Gary James' Interview With
Keith Allison

He was and is a successful solo artist. He was a cast member of Dick Clark's Where The Action Is TV show. He was Ringo's musical director. The artists this man has known read like a Who's Who of Rock 'n' Roll. We are talking about Mr. Keith Allison.

Q - Keith, let's ask the obvious question: Had you not had such a strong resemblance to Paul McCartney or even Mark Lindsay, would you have even had a career? What if you had looked like Frank Zappa? Would your career have been different?

A - (laughs) I had a career before I was ever on television. I had bands from the time I was in high school and played a lot of gigs. I was Ray Peterson's guitar player when I went to California. He had the hits "Corina Corina", "The Wonder Of You", "Tell Laura I Love Her". That's how I came out here. I came out here as his guitar player. And then I left him and joined The Crickets. And so I was doing OK before any of that happened. That just happened to be a sideline. I had nothing to do with that. That was something the magazines started creating. Gloria Stavers from 16 Magazine was probably as instrumental behind that as anybody. Once they stared doing it, every body started running with it. If I looked more like Zappa, it would have been totally about the music, but as a result, it was about my appearance and my music.

Q - You had this gig on Dick Clark's Where The Action Is TV show.

A - Yeah. I was a member of the cast.

Q - How did you get that job?

A - I was doing a demo for Boyce And Hart for Screen Gems music and I went in to get my paycheck. I needed to pay my rent. The head of Screen Gems out here said "you need either Boyce or Hart to co-sign the voucher before I can cut a check for you." I said "Where are they today?" He said "There's some new show shooting down at The Whiskey A Go Go." So I went down there looking for either Tommy or Bobby to sign the voucher and they were shooting Where The Action Is, the very first day of production. I walked in the door and they needed people to fill seats and one of the dancers grabbed me and said would I sit with her. Tommy Roe is performing "Everybody" onstage. Dick Clark was there. All the cameras. Paul Revere And The Raiders. There was a couple of shots taken of me sitting in the audience, clapping along. They got such a response from the audience writing into Dick Clark Productions, "Who was that? Who was that guy?" So they went looking for me and one of the girls in the front office said "Oh, that's Keith Allison. He plays with The Crickets." I happened to be playing in Las Vegas at the time at The Thunderbird Hotel. We were there for a month, doing two or three shows a night. So I got a telegram from Dick Clark Productions and they sent me a plane ticket and had me fly in on my day off, meet with 'em. I showed up to shoot with 'em at Santa Monica Beach, Will Rogers Beach, the next morning. Then I flew back to Vegas and finished the tour and came back and I started shooting Where The Action Is as a full-time member of the cast. That was in the summer of '65.

Q - The Crickets had a guy named Jerry Allison...

A - He's a cousin of mine.

Q - Jerry probably helped you in your career, didn't he?

A - Of course he did. He gave me advice. I just talked to him the other day. Our birthdays are a few days apart. He called me on my birthday, then I called him on his birthday. We talked for a good while. We caught up on some things.

Q - Did you ever meet Buddy Holly?

A - I did, in San Antonio right when "That'll Be The Day" came out. They were on tour with the big package tour and actually that's the first time I met Jerry. I just turned fifteen and he had just turned eighteen. We were three years apart. He was unpacking his drums backstage. I walked up to him and said "I believe we're related" and we started talking and we laughed. That's when we first met and of course Buddy was there. It was before "Peggy Sue" had come out. "That'll Be The Day" at the time was in the charts.

Q - What did you think of Buddy Holly and Rock 'n' Roll?

A - I thought they were great! I loved the recordings, both sides, "That'll Be The Day" and "Lookin' For Someone To Love". I thought they were fabulous. I bought it right off and played it and played it. I asked "how do you play this part right here?" and he showed me (laughs) Backstage, he handed me his guitar and showed me. I went out and bought a Fender Stratocaster after that.

Q - I recall Buddy Holly being asked if Rock 'n' Roll would last and he said he didn't think so.

A - He probably meant as they knew it, with what they had seen and what is coming. It changed. It went into all the stuff with The Ronettes and The Shirelles and Bobby Vee. The sound of Rock 'n' Roll changed considerably. And then it changed again when The Beatles came out. But there was a period after Holly died, from 1960 to 1964 in the States, when it was a whole different animal. Dion was good. It was a different sound. He (Bubby Holly) did shows with Little Richard, The Everly Brothers. And it did change. It changes every so often.

Q - Did you see The British Invasion coming? Did you ever hear about what was going on in England?

A - Yeah, I did, from people that had been over there and came back and said "Oh my God! All this stuff is going on in England." I knew they really worshiped old Blues players. Everything I heard by them, I was surprised. When they played a Chuck Berry song, as far as I was concerned, they didn't play it right. I heard Chuck Berry. I saw Chuck Berry play. Chuck Berry was on the same show with Buddy Holly. I was squatting in the wings with Buddy watching Chuck Berry do his new recording "Roll Over Beethoven". Holly was saying, "Man, that guy can play!" So when I learned how to play Chuck Berry songs, I learned 'em just the way Chuck played 'em. When they were regurgitated by the Brits and came back here, they were different. At first I didn't like 'em. I grew to appreciate what they did, in other words how they took American music, consumed it, then sent it back to us, but it was different. Now if they play "Roll Over Beethoven", they play The Beatles with George Harrison's version, not Chuck Berry's.

Q - Did you see a photo of The Beatles before they hit the shores of America?

A - I got a clue when a friend of mine got out of high school. We graduated together in '61. He went on to New Orleans and stayed there all Summer long. When he came back, he was carrying an umbrella and he had a haircut like that. Where it came from was the French sailors. It really came from Cleopatra, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. That's the haircut. It became very fashionable in France. They shot a lot of the movie in Europe and the French sailors carried it over to the port cities like New Orleans. They were Marc Antony haircuts is what they were, from the movie. So when Astrid Kirchherr cut The Beatles hair in Hamburg, she was copying that. They were all art students. That's where it came from.

Q - Why didn't American musicians adopt that haircut?

A - They were still wearing pompadours here. (laughs)

Q - But why did it take the British to bring that Beatles haircut to America?

A - I bet if you went down to The Village at that time and talked to artists in '62, '63, I bet you would have found a lot of people with that same haircut. No recording artists necessarily. The recording artists were all wearing what they called the Continental Cut, that Jay Sebring founded out here in California. Ricky Nelson wore it. All of the actors on 77 Sunset Strip had the same kind of haircut. Kind of straight back, about two inches long.

Q - On Where The Action Is, you were a regular performer?

A - Yeah. Paul Revere And The Raiders were regular, myself, Steve Alaimo, Linda Scott originally, and she was replaced later by Tina Mason. Tommy Roe was added to the cast and then there was a couple of other various bands, The Knickerbockers, a group called Hard Times and The Robs out of Chicago. They were constantly trying to create another Paul Revere And The Raiders. The Raiders had become so huge with the show and the records, they kept hiring new bands and putting them on the show and promoting them, but they never got another Raiders out of it. Out of the cast, The Raiders and I became the most popular off the show.

Q - When did you join The Raiders?

A - Not until Where The Action Is went off the air. That being said, Paul offered me a position in the group around October of '65 and he said Drake Levin had been drafted. He said "I need a guitar player." We talked about it, but I'd just signed a recording deal with Warner Brother and I just signed a solo contract with Dick Clark Productions. He said he'd take care of all that, but at the time I was as popular as The Raiders were. I felt it would be like kicking Dick Clark in the shins. They just signed me and for me to break the contract and go with The Raiders, I thought that would have been bad Karma. So that's one of the reasons I didn't do it. "Steppin' Out" had just come out and became a hit. I would've joined before "Just Like Me" and "Kicks" and all that.

Q - Did you consider joining The Raiders to be a step up or a step down?

A - (laughs) How about a step sideways? I was doing the same thing I always did. I traveled with them everywhere. I toured with them all the time. We were on the TV show together. I always closed the first half of the show. There'd be like six or seven acts on the show like Billy Joe Royal, Steve Alaimo, B.J. Thomas. All these solo acts and then me and a quick fifteen minute intermission and The Raiders. So I was in a good position already. I was so closely associated with them that it wasn't that big of a jump one way or the other because of the TV show, and I had played on a lot of their records, played guitar on 'em, on several of their hits. So it was a natural transition actually. I mean, we traveled together, we're so close it was like I was already a member of the group.

Q - How many records had you released before you joined Paul Revere And The Raiders?

A - I had a release on Warner Brothers that didn't do a whole lot. Then I went to Columbia. Terry Melcher produced me and I had a bunch of what they called "turntable hits." And I sang the title song to Where The Action Is that they ran on the credits, "Action Action Action". That was mine. And a song called "Louise" did pretty well. Then there was a song called "Glitter And Gold" that Terry Melcher produced. But actually, I didn't have any real big hits as a solo act. I had an album called "Keith Allison In Action". I didn't have any Top 10 hits as a solo act.

Q - Did you tour at one point with Sonny And Cher, Roy Orbison and The Beach Boys?

A - I played shows with Roy Orbison on the same bill. Sonny And Cher, I played on a lot of their recordings. One year I did a Sonny album, a Cher album and a Sonny And Cher album. When I was with The Raiders, Sonny called me and he was opening in Vegas for the first time at The Flamingo Hotel and his guitar player had lived in Dallas and couldn't make it for the beginning of it, so he asked if I could come out and play with him, and I did. I ended up playing a couple of weeks at The Flamingo with him and then when they moved down the street to The Sahara, which was a much bigger showroom, he called me and said "Would you come with us again?" The great session player Dean Parks was playing guitar with him. So, he just added me to the line-up of the rhythm section. I was like a lucky charm for him. We were good friends and I'd done a lot of records. So, I just went along for the ride and played with him.

Q - And The Beach Boys?

A - The Beach Boys were friends. I toured with them with Ray Peterson on their first tour across the United States. There were The Kingsmen, Ray Peterson and The Beach Boys. The Kingsmen backed us up and I would come onstage and play with 'em some. I went in the studio with 'em. "Barbara Ann". It was supposed to be a 'live' version of "Barbara Ann". They actually recorded it in the studio. They set up tables and chairs and made it into like a nightclub and had a bunch of cheap wine and little snacks. We all gathered around and clapped our hands and sang "Barbara Ann" with 'em. They did a whole album and it was supposed to be 'live', but it wasn't 'live'. It was cut in the studio and then they brought in all their friends to sing and clap and holler in the background like we're in a club. But I was friends with them for years and years and years. When I first moved out here (California), I lived across the hall from Dennis Wilson, so I got to know all of them very well.

Q - Does it bother you at all that people will confuse you with Keith who did this song, "98.6"?

A - It did at the moment. I always felt that the reason they didn't put his last name on the record was because I was popular on Where The Action Is at the time. It just said Keith, but he did the show and I'm the one who introduced him. I said "Ladies and Gentlemen, here is Keith." I pointed and he sang "98.6". I met him. He was a nice guy. I got over it pretty quick. I would've liked it to have been my record. (laughs) It was a Gold record.

Q - Whatever happened to him anyway?

A - He's still around somewhere I guess. Maybe back in New Jersey. I think it was a conscious decision by his management to leave his last name off the record because at the time I was so popular in all the magazines and the television show. Just supposition on my part. Knowing the business the way I do, that's what I think. Never the less, he had a hit record and I'm happy for him.

Q - You were Ringo Starr's musical director. What does that job entail?

A - I put together the band, rehearsed them, ran through the songs, got it all ready. We did a television special called Ringo. It was actually his first All Starr Band. We sat down together and figured out who should we get for this. We made up a short list of people we liked. Anyway, we agreed on everything. I got Dee Murray on bass from Elton John's band, Ringo on drums, me on guitar and another guitar player, Ron Van Eaton, who just finished doing "All Things Must Pass" for George Harrison and was close with him. I think he was also signed to Apple Records at one point. Keyboards, we got Dr. John.

Q - Why did Ringo turn to you for help? Why not go to his former record producer, George Martin?

A - He and I were like real good friends. We shared a house together. We lived together for several years, off and on in the '70s. Right around Christmas in '77 he said "After New Year's, I need you to come up to the house and start rehearsing me. I think I'm going to do this television special." So, he needed someone to work with him that played. I'd bring my guitar and go up to his house and the funniest thing is, I said "I need to hear these songs. I haven't heard them in a long time. 'A Little Help From My Friends', 'Photograph'. You got Beatle records here, don't you?" He said "No." (laughs) So I had to go down to Tower Records and bought all the Beatle records. (laughs) I was laughing to myself as I was checking out. I thought, if this guy knew who I was buying these albums for... I just bought 'em all. So I bought "Meet The Beatles" and everything all the way through. So, I ran through 'em and heard 'em and then I'd run through 'em with him. I figured out the chord charts and all that. So I rehearsed with "A Little Help From My Friends", "Photograph", "Act Naturally". Then we needed to put together the band and we did that.

Q - Because you know Ringo, does that mean you met all The Beatles?

A - Yes, I did. George was also on that special. He invited John, and John at the time was living at The Dakota and raising Sean and he was into baking bread. He just said "I would love to do it with you Richard, but I haven't picked up a guitar in so long or sung, I just couldn't do it. All I'm doing is baking bread and taking care of the baby."

Q - When I first heard that story, I thought it couldn't possibly be true.

A - His guitar hung on the wall in The Dakota for five years. He never picked it up.

Q - I thought it was a P.R. story.

A - No. I actually was on the other line and I heard him say "I'm so far away mentally from anything. I'm afraid I couldn't do it. I would do it for you in a minute, but I'm tied up here." He took care of the baby full-time. He walked across the street and pushed the stroller around. He must've been about three at the time, in '78. He said "Music just isn't in my life at the time." That was true. And so he (Ringo) called Paul and when Paul called back, I answered the phone and I handed the phone to Ringo. And the other phone rang and it was George calling. (laughs) Paul couldn't do the special because he had just signed to do one with ABC, An Hour With Paul McCartney. He couldn't do any other network television shows for six months in the U.S. But George was free, so George did the show with us. But all three guys would've done appearances on it had they been available. George did it. He came into town. He filmed. He did his bit and we hung out and had dinner. I met George in England when I was staying at Ringo's house in London. George came over and we played one night in the studio.

Q - I take it you liked all The Beatles.

A - Yeah, I liked 'em all. They were all great. Ringo, I spent the most time with and still do, and next was George. I see Paul quite often. He would come to town quite a bit. He's here (California) a lot. He keeps a house right above the hill from me. I worked on an album last year (2011) with Ringo and he came over and played bass on one song that I played on. He sang background on another song while he was there. They always have meals together or go out when he's here.

Q - Why doesn't Paul McCartney sign autographs anymore? What's the reason behind that?

A - I know he won't sign. Ringo won't sign either. You sign 'em and ten minutes later they're on E-Bay for sale. People would hold up a drum head to Ringo, "Would you sign my drum head?" and he'd sign Ringo Starr on it. Shit, it'd be for sale that evening. People would be bidding on the damn thing. So he said "Screw that." He sells 'em signed, but all the money goes to charity. All the stuff he signs right now, every cent goes to charity.

Q - We're talking about Ringo, right?

A - Yeah. His paintings he sells at his concerts, these poster size paintings of his. He has drum heads that he signs. They're not cheap. The money that comes in goes to his charitable foundation, The Lotus Foundation. They pick a handful of charities every year they're going to support and who needs help.

Q - You had a steady Monday gig at an L.A. club called The Joint.

A - Well, it switched to Saturdays.

Q - I was going to ask, who comes out to a club on Monday night?

A - For ten years we packed the place and we switched to Saturdays. It's hard on people, staying up that late. But yeah, we packed Monday night because no one else was playing on Monday night. Most places are dark, so we started doing it on a Monday. It's an all-star band, so we got everybody imaginable. It was Waddy Wachtel's band. He's on the road right now with Stevie Nicks. He's her musical director. They just finished a tour together with Stevie Nicks and Rod Stewart. The last gig we played was August 25th (2012). The last gig we played before that was June (2012). We played in May and June and Waddy left town. The bass player, Rick, plays with Neil Young and Joe Walsh. So, he's gone sometimes. So, when we're all here, we play. We're just playing The Joint once a month, on Saturday nights.

Q - Besides playing The Joint, what else do you do to bring in some money?

A - Oh, I have a publishing company and I've written a lot of songs. I've written a lot of songs that are in movies and in television shows. And a few songs that have been cut over and over by different people. In fact, one song in particular, "Freeborn Man", has become a Bluegrass classic / standard. It's coming out in a movie called Thrift Store Cowboy. A young guy by the name of Jimmy Stewart, a Country singer, recorded it. The movie hasn't been released yet. In fact, I think it's going direct to DVD like at Wal-Mart and every truck stop in the country, which is fine with me. The CD and the DVD will both come out. If there's twenty songs in the movie, I have one of 'em, so I'm happy about that. I just got a royalty check day before yesterday from E.M.I. Publishing for a Monkees' song I had on "The Birds And The Bees And The Monkees", which was a million selling album when it first came out in '68. It's still selling. It was just re-released.

Q - You played on a CD with Jerry Lee Lewis, didn't you?

A - I played guitar (on it). Niles Lofgren, myself and Kenny Loveless were the guitar players on it. Jerry and Ringo did a duet on "Sweet Little Sixteen". Ringo played drums with Jim Keltner on "Roll Over Beethoven". Jerry Lee and I play guitar on that as well. That was on the second Jerry Lee Lewis album. The first one was called "Last Man Standing". I met Jerry Lee Lewis when I was a teenager in San Antonio when he came back from England after the shit hit the fan. I met him at the Municipal Auditorium, same place I met Buddy Holly.

Q - Did you ever meet Elvis?

A - Yeah, I met him. He was twenty years old and I was thirteen. I was in the eighth grade. He came to town as an opening act on a Hank Snow tour and I went to see him. I went backstage and met him, talked to him. Then I saw him next year in San Antonio and he was on RCA by then and he was playing bigger venues. He came back later the same year and played The Coliseum. That's when he had "Hound Dog" and "Don't Be Cruel" and he was huge by then. I yelled at him as he passed underneath me and he looked up and waved back and yelled at me. Then I got to know him better when The Raiders were playing Vegas at The Flamingo. Anytime Elvis was at The Hilton International, we were at The Flamingo. They had us in town at the same time. Some backer had both of us. I'd go to The Hilton and hang out with him. When we finished our last show, sometimes I'd jump in a cab and just go up in the balcony behind where the lighting board was and watch the show, the last half of his show, from up there. Sometimes I'd go hang out. I knew all the band. I'd go upstairs with him. We (The Raiders) all went to the show on my birthday one year. They took us all backstage to the dressing room to say hello to him and hang out.

Q - Would the booker you shared have been The William Morris Agency?

A - No. He might have been with William Morris, but the promoter that brought us in was Bill Miller, whose son was Jimmy Miller, the producer. Bill Miller was this gray-haired man from New Jersey who was a big booker on the East coast. He said "The reason I brought you boys in is I know Vegas is gonna change." At the time it was like Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra. Sure enough, after Elvis started playing there, I looked down the street and The Supremes were there, Bobby Darin, Tom Jones was across the street at Caesar's Palace. I mean, it went to Rock 'n' Roll being in the main rooms. Before, it's been the old style Vegas acts. He said "I know it's gonna turn to Rock 'n' Roll. My boy is in the music business." I said "What's your boy do?" He said "Oh, he's a producer." I said "What's his name?" He said "Jimmy Miller." I went "Holy shit! He produced 'Brown Sugar'!" (laughs) It was Jimmy Miller's dad that brought us to Vegas. But he booked everybody, not just Rock 'n' Roll. But he saw that was the new thing coming in, that we could actually fill a showroom.

Q - How big was the showroom?

A - The biggest one at the time was The Hilton International, where Elvis played. It held 2,500. It was big. In fact, on the weekday shows they closed off the balcony even with Elvis. They opened it up on the weekends. I think the showroom we played was about 400, 450. The Sahara had a big room too. It was about 800. Sonny And Cher were really concerned about playing there. That's a lot of seats to fill. Tickets were expensive.

Q - How expensive?

A - I don't know. Maybe $20 then. Now they're $150, $200.

Q - Did you ever meet Frank Sinatra?

A - Oh, I met him on a bunch of occasions. I was introduced (to him) by people. I didn't run with him.

Q - What did you think of him?

A - Oh, he was great. He was very kind. I'd see him and his friend Jilly Rizzo and all of his guys. I'd see him at a private club having a few drinks. In '67, Sonny And Cher and my first wife, who was pregnant at the time, the four of us flew to Vegas to see Frank Sinatra. We stayed at Caesar's Palace. After the show we went backstage and said hello. Sonny and I went across the street to The Flamingo and saw Fats Domino playing in a lounge. Wayne Cochran And The C.C. Riders were in another room.

Q - And now, who's playing Caesar's Palace? Bill O'Reilly!

A - (laughs)

Q - From Frank Sinatra to Bill O'Reilly. Once again, Vegas is changing.

A - Celine Dion has the big room there. And then Shania Twain is coming in there. And Elton John. But they built a whole new room for Celine Dion. She was there for years. Then when she wanted some rest, Elton came in and took her place. Then Cher did.

Q - You're a star and you met all the stars! How much more can you ask for in this world?

A - I've had a great time. I've enjoyed the highs and lows. It's like a roller coaster. But it's always been that way, up and down and up and down and up and down.

© Gary James. All rights reserved.