Johnnie Allan: Promised Land

‘PROMISED LAND’ by Johnnie Allan is a rarity — a perfect pop record; just over two minutes long, it’s a dynamite recording of the old Chuck Berry classic in the unique Southern Louisiana style of Cajun influenced rock and roll. It’s fast, furious, yet controlled; once heard, never forgotten.

Charlie Gillett, broadcaster and journalist, was in America in 1972 looking for sounds that Europeans wouldn’t have heard before for his new OVAL record label. In New Orleans, with his partner, he heard ‘Promised Land’ on a juke box and set off to find the source of this amazing record. It had been recorded in Ville Platte by Floyd Solleau, a shop owner, who released records on two local labels, SWALLOW and JIN. Charlie wasn’t very interested in the traditional Cajun sounds on the Swallow label, but was fascinated by the Jin material: “It was a funny mixture of the violins, steel guitars, French harmonies — just pop music coming from a very weird angle.” They worked out an agreement with Floyd and released an album of South Louisiana sounds by artists like Tommy McLain and Clint West, called Another Saturday Night (on Oval, deleted now, and something of a collectors’ item) and put out the Johnnie Allan song as a single.

‘Promised Land’ got a great reception from the music press and began getting radio play. All seemed set for the record to make the charts when a version of the song by Elvis Presley was released. Though markedly inferior, it more or less killed any chance the Allan record had of making it.

This year, Paul Conroy, A&R man at “the world’s most flexible record label” — STIFF, was looking around for unusual sounds and lighted upon the ‘Promised Land’ single. It came out in the Spring on Oval Stiff and again received great critical response. Stiff, convinced that the record could be an enormous hit, decided to alert the attention of record buyers to the masterpiece by bringing Johnnie Allan over to London for a short promotional visit. I met him in the seedy basement press office of his record company somewhere in Notting Hill Gate.

“‘Promised Land’ was never a hit in Louisiana, it was the other side of ‘Somewhere on Skid Row’ that sold; that’s been one of my most popular numbers. I get requests for ‘Promised Land’ now and then, but nothing like the reaction I’ve had over here. It’s strange. Last night I met Carl Mann at Dingwalls and he was doing rockabilly and I’d expected to hear Beatles type music when I came over here. I was amazed. He said to me, ‘Heck, I tried Tennessee, man, and I’ve given up on those people back there. London is where it’s happening. As far as my type of music is concerned, this is God’s country.’ I said, ‘Yeah, this is my promised land’.”

Johnnie Allan was born in Rayne, which is in the heart of the Louisiana Cajun country. He was brought up speaking French and English and was steeped in the Cajun culture that has been passed down by generations of people whose roots stretch back to Picardy and Normandy in Northern France from which provinces came the settlers that colonised what we now know as Nova Scotia. They landed there in the 17th century and called it Acadia, and lived there until the conquest of French Canada by the British, whereupon they were deported to Louisiana, the last remaining French colony in North America, because they refused to swear allegiance to the British Crown.

His strong Cajun musical roots mixed with rock and roll when he was at high school: “I remember when Fats Domino came out back in the ’50s and it was like, ‘Dang!’ overnight everybody was digging the music and everybody had pink and black shoes, pants and shirts.” Johnny left school and played with a rock and roll band and had a big hit with ‘Lonely Days and Lonely Nights’ on Jin in 1959. He was the top selling local artist and got to tour around the country on a number of package tours. It was hard work and he was not sorry to be called up for the army “and take a rest.” After a stint in the service he went to college and became a teacher. Ever since, he’s been employed as a teacher during the week — he’s now an administrator of a school in Lafayette — and played with his band every Friday and Saturday night.

“Cajun people work very hard all week long. I mean, they work religiously for the whole week, and you don’t ask a Cajun to work at the weekend because then it’s ‘Le bon temps roulet’, let the good times roll. They like to go out and really enjoy themselves, and that means music and dancing.”

He has made over forty singles and has just completed his sixth album: “Most of the records have been recorded for Floyd at Ville Platte. I started with him in 1959, then went to VIKING records in Crowley for a few years from 1961 to 1965 and then back to Jim, where I’ve been since.”

How would he describe his music ? “Well, I must make it clear that it isn’t Cajun music. The Swallow label puts out the real authentic Cajun, the music that was carried over from Acadia, that’s played by people like Nathan Abshire. The music I play and all the music on the Jin label can best be described as Southern Louisiana music. It’s kind of hard to pinpoint exactly what it is. It’s a sort of Cajun flavoured rock and roll.”

Johnny was probably the first person to play this kind of music: “I would say so, though actually Jimmy Clanton had a song called ‘Just a Dream’ about a year before I started recording, but he recorded in New Orleans, and there’s a difference between the sound they get down there and the type of sound we get in Ville Platte. They are two distinct worlds, really. The musicians in Ville Platte are the people who are used to playing French music and they crossed over into rock and roll. They still retain the Cajun flavour which you won’t get in New Orleans. It’s kind of like Gumbo. It’s food that I’ve eaten many times — naturally, all Cajuns eat gumbo. It starts with the roux, the most important part; they take water, flour, and add all kinds of seasoning and stir it all together until it’s good and thick, when it’s boiling they put whatever they like into it, everything from shrimp, crabmeat, chicken or sausage. It’s called gumbo because it’s a mixture of things.”

Louisiana is rich with many different musical forms that are often mixed together: “That’s part of what makes it so interesting to live in Louisiana; there’s an incredible variety of music, you’ve got everything from Cajun music up to classical. Other parts of the country will only have one type of music. For example, in parts of the West you’ll only hear country music, and in places like Chicago you’ll meet people who ‘only like jazz’ and won’t listen to anything else. This area, I guess it goes as far west as Houston, and eastwards on up to Mississippi, is where you’ll find people who go one night to a straight country concert and the next night go to a rock concert. This is the area we play in and we don’t go elsewhere — we’d probably get puzzled looks if we did.”

“A typical set these days for me would have everything from ‘Jole Blon’ (a Cajun standard) to a few — not many — country and western songs, rock and roll New Orleans’ style, and then several Johnnie Allan originals, especially ‘Lonely Days Lonely Nights’, ‘Your Picture’ (another early hit) and ‘The Other Side of Skid Row’. With the age crowd we draw, that’s the music they like. I guess the majority of our audiences are from 30 to 50, some are younger and some older, but most grew with the kind of music we play. They like Lee Dorsey, Fats Domino and the later guys like Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding. Fats Domino is still very popular in Louisiana; if you want tickets for his concerts, you have to get them as soon as they go on sale.”

“The band I’ve got now doesn’t have an accordion player but if things keep going the way they are with ‘Promised Land’, I’m going to get one. I’m thinking of making more records with an accordion; I thought I might try that song, ‘Sea Cruise’. In the old band I had a drummer who could play accordion and he’d switch from drums when we played ‘Promised Land’. Right now I have a band with two tenor saxophones, bass, lead guitar, organ and drums. I don’t play any instruments, I’m a jack of all trades and a master of none! If I came to England for some dates I would definitely bring along an accordion player. The guy who played on ‘Promised Land’ was Belton Richard and he’d probably love to come but he has a lot of commitments. I’d bring a drummer and a lead guitarist because from what I’ve seen here, and I’m not saying your musicians couldn’t do the songs, there are some very good musicians here, but there is something about the ‘Promised Land’ background that requires somebody with a little knowledge of the Cajun music.”

I asked Johnnie about his own tastes in music: “I still love the traditional Cajun music and if I have a night off from playing with the band, that’s what I’ll go and listen to. In country music, Merle Haggard is my idol, with the new rock music there are a lot of people I like, but this Leo Sayer song, ‘When I Need You’, has to be one of the most beautiful songs that I’ve heard in a long time. I sing that song during my set now.”

If people are going to Louisiana, how are they going to find where the good music on? “Well, they could use your book (Honky Tonkin’ — A Guide to Music USA), that’s got all the good traditional places in; they have Cajun music at the same place and the same time each weekend; I play different places; it’s best to listen to the radio — most club owners prefer to advertise on the radio. You’ll only find music at the weekends, because most of the musicians do other jobs during the week.”

There are signs that the Cajun culture that Johnnie grew up with is in danger of extinction: “A few years ago they decided in Louisiana that speaking French had to go. ‘We’re Americans and we must teach the children to speak English.’ If you were caught speaking French at school you were severely punished — I mean corporal punishment. Subsequently, kids weren’t speaking French and I was in the last generation that were brought up to speak bilingually. I don’t teach my children to speak French — my wife and I use it when we don’t want them to know what we’re saying!Recently, though, they’ve been trying to revive the language and keep the culture alive. An organisation called CODOFIL do special radio programmes where they play the traditional music.”

What does he plan to do next ? “Well, I arrived here on Monday and I’ve got to be at a club in Duson, Louisiana on Saturday night. I’ll be flying in at 7.30 and will join the band onstage. As far as England is concerned, I’m at the crossroads looking at the promised land. The ‘Promised Land’ is number one in England. The people here at Stiff tell me that the record is at the point where it will either go Bam! into the charts, or it won’t make it at all. I’ve been very impressed with the reception I’ve had here and all the people who’ve interviewed me have been very sincere and said exactly what they think of the record. I guess over 90% have said they believe in the song and, hopefully, it will be a success. If it is a hit I’ll come back and do some live dates. I hope to see you all again soon.”

© Richard WoottonOmaha Rainbow, Summer 1978

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