self-taught with a good ear.)
Johny Seli - Gibson Les Paul Fretless Wonder (Black Beauty, Fender Baseman Amp (Natural with a good ear.) Self-taught lead player.
Dean Hanley - Percussion with a full big band drum set. He played that driving beat by using his sticks on a phone book, desktop and a stack of newspapers. (Schooled, but highly skilled with a good ear.)
A short time later, I received a letter from Lou. He wanted me to fly out to the Imperial Studios to re-mix our prject. That was not good news. My wife was pregnant with our first child and was scared to death. I called Lou and said I couldn't leave her before she delivers. He hung up - "end of my recording career" and the end of the Back Beats. I never heard from him after that. The records were pulled out of circulation.
Two recordings - two studios-two promising futures -two disappointments. Didn't make enough money to buy guitar strings. There's a song in there somewhere.
Being a recording star wasn't worth the grief. so I got a real job, bought a home and began raising a family consisting of mom, dad, a son (Bill), two daughters (Susan and Kelly) and a dog. This lasted ten years. During that period I mostly played and sang at home for family and friends. The last two years, I did a single on weekends for extra money until my marriage went south and I went west.
This time, I had fun with the audience and paid attention to what they wanted to hear. Between songs, I talked to them and we became friends. I kept that audience/artist relationship for the next twenty years. I had many partners. I picked people with voices I could blend with and were better musicians than I was. This way "our friends" could hear a variety of styles and blends. This formula worked out just fine. Entertainment became my comfort zone, so I bought a truck and sound system to make us mobile.
We went on the road. Bookings were steady, mostly resort areas and some high end restaurants. I booked 4-week gigs with rooms through my agent. My partners couldn't handle the constant traveling. It didn't bother me, so I had to keep breaking in new partners. We stayed friends, but it was tough on me - new photos, names, logos - you know, like (Bill Allen and ????), but we kept getting booked and paid our bills.
I stopped traveling and stayed in St.Pete Beach,FL. I started playing in local beach bars and reinvented myself. I established a good following and had a great time - probably a little too much fun. I ran into an old sweetheart, moved back to Ohio, got married, settled down and am "living happily ever after".
Johnny Seli Interview
by Steve Kelemen
I was born February 11, 1936 in Akron, Ohio. My father died when I was 8 years of age. My older brother, George, Owned a family heirloom, a 'Paramount Style A guitar banjo", which was kept under his bed. It had six strings and was played like a guitar. I would pull it out and play quite often. I had a keen interest in country music and would tune our radio into stations such as WWVA, Wheeling, West Virginia, and WCKY, Cincinnati, Ohio on Saturday nights. Also, I heard a lot of pop music on the radio show "Your Hit Parade".
Winter months, I escorted my mother to Phoenix, Arizona to stay with my sisters. While there, I attended West Phoenix High School. On Saturday night I would go down to Madson Square Garden in South Phoenix to hear Country and Rockabilly music. I would sit in the audience and watch the performers like Sanford Clark and Marty Robbins, and fell in love with the rock beat and guitar styles.
BILL ALLEN (Backbeats)
At a front porch jam session in Akron, I met a young singer with a smooth voice, Bill Allen Snively. We got along well and decided to team up. We made a few bucks by entering bar room talent shows. Took a day job, working on hardwood floors. But also took on a gig 3 nights a week at a bar in South Akron called the Bamboo Bar.
The owner and myself formed a duo and I was paid 7 bucks a night.
Bill and I formed our first band in 1955-1956. Our drummer was Tom Ross, a young musician from Lakemore, A suburb of Akron. On bass was Fred Tshantz, also from our Ellet area. I greatly respect their talent and enjoy their friendship.
One night while I was playing at the Bamboo Bar, Bill Allen came in and said enthusiastically "Johnny, we're going to record a song, and we have to leave for New York City tomorrow!"
My friend and employer, Jack, encouraged me to leave the job and go on the road. We recorded in New York and also Cleveland, Ohio and the tapes were forwarded to Imperial Records in California. Our first record, "Butterfly" was made on the Eldorado record label.
Meanwhile our manager, Art Roberts, "who also bundled our record contract", asked me to work with him on a song called "Give Her The Axe, Max", a guitar boogie with a rock beat, and some vocal phrases added. The song did ok for awhile, then faded away. Seven years later I received a royalty check in the mail from United Artists.
Apparently it was selling in some Asian country.
At the time we were playing, before "Butterfly", my best guitar was a Les Paul Jr. which was good, but one night at a bar called the Snake Pit in Akron, I saw a fellow playing a Les Paul Custom Gold Top and suddenly wanted one. So I went to Happy Hanks Music Store and asked for his best guitar. He brought out a new '56 Les Paul custom Black Beauty - Fretless Wonder. Had to have it. I took out a bank loan, I bought it ! What a guitar !
ÊI could play double stops and bend strings like never before. I kept it all through the years. My amp at the time was a Fender Bassman. I ran the guitar through a Fender
reverb unit and into the Bassman. Great Rockabilly sound. ' I think it put the thunder into our recording of "Please Give Me Something".
We toured a short time in my '56 Chevy Convertble with a continental kit-spare tire on the trunk, which had the words - Bill Allen & The Backbeats. *see photo*
Our tour began at the Akron Armory and continued on to Youngtown, Ohio and then to Pittsburgh, PA.
We were one of the opening acts followed by a host of talented performers, with hit songs already on the charts. We would do our songs and leave the stage and sit front and center to watch the show. My favorites were Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent, and of course, the great Roy Orbison - what a voice!
After returning to Akron, Bill and I with Dean Hanley ( new drummer ) continued to play for a few years locally and had a large following. Bill left for Florida, I for the Army, Dean for Vegas.
Came back from the service formed a new band and continued to play for the next 30 years regularly 2 nights a week.
ÊIn 1960, I married my beautiful wife, Barbara, and raised a great family. We live in a beautiful home in Suffield, Ohio, restored in Victorian style by my wife and myself.
In later years, I thought of how we only had a few minutes to set up our gear between acts on road shows, and that helped lead to my developing the Tug-a-wah, a patented guitar effect built into the guitar strap which makes the guitarist more mobile on stage.
© Rockabilly Hall of Fame ¨