Chicago singer Ricky Allen only had one national hit--the torrid 1963 single "Cut You A-Loose"--but in his heyday his local drawing power rivaled Muddy Waters's. On Allen's records from the 60s, he evokes both the uptown slickness of Sam Cooke (occasionally emulating Cooke's trademark yodel) and the gospel-infused fervor of Solomon Burke--and even on a tale of betrayal or loss, his warm tone and buoyant confidence with rhythm make him sound like a man trying to dance away his troubles. Over the stomping, bottom-heavy organ riff of "Cut You A-Loose," for instance, he sings in a sweet yet slightly grainy voice, and his smooth, offhand enunciation tempers his vulnerability with cool detachment--he seems to feel things just as intensely as any deep-soul shouter, but he takes his lumps with an almost philosophical equanimity. On the 1964 single "Help Me Mama" he's alternately plaintive and playful: he ends the line "See me cry" with a drawn-out, constricted gargle that conveys the pain of heartbreak and burlesques it at the same time. In 1968 Allen's wife lost their twins in childbirth and nearly died herself; afterward he began to withdraw from music, eventually retiring in the mid-70s. For the past decade, though, he's been sitting in from time to time at local club gigs--and last year he performed at the Monsteras Blues Festival in Sweden, possibly preparing for a full-scale comeback (a CD of the Monsteras set was released in Europe last month). I caught him at Rosa's a few weeks ago, guesting with guitarist Eddie Taylor Jr., and his voice, though careworn, was still impeccably melodic; some of the old jubilance was gone, as well as some of the old detachment, and he seemed to have to work harder to maintain his characteristically crisp cadence. His reading of "Stormy Monday" sounded outright desolate, and "Cut You A-Loose," though delivered with his usual feisty determination, felt more like a plea than a declaration. For this gig Allen will join singer Howard Scott and his skintight World Band; the two front men ought to take turns onstage, though it won't surprise me if they share the spotlight for a couple songs. Saturday, January 5, 9:30 PM, Rosa's Lounge, 3240 W. Armitage; 773-342-0452.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Susan Greenberg.