Gene Allison, one of the most successful soul singers ever to come out of Nashville, built his career on a song that accepted the fact of life’s unfairness. Its message was driven home cruelly last week. On the verge of long-overdue recognition for his part in Nashville’s musical history, Allison died of liver and kidney failure last Saturday at Vanderbilt Hospital. He was 69.
Allison’s death came just days after the release of Night Train to Nashville: Music City Rhythm & Blues 1945-1970, a compilation that celebrates a large part of the city’s often neglected history of African American music. The compilation kicks off a monumental 18-month exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame, which will not open until later this month. Both the exhibit and the CD would have brought deserved attention to Allison, who recorded Nashville’s single biggest R&B hit of the 1950s.
That song was “You Can Make It if You Try,” a 1957 single written by Nashville producer Ted Jarrett and recorded at Owen Bradley’s studio on 16th Avenue South. Previously, Allison, a native of Pegram, had sung mostly in gospel groups. His supple voice could fill most any part, and Nashville vocal groups such as the Fairfield Four and the Skylarks had called upon his expertise many times.
Jarrett, however, heard in Allison a first-rate rhythm-and-blues singer. At the producer’s urging, Allison sang a stately, unsentimental ballad about persevering through hard times. “Sometimes you’ll have to cry,” Allison wailed, his voice soaring above a funereal gospel organ and the backing of trumpeter Joe Morris’ band. “Sometimes you’ll have to lie.”
Nevertheless, the steely optimism of the song’s refrain resonated widely. When Jarrett licensed the record to the Chicago label Vee-Jay, as part of a package deal involving a single by R&B vocalist Larry Birdsong, it became a surprise crossover hit. Overnight, as Jarrett remembers, it jumped to the Top Five on Billboard’s R&B charts and went Top 40 pop.
The song’s story didn’t end there. On their first U.S. release, England’s Newest Hitmakers, in 1964, a fledgling British band covered the single. The band was the Rolling Stones. Allison had subsequent hits, but never at the level of “You Can Make It If You Try.” He stopped recording, and while he continued to live in Nashville, he shunned the public eye for many years.
Recently, however, Night Train to Nashville co-producer Michael Gray, an associate editor at the Hall of Fame, says that the R&B great had been enthused by the new attention his work was getting. Allison had brought one of his daughters, a singer in Japan, to the Hall of Fame for a visit as recently as January. He had expressed interest in singing again, maybe even recording.
“He was walking around here a month ago and talking about his plans,” Gray says. “It happened so fast.”
Even though Ted Jarrett still produces records for his TRJ labelone of his groups is the Dynamic Dixie Travelers, featuring Allison’s brother Leeverthe says that his association with Gene Allison was a once-in-a-lifetime pairing.
“He was the only singer who knew what I was writing about, who sang what I was trying to convey,” Jarrett says. “In the studio he would be singing, and he would look at me like he was already a part of me.”
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