How Tony Allen, the 82-year-old legendary troubadour of Hartford's old Front Street, got started in the music biz 60 years ago sounds like something right out of the most upbeat scenarios in Frank Capra's Christmas classic, "It's a Wonderful Life."
Allen, who had just finished a two-year stint in the Army in 1948, went out one cold night around Christmas Eve with a few musician pals to a Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) dance at Hartford's old St. Anthony's Church.
Although he loved singing since he was 9 years old and had studied the styles of every crooner from Crosby to Sinatra, Allen had never sung professionally.
But after much coaxing from his friends, who knew he had a great natural voice, he finally approached the orchestra leader and asked if he could sing a tune with the dance band.
"It was almost Christmas, and everybody was in a Christmas mood. The Crosby version of 'White Christmas' was playing everywhere you went, and it was a song I actually knew," Allen recalls over lunch in his West Hartford home.
"The bandleader found a stock arrangement during the intermission, since all the bands were playing 'White Christmas' then, and luckily for me, it just so happened to be in my key, the key of C."
Allen, then a somewhat bashful and reluctant public performer, sang the dreamy Christmas song not just in key but with a heart-warming, nostalgic feeling.
It brought down the house in the most dramatic Hollywood manner.
And almost as if scripted, the bandleader enthusiastically shook hands with the then-obscure East Side kid and offered him a job singing with the band.
Even more cinematic, the handsome, smooth-toned crooner caught the eye of the fair Beatrice Chiarizio standing out on the dance floor applauding like mad with the cheering throng.
Not long after the conquering hero had stepped off the bandstand, Tony and Beatrice introduced themselves to each other and chatted animatedly.
Soon, as in a romantic 1940s musical, Tony was dancing with Beatrice, which
led to romance, courtship and 60 years of marriage and mutual devotion that produced a tightly knit family of two children and five grandchildren.
In short: a wonderful life.
Since that dramatic, life-shaping night, Allen has honed his singing style and cultivated a relaxed, cool confidence by playing virtually everywhere in Greater Hartford and beyond.
Over six decades, without missing a beat, he has sung at more weddings, proms, nightclubs, inns, hotels, restaurants, halls, ballrooms, bars, juke joints, classy boξtes, outdoor festivals and indoor bashes than he can remember.
Name any premier dinner club, restaurant or other venue from Greater Hartford's Golden Age of live music from the 1950s the Church Corners Inn, the Manga Reva, Adajian's and on and on and Allen probably sang there. People still approach him to thank him for playing at their wedding, birthday, bar mitzvah or other special occasion four or more decades ago.
"Name it, and I've probably sung there," says the youthful octogenarian, who still has his hair, his musical pipes and his sense of humor intact.
Although Allen in many ways embodies the glories of the pre-deejay and iPod era in Hartford when big bands, singers and musicians flourished in a vital supper club scene he's a present-day force as well, singing and playing American Songbook material throughout the area.
In the last five years, in fact, he's become a favorite of the jazz and cabaret set at Szechuan Tokyo, a West Hartford restaurant that's only a 10-minute stroll from Allen's Elmwood home. With his long-running trio, Allen returns for another performance Friday at 8 p.m.
Once again, the charming performer a vintage blend of singer and entertainer will croon classic ballads and venerable tunes by the Gershwins, Cole Porter et al. And he might also dip into material celebrating his boyhood days of the 1930s and '40s, when he grew up around Hartford's legendary Front Street neighborhood.
As a performer, Allen is his own mostly self-taught creation who learned primarily through hands-on experience in the clubs.
Thanks to the GI Bill, he studied voice for a while at the Hartt School, learning
the importance of breath control and projection.
Despite some formal training, what you hear in Allen's stylings his legato phrasing, clean articulation and ability to get deep inside the feeling and meaning of a song's lyrics is all his own, honed during his innumerable gigs.
Even his name is a serendipitous self-invention, one he tailored to fit his show business career. His real name is Anthony D. DeDominicis, which was deemed too big to fit on a marquee, or too hard for the public to spell or pronounce.
"We were walking down Asylum Street to a gig we had a prom at the old Hartford High School when a friend of mine spotted a street sign with the name Allyn on it and suggested that would be a good professional name for me Tony Allyn," he explains.
"So on the bandstand for a while, I was Tony Allyn. But every time my new name appeared in the newspaper, it was always misspelled as Allen, over and over again. Finally I just gave up and went with Allen," he explains.
Allen, one of six kids, lived first on Windsor Street until his family moved to Village Street.
Providentially, his new home was a stone's throw from the legendary State Theater, one of New England's premier entertainment emporiums, drawing the great singers, big bands, comics and tap dancers of the 1930s and '40s.
The State was Tony's real music academy, his Juilliard, from age 9 through his teens.
The entertainment mecca was where he learned by studying the likes of Frank Sinatra, Vic Damone, Bob Eberly, Perry Como.
Watching Como, in fact, taught the once-shy Allen how to relax, to be completely natural, to connect intimately with the audience, a hallmark of the ageless baritone's performances to this day.
"When I was 9, we'd go to the State and, for 15 cents, spend the whole day there on Saturday, sitting through three shows. It was packed with singers, comics, big bands, all the best entertainers Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Fats Waller, Buck and Bubbles, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Gypsy Rose Lee, Bob Hope, the Andrews Sisters just about everybody you could name from back then!"
"Sometimes we'd even sneak in for free," he confesses with absolutely no sense of contrition.
An ambitious kid, Tony peddled The Hartford Times, the city's afternoon paper, on downtown streets and worked at the Mohegan Market at Main and Morgan streets. Best of all, the industrious, likable kid got to work inside his beloved State Theater.
His role models on stage ranged from the plucky Peg Leg Bates (a famous one-legged hoofer) to the elegant Duke Ellington and the flamboyant master showman Lionel Hampton.
"I used to shine shoes at the State, including for bandleader Tommy Dorsey and Frank Sinatra. Sinatra was a good tipper and gave me a dollar tip, which was a fortune back then."
Young Tony somehow inveigled his way into working in the projection booth at the State, which showed feature films, cartoons and newsreels along with its variety acts, an entertainment extravaganza that ran all day long.
Besides being a gofer for the stars running errands and fetching sandwiches and coffee at nearby grinder shops he got to operate the spotlight up in the projection booth, learning how to keep in the limelight the performers he idolized.
Behind the State Theater, Tony and his buddies regularly played softball on a hardscrabble diamond (second base was a couple of bricks) against many of the touring entertainers.
Bandleader Harry James, Allen remembers, had his own slick team of musician and players who could really hit and field.
Among the best players to challenge the East Side kids were the Mills Brothers, a famous African American vocal group of the time. They were so serious about the game that they traveled with their own expensive gloves and big league equipment for pickup games on the road.
Allen's natural talents extended to sports, especially baseball, earning him a tryout in New Britain with the New York Giants as an outfielder.
"I did OK. I fielded, threw to all the bases and to home plate; ran, hit and bunted fine. But a scout told me that I was too small for big league ball," at 5-foot-9 and 130 pounds, he recalls.
Allen nonetheless enjoyed a distinguished career in Hartford's highly competitive Twilight League.
The crafty right-hander even pitched a no-hitter and was later inducted into the Twilight League Hall of fame. He had a wicked curve ball his signature pitch that broke so sharply, his nickname became "Hooks."
But as Allen entered his 20s, the hooks he began to think about increasingly were the melodic hooks in the popular songs he was memorizing, gradually building a huge repertoire.
Allen's first album, "Tony Allen and Friends," which came out in the mid-'80s, was devoted to his renditions of mostly mellow ballads, smartly seasoned with jazz inflections.
On his second album, "I Remember Front Street" in 2003, the Italian American crooner made a much bigger splash as he sang the praises of his old neighborhood.
Front Street, the inspiration for the CD's title song, was a housing, retail and entertainment center noted for its splendid Italian restaurants and fabulous pizzas, plus a variety of shops and even push carts, peddling fresh fruits and vegetables.
With lyrics written by Allen's close friend and frequent collaborator, drummer/composer Joe Ronan, the disc's title tune is a nostalgic remembrance of Front Street as a vibrant slice of urban life before it was obliterated in the 1950s to make way for urban renewal.
"I Remember Front Street" has become Allen's signature song, even getting him billing as "That Front Street Guy."
It's his fond recollection of the friendliness and openness of his old neighborhood, its melting pot ethnic mix and urban flavor; its vital street life and palpable sense of community that connected everybody in what felt like a bustling, unique little village tucked by the Connecticut River.
"People would sit outside and sing and play guitars. No one even locked their doors. Everybody knew everybody. Literally, everybody knew your name," he says of his old neighborhood.
Allen enjoys looking back nostalgically on those good old days.
"I wouldn't change it for the world. We didn't have anything as far as material goods went, but we had a great time. And I still get together with 'kids' who grew up with me back then," he says.
Just as ardently, he lives totally in the present and looks forward to the future, to the next gig, to the next recording, the next day on the links.
Among his next major projects will be a new album, "A Taste of Italy," devoted entirely to Italian songs, both traditional ones and new tunes being composed for him by Ronan.
"People are always coming up to me," Allen says, "and asking me, 'Tony, when are you going to make an Italian album?' Now I can tell them I'm doing that right now, and it should be out by next summer."
TONY ALLEN performs Friday at 8 p.m. at Szechuan Tokyo Restaurant, 1245 New Britain Ave., West Hartford. He'll be accompanied by drummer/composer Ronan, pianist Joe McWilliams and bassist Lou Bocciarelli. Information and reservations: 860-561-0180. Allen's CDs, including last year's Christmas album, can be purchased at D&D Market and DiBacco Food Mart in Hartford and Integrity 'n Music in Wethersfield.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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