By John Herndon - The Anderson News
Allen loves the music that brought him to Lawrenceburg before he was a star
August 27, 2013 LOUISVILLE – Duane Allen has only one rule for fans getting his autograph. Be polite. “All they have to do is remember one simple phrase: Be polite,” the country and gospel music legend said last week. “Just be polite. Nobody likes somebody that is rude.” After sitting down with Allen less than two hours before he and his fellow Oak Ridge Boys took the stage at the Kentucky State Fair, I can't imagine him being any other way. I am sure he was the same way the night he touched down in Lawrenceburg 48 years ago. Long before he had performed before presidential audiences and became a household name in country music, Duane Allen sang at the Lawrenceburg Fair. An advertisement in The Anderson News of July 8, 1965 invited readers to hear one of the hottest gospel groups of the day, The Prophets, at the fair the following week. Their newest member was the 22-year-old Texan singing baritone.
Working his way through Texas A&M – Commerce, Allen graduated in January of 1965.
“I got my first offer to sing with The Prophets in April. On my birthday, April 29, I had my first concert with The Prophets,” he says. “I sang with them for a year and that is when we came to Lawrenceburg.”
It would probably be a stretch to say Duane Allen remembers much about that date. But I was there. Allen's blue eyes lit up and a big smile crossed his face when I related to him how I can still remember my aunt, Myrtle Perry, being so excited to see the star of the show, Big Lew, The Prophets' tenor.
“Big Lew Garrison was a wonderful person,” Allen recalled. “He was one of the funniest people I have ever met in my life. To work with him on the road was like working with a full-time comedian.
"Lew sang so high that we had to have somebody sing under him. Singing baritone for The Prophets was like singing lead for other groups.” Allen, who had also worked as a minister of music in Paris, Texas for two years, thought he had arrived. He thought he'd sing gospel music for several years before settling down to teach music and coach basketball.
That, however, was before Uncle Sam set an incredible chain of events in motion that eventually took Allen to the top of the music industry: Duane Allen was drafted. He resigned from The Prophets and sold his car. Despite telling Army doctors that he had been treated for a heart condition since he was 3 years old, Allen passed all of his physicals and appeared headed straight for Vietnam.
But just before heading to Fort Polk, La., Allen was pulled out of the group of draftees.
“The man told me, 'The fact that you have this condition and you have been treated for it, if we put you on the front line and if you had a flare-up, you could own the Army. We can't afford you. We have to give you a medical discharge and you will never be called again.” Without a car and 130 miles from home, Allen called his banker who agreed to cover the cost of a car and work out the details of repayment when he got a job. Knowing the Oak Ridge Boys had been pursuing him about an opening in their quartet, Allen purchased a 1966 Buick Riviera and headed straight to Nashville to see if the job was still available.
There were no cell phones. There was no e-mail. He just drove all night.
“I went into the Oak Ridge Boys' office and the secretary put the phone down. She walked back to where the other three (Willie Wynn, Herman Harper and current Oak William Lee Golden) were. They came back and said, 'What are you doing here? We thought you were in the Army.'”
After heading to a church and singing several songs, the group offered Allen a full partnership. It was only later that Allen learned the group had told the secretary to try to call him one more time. If that was not successful, the group was prepared to disband.
It all happened in a matter of days.
There's little doubt that Allen firmly believes the God he loves and worships was active. The obvious question is if Allen's deep faith was strengthened by how things transpired. “I have always had my faith,” he says. “This was just another example of how God works in my life, directing every step I take.” Over the years, Allen has seen the Oak Ridge Boys become one of the most beloved groups in American music history. The current lineup first performed together in October of 1973 and when they performed at the state fair last week, it was the 37th straight year the Oaks have been in Louisville in late August.
This year's show was on the turf at Cardinal Stadium after the grandstand had been ruled unsafe and is being prepared for demolition. “We've been around so long, we have outlived that stadium,” tenor Joe Bonsall quipped during the show.
It is a show that was two hours of high-octane energy that belies the fact that Allen, Golden and bass singer Richard Sterban have all celebrated their 70th birthdays. During last week's show, I was seated near a man who had to be pushing 80 but was dancing with the Oaks. Behind me was a group of teenagers doing the same. The music celebrates positive values, honors veterans and simply makes fans happy.
During the state fair show, a Kentucky State Trooper joined the Oaks on stage to present them with their commissions as Kentucky Colonels by Gov. Steve Beshear, who honored the group for their many humanitarian causes.
There is little question about the music's root. Country hits like “Dig A Little Deeper in the Well” and “Make My Life with You” have an unmistakeable gospel sound. Even the group's megahit “Elvira” sounds like something that could be heard at an all-day-singing-and-dinner-on-the-ground.
“Some of the traditions in gospel music are wonderful,” Allen says. “I learned so much from gospel music. Our four-part harmony came from southern gospel music. “I never really left gospel music. I just left the business. I have always loved gospel music and I still do. We just quit working the business end of it.” That happened in the late 1970s.
Still, every Oak Ridge Boys' show has a distinctive gospel flair. Last week, those songs included a rocking version of an old standard, “Where the Soul Never Dies” and an acapella rendition of “Amazing Grace” for an encore.
“I love gospel music,” Allen said. “It is my foundation. But it is not my goal to preserve gospel music or country music in its form. They are constantly changing. My goal is to keep the Oak Ridge Boys relevant, so when the cycle comes back around, to be relevant and include me again.”
Even though it has been years since they have had a huge hit, there is little question that the Oaks are relevant today. They probably will be for a long time.
During our time together, I found Duane Allen to be one deeply rooted in his Christian faith and carrying an unswavering positive outlook on life. “My foundation for God came from my family who taught me,” he says. “My experience with God is a personal thing. I didn't get that in gospel music. I took it to gospel music when I went. I didn't get God in country music. I took him where I went. I just found God was already there. “I want Him in my life and I don't put conditions on where He goes.” It is obvious that Duane Allen lives what he believes.
Early in the summer, I found out how to contact Duane Allen for an interview I have wanted to do for several years. When I did, I explained that I have a hearing impairment which would prevent a phone interview and that it should be face-to-face.
Instead of brushing me off, Allen wrote back, “John, I am going to do my best to make this happen.”
Several days later when my wife called the number Allen provided, it was apparent he already had done just that. The interview was already set up. To our surprise, he invited my wife to join us for the chat.
I asked Duane Allen why he did that for a Christian sports writer he had never met. “I very rarely do this before a show,” he said. “It is using my voice. I am paid to do a show. But I wanted to do this for you because I knew your physical condition you described. It made sense to me. We'll do it. Why not make that happen? So the way you make things happen, you go the extra mile.” It's more than just being polite. It's being a Christian.
Photo by John Herndon
Country and gospel music legends Duane Allen (left) and William Lee Golden entertain a full house for the Oak Ridge Boys' concert at the Kentucky State Fair.