By Mary Starr
During January and February, when many winter visitors make their way South to enjoy warmer temperatures and the lack of snow and ice, they bring their gifts with them. Many organizations benefit from the snowbirds’ artistic experience, organizational capabilities and musical talent. Bob Allison is one such visitor. He and his wife, Nancy Sullivan, make their way to the Golden Isles every winter from the North Shore of Boston to relax, recoup and in Bob’s case, entertain.
During their approximately eight-week stay here each winter, you’ll find Allison tickling the ivories (and crooning along) at a variety of places, including Magnolia Manor, Nancy and Ocean Lodge. His repertoire, straight from what has become known as “The Great American Songbook,” appeals equally to the multi-generational audiences at restaurants as it does to those in retirement communities who remember the songs on their first go ‘round. Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Billy Joel, Dean Martin, Johnny Cash, and others, populate his program, and provide the audience with a well-rounded entertainment experience.
Eminently personable, with sparkling eyes and a shock of bright white hair, Allison is a born entertainer.
“I began working out little ditties on our family’s ‘square grand’ piano in Canton, Ohio, at about age 6,” he said. “I remember naming one these my ‘opera.’ It contained three major chords with a trace of melody. Those same chords are the center of my playing today (I, IV, V7).”
Allison credits his father with being his key musical influence, and learning to play for enjoyment. His dad, he said, played a number of instruments just for fun, in addition to the piano, including saxophone, clarinet, guitar, banjo and ukulele.
“He was an accomplished amateur with a good ear for melody and harmony,” Allison said. “I seem to have followed his example.”
Allison’s family tree is full of musicians. His grandmother was a classically trained pianist, and played primarily for her own enjoyment, and his great-uncle was an accomplished violinist who played for years with the Canton Symphony Orchestra as a member of AFM Local 111.
“That may explain why today I am a board member of AFM Local 126, on Boston’s North Shore,” he said. “My father urged me to ‘have a day job’ and keep music as recreation — probably good advice in my case.”
High school brought with it marching band (wind instruments) until Allison switched to chorus and sang a supporting role in “Amal and the Night Visitors,” before snagging the male lead (Curly) in the musical “Oklahoma!”
“During this time, I organized and led a band called the ‘Naturals’ that had the typcial experience of most garage bands, leaving not a trace except on the band members themselves,” Allison said. “I mostly played saxophone and guitar for this band because we had another member who wanted to play keys.”
While in college at Yale, Allison sung in three glee clubs over four years under the direction of the famous male choral director Fenno Heath, and Pulitzer Prize winning composer-conductor Lewis Spratlan.
“These experiences, including some as a soloist, helped me set high standards for performance and tempered some of my performance anxiety,” he explained. “I studied music theory with Turkish electronic music pioneer Bülent Arel, and was a member of the a cappella singing group The Yale Alley Cats. I performed with the Alley Cats at the Cloister on Sea Island in 1964. That visit made quite an impression on a young college student.”
Before making music as his career, Allison was employed as a research administrator for the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Mass., for more than 15 years. He left their employ in 1994, and served two tours of duty with the United Nations on assignments in Africa — Somalia and Burundi — dealing with human rights protection and judicial administration, prior to devoting full-time effort to music performance at the beginning of the 21st century. Since then, he’s been booking between 100 and 180 paid performances during 10 months of each year.
Locally, Allison takes weekly piano lessons from instructor Joanie Nicholas. It seems with music, one never stops learning.
In what should sound very familiar to parents of most piano students everywhere, Allison explained that when he was a pre-teen he received traditional piano lessons, but was not a very disciplined student, and didn’t like the practice exercises and graduated pieces his teacher expected him to play.
“I had a good enough ear to pick out tunes I heard on records (45 rps, mostly), listening to people like Elvis, Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis,” Allison said. “My father had provided me with an introduction to harmonic theory which was enough to enable me to match chordal accompaniments to melodies I listened to, copied, and improvised. This was reinforced by reading ‘lead sheets’ from so-called ‘fake books’ which contained only melody lines, lyrics and chord symbols.”
Currently, Allison performs primarily in retirement communities, assisted living facilities and long-term care facilities, a practice he began when his own mother resided in such a community.
“I soon realized that the music I like to play was a pretty good fit for these audiences,” he said, adding that he also occasionally books at small hotels and restaurants as well as private functions. “For 16 years, I was the house musician at the Emerson Inn-by-the-Sea in Rockport, Mass., until new ownership decided to remove their baby grand piano.”
Allison’s online music agent is Gigmasters of Connecticut, and his content pages may be found at Gigmasters Casablanca.
“In 2009, I organized the Lighthouse Trio, now the Lighthouse Quartet, featuring piano, bass, trumpet and drums,” he said. “The quartet is still together, but plays a more limited schedule that when we started 10 years ago.”
Allison is reluctant to choose a favorite music genre, but admits to liking a wide variety of material that’s reflected in his playing choices.
“Lively and romantic tunes by composers like George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Hoagy Carmichael; jazz tunes by Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck and John Coltrane; vocals by singers like Nat King Cole, Johnny Hartman, the Andrews Sisters and Ella Fitzgerald,” he said. “I also enjoy the piano styles of Dr. John, Diana Krall and Tommy Flanagan. Broadly speaking, the popular music from the late 1930s through the 1960s.”
And, he has some advice for anyone who wants to explore music for fun or profit.
“I’d encourage them to go for it as much as circumstances allow,” he said. “Don’t ‘bet the ranch’ on financial success unless you’ve proven to yourself that you have commercial potential, have a decent day job or other means of support.”
Allison also recommends budding musicians guard against being discouraged, being concerned about perfectionism or not being good enough or talented enough.
“Playing music, like golf, basketball, painting, etc. is about 5 percent talent and 95 percent effort,” he asserted. “There are some geniuses out there — but for the rest of us just jumping into the pool and working at swimming is the best advice I can give. One more thing: find a teacher or mentor who can help you visualize and attain your goals. A kind person who will listen to your ideas about music and gently nudge you along is better than a superstar who may just want to show you how great they are. Shop around, ask people, feel free to change from time to time.”