The Allen Brothers, Lee and Austin, were among the first of the fraternal duets that became popular in the '20s and '30s. They were known for their fast-paced, upbeat blues and old-time music-influenced songs. Offering sometimes-bawdy good-time music, droll humor, and Lee Allen's delightful kazoo leads, they created a unique blues-derived sound independent from that of country music's star bluesman of the day, Jimmie Rodgers. Between 1926-1934 the "Chattanooga Boys" recorded 89 songs and notched several hits.
The brothers were born five years apart (Austin was the oldest) around the turn of the century on Monteagle Mountain, 50 miles north of Chattanooga, to a sawyer and a trained violinist. In childhood they were influenced by a combination of contemporary and traditional music. The brothers hit the local music circuit around 1923, becoming particularly popular in isolated coal-mining camps. While traveling, the Allens began collecting all sorts of local, traditional tunes. Soon they began writing their own songs, many of which contain references to their mountain home and the Chattanooga area, and they absorbed the blues, often of the sort containing sexual double meanings, perhaps more thoroughly than any subsequent brother duet. The Allens made their recording debut on the Columbia label in 1926. Their first single was a version of "Salty Dog Blues" titled "Bow Wow Blues." It became quite popular, but when the label released their "Laughin' and Cryin' Blues" in its 14,000-numbered "Race" series instead of the 15,000 "Old-Time" series, the brothers were offended and threatened to sue the company if the records remained on the shelves. The mistake was probably an honest one on Columbia's part; some Allen Brothers recordings sound very close to those by Southeastern African-American performers of the day, especially to those by small hokum ensembles. Nevertheless, the Allens moved to Victor and met Ralph Peer, who was reaping the fruits of his discovery of Jimmie Rodgers and was keen to mine the white blues vein further. In concerts the Allens sang a combination of up-tempo and slower tunes, and became frustrated when Peer insisted that they record only the former. Still, they remained with Victor until 1933, recording such hits as "Skippin' and Flyin'" (1928) and "Jake Walk Blues" (1930), the latter a commentary on the Jamaican ginger ("jake") food-poisoning episode that made headlines that year.
During the Depression, the brothers continued to record, but despite their popularity they had difficulty earning enough to support their families. In 1933 Austin and his family moved to New York, where he became a radio announcer. Lee stayed in Tennessee and became a construction worker. They also appeared together in a play, Bushwhacker, and made a final stab at the music business with a session in 1934 for ARC. They cut new versions of some of their best hits, but these recordings still didn't make enough impact to justify a return to full-time music-making. Austin later became a construction worker and engineer. He died in Williamston, SC, in 1959. In the late '60s, the Allen Brothers were rediscovered by a new generation. Several LP reissues of their 78 rpm recordings appeared, and Lee Allen was coaxed into performing again. He appeared occasionally at local events near his home in Lebanon, TN, before his death in 1981. The 1990s saw the release of the brothers' complete recordings on three compact discs by Austria's Document label. ~ Sandra Brennan & James Manheim