Steve Allen is dead. I don't think any of us has a problem with that.
People who've lived long, prosperous and productive lives are entitled to long, uninterrupted stretches of inactivity, punctuated by blissful nada. And the spectacle-sporting comedian, who rose to prominence during the days of live television, certainly knew a thing or two about death. Pioneer of the talk show format (and self-proclaimed Renaissance man), Allen conceived a series for PBS in 1977 called Meeting of the Minds in which he got to interview famous dead people who proved too difficult to book in real life.
Coupled with the annoying bonus of watching Allen's shrill-voiced wife, Jayne Meadows, portray every woman in history from Salome to Aphrodite -- roles best left to someone 30 years her junior -- you got to see Allen mix it up with "real" Renaissance men like Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. Because all the guests' round-table dialogue was based on writings or quotes attributed to the old masters, they never got to ad lib -- Allen's stock in trade. Ah, if only Michelangelo could've pulled a Burt Reynolds and catapulted a cream pie at his host.
Just imagine this Emmy-worthy episode of Meeting of the Minds had it ever aired: Leonardo da Vinci poking Allen's chest with his finger, questioning what makes old Steverino such a multitalent.
Leonardo da Vinci: With my heightened powers of observation, I've painted and sculpted masterpieces the world still marvels at. I drafted the first in-depth studies of anatomy, flight, architecture, water and air dynamics, war machines and nature. I've perfected pulleys, cogwheels, suction pumps; these are all things the world has benefited greatly from. All you've done, Steve, is write songs for Ann Jillian, think up foolhardy shows like this one and patent the Funny Fone Call, which my friend Alexander Graham insists he was doing way before you and the Jerky Boys.
Allen: C'mon Leo. You don't hear Cleopatra talking to me like that, do you?
Ever since he left the Tonight Show in 1957, Allen's been force-feeding the public his padded résumé, how he's the author of countless published books, plays, musicals, magazine articles and poems. How he's recorded more than 50 albums/CDs. And then there's that business about having scribbled more than 7,200 songs. That comes out to roughly a song a day -- every day -- for 20 years straight, or (for the math majors) a song every other day for the last 40 years. According to Steve Allen Online! (www.steveallenonline.com), up until his death, he churned out, on average, "40 songs a month" and was never more than two feet from a tape recorder, commemorating his every thought for posterity like Michael Keaton in Night Shift.
The same official Web site recounts one incident in a Kalamazoo, Michigan, hotel lobby, where 200 people witnessed Steve Allen miraculously write 400 songs in a single day. But don't call the Vatican to nominate him for sainthood. After all, how good can these songs be? One imagines him whipping up incidentals like "Hand Me That Ashtray," "Picking My Nose," "Bellhop Blues," "My Boxers Are Riding Up" and "Somebody Get Me a Fresca," all the while fielding suggestions from the assembled audience. No doubt this mob would've sued for co-writing credit if even one of these songs were to live on past that lobby. Should these 400 songs be counted toward the 7,200 tally? I demand a hand recount!
If you were to emulate one of Allen's long-running comedy routines and ask the "Man on the Street" to name one Steve Allen composition besides his theme song "This Could Be the Start of Something (Big)" -- also a 1960 Top 200 hit for Steve and Eydie -- he'd be flummoxed to name a single ditty. Unless the street happened to be in Branson, Missouri, and that man happened to be Andy Williams.
In 1957, with one hit under his belt, the young singer was coerced into recording an entire album of Steve Allen songs for his debut long-player. In a move that would be later repeated by the Rolling Stones for their first album, the cover offered a picture of Williams without a single word explaining who the hell he was. Instead of being obscured by shadows like those surly Stones, a dopey golf hat covers Williams' blue eyes. In contrast to this "guess who" album art, the back sleeve contains a near-actual-size blow-up of Steve Allen's face with fawning liner notes superimposed over it. It is with this album's hyperbole that the birth of Steve Allen as out-of-control Renaissance man can be found:
"His tremendous popularity is no illusion. It is firm and solid. Here is first rate ability and talent that goes in several directions.
He writes books and they are published.
He plays the piano and sings.
He writes short stories and he is an actor.
He writes songs and they are sung."
Some pretty noncommittal praise there. Take Allen's acting. His debut was an uncomfortably humorless portrayal of Benny Goodman in a 1955 biopic -- you could've substituted Goodman's clarinet case and gotten a more animated and watchable performance. Otherwise, Allen had his hands full portraying himself for most of his life, although he once guested as "Allen Stevens" on an episode of Batman. Granted, he did provide an amiable counterbalance to Jayne Meadows' scenery-chewing appearances on The Love Boat. (Oh Lord, we don't need another Meadows!)
"He writes songs and they are sung." One gets the feeling that as long as the material Allen writes is professional enough and someone sings it, that's sufficient. It doesn't have the added obligation of being memorable, too. I've played this Andy Williams album three times in a row, and the needle clicking off the run-off groove was more noteworthy than anything that came before it. You've got to feel for Williams, trying to breathe life into instantly forgettable, instantly forgotten fare like "All the Way Home" -- which isn't even as good as the Spinal Tap song of the same name. Just look at these titles -- "Young Love," "Lonely Love," "Forbidden Love," each one a new yawn set to music. The adjective-plus-love formula must've been good for 300 songs at least -- witness a "Selfish Love" on Allen's Music for Swingers album.
Then there are songs with "blues" in the title -- "Old Piano Plays the Blues," "Meet Me Where They Play the Blues." Do you think he remembered all these songs in their entirety, their subtle differences? Do you think Robert Pollard remembers even half the shit he's put out under the Guided by Voices brand name? Christ, John Lennon couldn't even recall which of his songs were on Revolver. And neither of these men has written more than 7,200 songs. Maybe Allen just kept rewriting the same songs over and over and didn't know it. "Forbidden Love" and "Young Love" are strategically placed as the last tracks on their respective sides of Andy Williams Sings . . . Steve Allen, making a side-by-side comparison impossible unless you tape them, which I did. And this test would've worked like a charm if only I could remember either song after it was over.
Having scoured eBay, where "Steve Allen-Deceased Comedian" items abound, I could only account for 29 Allen-penned tunes like "Gravy Waltz," "Mr. Moon" and, yep, "This Could Be the Start of Something (Big)," which was also converted into an Ocean Spray cranberry juice jingle back in the day when corporate co-opting was still uncool. All these numbers are featured on the 100-song Official Steve Allen Songbook, on sale from Steve Allen Online!. Minus this minuscule 100 figure and the 400 from the Kalamazoo lobby, that leaves roughly more than 6,700 songs unaccounted for.
Surprisingly, most of Allen's own albums contain songs written by other people. I even located Steve Allen's foray into psychedelia -- Muzak versions of "Groovin'," "San Francisco (Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair)" and "Feeling Groovy" -- although I suspect the guy who once mocked "Tutti Frutti" by reading it like a Shakespeare soliloquy and forced Elvis to dress up in tails and sing to a basset hound wouldn't pass up an opportunity to mock psychedelia. Betcha he wrote "Flower Revolution" and "Here Comes Sgt. Pepper" under a pseudonym. This Dunhill LP, Songs for Gentle People, is credited to Steve Allen and the Gentle Players and includes Hal Blaine on the drums. Probably recorded the same disheartening week the remaining sessions for the Beach Boys' Smile were canceled. Bummer.
Steve Allen Online! dutifully lists everyone who's ever recorded a Steve Allen song, from Tony Bennett and Ella Fitzgerald to Harvey Korman and Hal Linden -- mind you, this is probably a roll call of people who recorded his lone hit -- and yet there is not even a partial listing of Steve Allen compositions, let alone the mysterious "over 7,200 songs."
This figure has probably ballooned to more than 8,957, since Jayne Meadows is probably overturning sock drawers to find every cocktail napkin and microcassette that may have been intended to be converted into a song when Steve had a free moment.
A lesson to the Lou Begas and Baha Men of today -- just keep telling everyone you've written thousands of songs besides "Mambo Number 5" and "Who Let the Dogs Out?" -- no one's ever gonna bother to round them doggies up.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.