The right artillery
History and the right chemistry help The Cannonballs cook up a vibrant act
You could call the four members of The Cannonballs well-rounded.
They've sung and played for a total of 150 years in different bands and written more than 100 songs, ranging from blues, R & B and country western to rock 'n' roll, jazz and gospel. Right now, they're playing in Portland but are aiming to tour Texas and Europe.
And the spark that touched it off was when bass player Jim Miller heard Lloyd Allen sing.
In June 2000, Miller was burned out. He'd been playing for more than 30 years, with bands as disparate as Iron Butterfly and Nelson Riddle (behind Ella Fitzgerald!).
Miller, 51, moved from Los Angeles to Portland in the 1980s, promoted The Bite, the waterfront food and music festival, and The Mayor's Ball, which Bud Clark launched to celebrate his election.
He also played in the Portland western band the All-Night Cowboys from 1990 to 1996. When the cowboy bubble burst, the first president of the Portland Music Association was playing pickup jobs and parties.
At a low ebb, Miller went to the 'Good in the 'Hood' festival at Holy Redeemer School in North Portland. There, he was astonished by the singer who sat in with Norman Sylvester's band for 'Every Day I Have the Blues.'
'I thought, 'This kid looks great and sounds great,' ' he said. 'I'd never heard him; I thought he was new to town. When I got close, I realized he's at least 40. He was friendly and self-
effacing and had absolutely nothing going on musically.'
The 'kid' Miller heard was Lloyd Allen, and he's now 65. That meeting marked the start of an extraordinary creative burst for the four Portlanders who became The Cannonballs.
Five decades onstage
Allen has a classic blues pedigree.
Influenced by Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Al Green and Sam Cooke, Allen has Green's angelic tenor and the ability to testify like Charles. In blues terms, he is 'qualified.'
In 50 years onstage, Allen has played with everyone from BB King to Dinah Washington and fronted his own band, the Vibratones, at legendary Portland nightspots such as Paul's Paradise and Lil' Sandy's.
Like many bluesmen, Allen has paid his dues. The slight, soft-spoken singer served time in the Oregon State Penitentiary from 1962 to 1969 after a fatal shooting over nonpayment for a gig.
'But I wrote my best songs there,' he recalled quietly.
Allen may be soft-spoken, but his fashion sense is not. He's particularly fond of bright colors and brushed-nylon Kangol hats. His car is a low-riding, electric blue '72 Buick Riviera.
Allen also has a penchant for exotic pets, at one time owning a boa constrictor, a macaque monkey and even a full-maned African lion that rode in his car with him.
Born in Lubbock, Texas, in 1937, Allen moved to Vanport with his parents, 11 brothers and three sisters during World War II, moving out a week before Vanport flooded in 1948.
Allen began by singing in church (and still does), then started to sit in at nightclubs even though he was underage. Invited to play with BB King at Paul's Paradise club on North Williams Avenue on one occasion, Allen recalled he was having so much fun that King stopped the show.
'He said, 'This is my show!' and took his guitar back,' Allen said with a laugh.
Soon after Allen and Miller met, Miller booked a gig, and his keyboard player flaked out. He called David Vest, who had just moved from Texas, and the third part of the puzzle clicked into place.
Vest is an energetic 58, a pounding Gulf Coast boogie pianist who played with Tammy Wynette back in the '60s on Nashville radio. He still has a tape of her performing some of his songs Ñ and the only one she ever wrote, called 'Matrimony,' which has never been released and was the subject of a recent BBC program.
Vest also is proud of playing with Texas blues legends Big Walter the Thunderbird and Lavelle White and of recording the first rock 'n' roll album made in Romania.
When drummer Marty Henninger joined, the cake was baked. Henninger, 49, transferred from the swing band The Countrypolitans and brought his western sensibilities and harmonies to the band, along with a number of original songs.
They write their own
Recording a live CD at the Westside Bar & Grill in Southwest Portland recently, The Cannonballs played 37 songs in 3 1/2 hours. Thirty-four of those were originals.
Sharing leads, they pounded through Vest's 'Meet Me With Your Black Dress On' behind his raucous vocals and 'Starin' Down the Barrel of the Blues.' Henniger's strong tenor led the Motown bounce of 'Give Yourself Up' and a rolling western song, 'Time Changes.'
Allen slowed the pace, sliding down soulfully into 'That's All I Need,' 'Date With an Angel' and the heartbreaking 'Love to a Stranger' before roaring back with the Otis Redding-like 'Qualified.'
The four shared elegant harmonies on the a cappella tunes 'Nobody's Fault but Mine' and 'Worryin' About the World,' and Vest struck an evocative western note in 'Kaliyuga Highway,' which sounds like a Willie Nelson tune.
But gremlins haunted the recording.
'We lost a few tunes,' Miller said philosophically. 'But we'll record this weekend.'
All four are excited at the way the band clicks onstage. Vest summed it up: 'There is something about the chemistry of the four of us together that none of us has ever experienced anywhere else.
'We felt it like an electric current from the very first time we sang together, at Jim's house, gathered around his old upright piano. The tune was 'He's Got the Whole World in His Hands.'
Lloyd said: 'That gave me chills. Marty said something like, 'Oh, my God,' and Jim and I both said something along the lines of 'If this never gets any better, it’s good enough.' '