Singer Bob Allen studied voice at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. A native of the city, he joined Hal Kemp’s orchestra in 1933 as second male vocalist behind Skinnay Ennis. Ennis sang numbers that required an intimate feeling, while Allen sang those that needed power. When Ennis left Kemp in 1938, Allen became the lead. He proved popular, placing seventh in the category of best male band vocalist in Billboard magazine’s 1941 college poll.
After Kemp lost his life in an automobile accident in December 1940, Allen was in the running to take over as leader. The orchestra, though, began to fall apart without Kemp’s leadership and broke up shortly thereafter. Allen then went solo for the next several months, playing club dates and briefly filling in for Frank Sinatra in Tommy Dorsey’s band when Sinatra was out sick for a few days.
At the end of July 1941, Allen took over Vince Patti’s Cleveland, Ohio, band. Allen, who had seemed shy and reserved with Kemp, livened up leading his own group, waving his baton enthusiastically and smiling at the crowd. His naturally good looks charmed many a young female dancer. The band performed songs that Allen had sung with Kemp as well as new numbers, though they didn’t imitate the musical style of Allen’s former boss, instead opting for a sound described as “sweet swing.”
The average age of the orchestra members at the start was only 20 years old. Only Allen and arranger Harold Mooney were over 21. Though the band received good reviews initially, audiences finally started to take notice after Allen brought in former Kemp bandmate and trumpet player Randy Brooks to handle the musical side, freeing Allen to focus on fronting and singing. With Brooks’s musical direction, the orchestra was finally able to crack the tough New York hotel market.
Allen handled all male vocals himself. Dottie Reid became female vocalist in November, leaving by May 1942. Judy Starr, another former Kemp chirp, was initially considered to replace her, however Lynn Gardner ended up with the spot in September. When Gardner left in March 1943, Paula Kelly took her place, leaving in June. Virginia Maxey than sang, leaving in August for Charlie Barnet. Mary LaMarr took her place. The Four Stuart Sisters provided backing vocals in mid-1942. Marion Fran also sang at some point.
While Allen’s band managed to draw crowds, the beginning of the American Federation of Musicians’ recording ban on August 1, 1942, destroyed any chance he had of capitalizing on their popularity. Allen only recorded four sides prior to the ban, all for the small Beacon label, which existed solely to plug songs for the Joe Davis Music Company. When Glenn Miller disbanded his group to join the Army Air Force in September 1942, the Hotel Pennsylvania signed Allen’s orchestra to fill Miller’s slot in the ballroom, putting them in the spotlight and causing a sensation. Both critics and audiences raved about them. Wartime production cuts had hit the industry hard by that time, though, and Beacon couldn’t produce enough copies of Allen’s disks to supply the demand created by that prestigious booking.
The Hotel Pennsylvania booking did boost Allen’s prospects in two ways however. In October 1942, Allen secured a recording contract with Bluebird and a film contract with 20th Century Fox. Neither would bring any return. The recording ban didn’t end until November 1944, and it wasn’t until late 1943 when Fox cast Allen and his group in Greenwich Village, with Carmen Miranda and Don Ameche. In January 1944, however, Allen received his draft notice and had to disband, deciding not to reform when he was reclassified 4-F. Allen’s orchestra had been expensive to maintain. His musicians and singers had earned top dollar, and he was a reported $50,000 in debt to his backers.
On his own now, Allen joined Tommy Dorsey as a vocalist, leaving the following year for the Army. After his discharge in 1946, he sang with Hoagy Carmichael. In 1947, he joined Carmen Cavallaro, and in 1948 he was part of Ziggy Elman’s band. He finally retired from show business and moved to Encino, California, where he went into the woodworking business.
Sinatra’s absence touched off rumors that he was leaving Dorsey. It would be another year-and-a-half before he actually did. ↩︎