A Royal Audience With Houston's King of the Oldies
Dizzy: The Allen Oldies Band (L-R): Landis Armstrong, Mikey Trafton, Eric C. Hughes, Allen Hill, Davey Schoenbaum, Jim Henkel, David Beebe and Joe Earthman
Photo by Matthew Sturdevant/Courtesy of Allen Hill Entertainment
This Saturday at the Continental Club, the Allen Oldies Band will celebrate its 20th anniversary with an ambitious plan to perform all 130-odd songs in its repertoire, a feat leader Allen Hill reckons will probably take six hours; hence the 8 p.m. sharp start time. Considering they once played Wilson Pickett’s “Land of 1,000 Dances" nonstop for 90 minutes, that seems like an especially tall order, but Hill insists he’s up to the challenge.
“I don’t want to get bogged down in trying to hit everything on the list if it’s not going to be fun,” he says. “And certainly all the songs are great, but I don’t want it to feel like...if we need to play ‘Land of 1,000 Dances’ for two hours, we may do it.”
Lifelong Houstonian Hill can trace his love of oldies to the AM-only radio in his first car, a 1966 Volkswagen, and the Mickey Mouse turntable where he wore out his 45 of the Royal Guardsmen’s 1967 hit “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron.” As a member of Banana Blender Surprise, the enterprising roots-rockers who built a good-size regional following in the early ’90s, his preferences played a key role in keeping the Banana van tuned in to oldies stations. (“It was either Hootie or Tommy Roe.”) Whenever a certain song made the other members keen to turn the dial, Hill recalls, his objections led to these sorts of tunes being labeled “Allen Oldies.”
“The talk in Banana was like, ‘Hey, change the channel; this song’s no good,” he says. His answer would be: “’NO. I wanna hear ‘Dizzy’; I wanna hear ‘Sweet Pea’; I wanna hear, you know, ‘Come On Down to My Boat, Baby.”
Hill says he’d sometimes slip one of those songs into a Banana set, but when that band dissolved around 1995, he decided to build an entire group of his own around them. But first came Maddox, a “highly combustible” classic-rock group with lots of guitar solos, and then about a month where Hill says he decided “I’m going to try not being in a band for a little while.” During that month, he figures he sat in at eight different shows. The Allen Oldies Band bowed in November 1996 at the Houston Press-sponsored Dome Run; yes, their first gig was in the Astrodome.
In Houston at least, the kind of oldies stations Hill grew up on have long since signed off, making his band one of the few groups in this part of the world keeping these songs alive anywhere besides the memories of people who grew up listening to them. A perfect Allen Oldie, Hill explains, is a songs that those stations would spin maybe four times a week rather than several times a day; there’s no “Help!” or “Satisfaction” in an Allen Oldies Band set list. During our 45-minute conversation, the songs that came up are often fueled by Farfisa organ and on the light-hearted, even silly side: Tommy Roe’s “Dizzy”; Sam the Sham & the Pharoahs’ “Wooly Bully” and “Little Red Riding Hood”; Chris Montez’s “Let’s Dance”; Syndicate of Sound’s “Little Girl”; the Hombres’ “Keep On Dancing”; not “Hang On Sloopy” but the McCoys’ version of Ritchie Valens’s “Come On Let’s Go,” which Hill swears uses the same chords. What the Oldies Band is always seeking, he says, is the kind of spontaneity found in the Kingsmen’s version of “Louie Louie,” where, Hill says, “it sounds like the drummer’s about to fall over the whole song, and they barely keep it together.”
“I mean, in my mind that kind of stuff is really magical, like ‘What is going on here?’” he adds. “There’s an energy and an attitude in a song like that that is almost impossible to capture, but we sure as hell try.”
Whenever possible, Hill says he likes to mix in oldies from around the Gulf Coast, like Bobby Fuller’s “I Fought the Law,” Sir Douglas Quintet’s “She’s About a Mover,” the Coastliners’ “Alright” or the Thirteenth Floor Elevators’ “You’re Gonna Miss Me.” Still others his band has since been able to perform with the artists who made them famous: Barbara Lynn’s “You’ll Lose a Good Thing,” Roy Head’s “Treat Her Right,” Archie Bell’s “Tighten Up.” Whenever the band plays a nursing home, they might work up some Roy Orbison too.
Photo by Matthew Sturdevant/Courtesy of Allen Hill Entertainment
The Oldies Band never met a gig they didn’t like, and today have played more happy hours, beer festivals, weddings, private parties and corporate gigs than Hill or anybody else can probably remember. Although their home base has long been Houston’s Continental Club, where Hill and his merry men migrated from bygone joints like the Ale House and Fabulous Satellite Lounge, many of their wildest shows have come from connections they made at SXSW. The manager of famous rock club Maxwell’s in Hoboken, home base of Yo La Tengo, once brought the beloved indie-rockers to see the Oldies Band play a sidewalk gig in front of South Congress antique store Rue’s.
He later brought the band up to New Jersey, a whirlwind trip during which they cut their first full-length recording, Live and Delirious at WFMU, on two tracks in the station’s studios; today Hill says, “There’s a lot of truth in advertising on that record.” At a bowling alley in Asbury Park, they opened for “Rumble” guitar legend Link Wray and the Nashville Teens, who found their moment of AM immortality with 1964’s “Tobacco Road.”
“They were like, ‘Man, you remind us of us!” Hill says. “This is exactly how all the bands sounded back then. You guys got it.”
So many songs have come and gone from the Oldies Band’s sets over the years that Hill says he plans to use an “Oldies Lost & Found” box at Saturday’s show. He has also invited his friends in the Twang, a German rockabilly band he met years ago on a trip to Europe, to come onstage as they please, putting their songs in the box as well. Besides the other undisclosed surprise guests, David Beebe, Hill’s Banana Blender bandmate who went on to join him in the Oldies Band and El Orbits, will be coming in from Marfa, where he is now a Presidio County judge. Expect all of the people pictured above to be onstage at some point, and perhaps so many others there may not even be room for Hill anymore. Beyond that, if all goes according to plan, there won’t be a plan – just as it should be for a group that has always placed a much greater premium on enthusiasm over precision, and delivered in spades.
“We get great compliments, and we also have people say, ‘Turn down the suck,’ laughs Hill. (The question had been, “How often do you guys hear, ‘You’re the greatest wedding band I’ve ever seen?”)
“I really feel like artists aren’t doing their jobs unless somebody has strong feelings,” he continues. “The flipside of people loving the Allen Oldies Band is people will say we’re awful and should quit, but we don’t listen to them. Because we’re not quitting.”
The Allen Oldies Band's 20th Anniversary Birthday Bash, featuring special guests the Twang, will start at 8 p.m. sharp tomorrow night at the Continental Club, 3700 Main. Comfortable footwear encouraged.
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