Best remembered by big band enthusiasts for his work with Boyd Raeburn’s adventurous progressive jazz orchestra, vocalist David Allen, later spelled Allyn, led a long and colorful life. Despite having to overcome numerous obstacles, including drug addiction and a prison sentence, he plotted a decades-long singing career that earned the respect and admiration of others in his field.
Allen was born into a musical family. His father played the french horn, and his mother sang. Under his birth name of Al DeLella, Allen left high school to begin his career as a professional singer on Hartford radio station WTHT, later moving on other local stations before ending up at WNBC in New Britain, Connecticut, where he was given the name David Allen to sound more “American.” Soon after, Allen’s father arranged for him to travel to New York, where he joined an ill-fated band that was kicked out of the Arcadia Ballroom before he could make his debut. Allen followed the members to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, briefly touring with them in the local area before returning home to Hartford.
Allen continued singing locally over the next few years. His big break finally came in 1940 when he traveled to Springfield, Massachusetts, to hear Jack Teagarden’s band. Introducing himself to the bandleader, he convinced Teagarden to let him sing a few numbers and ended up being offered a job. He remained with Teagarden until December 1941, when he was let go. Allen claims that his dismissal was at the request of female singer Kitty Kallen, who joined the band at that time. According to Allen, she didn’t want to perform with him.
On notice that he would soon be drafted, Allen sat out the first few months of 1942 until finally being inducted in March. He served in an Army medical detachment in North Africa during the war, where he was wounded and discharged in March 1943 with a purple heart and 60% disability. Returning to the States, he found work with Van Alexander in mid-1943 and Paul Martell later that year before joining Henry Jerome and then Bob Chester in May 1944, where he remained until Chester disbanded in November. Allen then returned to Jerome, followed by Freddie Slack’s band and stints at radio stations WHN and WNEW. In early 1945, he recorded on the Atomic label both solo and with the Lyle Griffin Orchestra. In April 1945, he joined Raeburn, recording on the band’s Innovations album in early 1946.
During the mid-1940s, Allen began to spell his name David Allyn in order to distinguish himself from the myriad of other singing David Allens in the business. He was only partially successful. The trade press and record companies continued to use the original spelling as often as they did the new version.
Allyn suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after the war. His symptoms gradually worsened, and he began seeing things and hearing voices. He alienated his friends and associates, causing his career to suffer. Realizing that he was in trouble, he turned to the Veterans’ Administration hospital in Brooklyn, spending much of 1947 there under treatment.
Allyn also suffered from a drug problem. During the war he’d begun to take morphine to calm himself. After his discharge he avoided drug use until early 1947 when his PTSD symptoms worsened. Released from the hospital in September, he moved to California to live with his sister, intent on staying away from the music business, fearful of getting involved in drugs again. He turned down an offer from Harry James and instead worked in gas stations and factories. In the summer of 1948, though, he began using heroin.
Returning to music, Allyn found work singing in nightclubs, and in 1949 he signed a record contract with the Discovery label. By May 1950, he was singing with Art Mooney’s orchestra but was on his own again by 1951, still recording on Discovery. He managed to kick heroine for a while, but his addiction soon returned, and he began to spiral downward. His career imploded, and he resorted to passing fake checks to earn a living. Arrested in New York in 1955, he was sentenced to 2-3 years for grand larceny in the second degree. He served time at both Sing Sing prison and the infamous Clinton prison in Dannemora, described as the “Siberia of New York.”
Allyn turned his life around while incarcerated, and upon his parole in May 1957 he came out ready to get back to work as a singer. Old friends in the industry welcomed his return, and he earned a recording contract with the World Pacific label, on which he released an album of Jerome Kern tunes backed by Johnny Mandel’s orchestra. The album sold well, leading to appearances on television. His return to singing in New York, though, was briefly stymied by police refusing to issue him a cabaret license due to his criminal record, a problem that caused various local officials and music personalities to rally to his cause.
Allyn continued singing until 2010. He passed away in 2012 at the age of 93.
The station later lost its call letters to New York station WEAF. ↩︎