Wilfred Allen Snivley, 75, better known as Bill Allen, passed away Feb. 22, but he left behind hundreds of smiling faces, strong friendships and most of all his music.
Fans of rockabilly might know Bill Allen and the Back Beats’ hit Please Give Me Something, a raw, raucous slice of early rock ’n’ roll, written in 15 minutes in a parking lot and recorded at Akron’s WCUE studio for the Imperial label in 1957. Mr. Snivley and his earlier band, the Keynotes, also had regional hits with Oo-We-Baby and their original recording of Butterfly, later made famous by pop singer Andy Williams.
Those songs have been recently rediscovered and coveted by a new generation of fans, particularly in Europe, where rockabilly has had a bit of a renaissance among collectors. Mr. Allen, along with his musical partners, guitarist John Seli and the late drummer Dean Hanley, were inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in 2012.
“In all the years I’ve known him, we never had a cross word between us,” said Seli, who first started playing with Mr. Snivley when the young singer was fresh out of high school. Their hard work and talents brought them plenty of regional fans and fame as they played venues throughout Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana.
And despite their professional frustrations, trying to make it big at a time when artists were at the bottom of the music-business hierarchy, Seli said they always got along well, in part because they recognized and appreciated each other’s gifts, something Allen was able to do for many people he met.
“Bill couldn’t do what I did and I couldn’t do what he did,” Seli said. “Bill had a great voice and a right upfront personality. He let me do my thing and he did his real good, and we just always got along.”
The trio seemed to be on the brink of fame on three separate occasions, with record companies wanting to release their music. But their dreams were derailed by a mix of familial responsibilities, unfortunate timing and some shady business dealings. Mr. Snivley was never bitter about what could have been.
“He used to say, ‘Hey, we had a million seller, and I’ve got a million of ’em in my cellar,” Seli said, chuckling.
After the band broke up in the early 1960s, Mr. Snivley got a “real” job and started a family, but he never stopped entertaining, singing and playing guitar as a solo act up until he was physically unable to do so. He worked in California, Florida and throughout the Akron area.
“He was just … an entertainer,” said Judie Snivley, his wife of 26 years, who proudly attended all of his gigs.
During his years gigging in Florida, Allen built up such a strong fan base that his son, Bill Snivley, said one of his regular venues was forced to build two extra patios to accommodate the crowd.
“Everybody always felt like they were in his living room. Everyone felt touched. He would look each and every one in their eyes and they felt like he was directly singing directly to them,” Bill Snivley said. “It’s inherent … it’s just an ability you’re born with and he loved to make people smile. He got more out of that than any paycheck. That meant more to him.”
Mr. Snivley, who regaled his crowd with engaging stories, well-known folk tunes and songs by Cat Stevens and Jimmy Buffett, passed his love of music and nature down to his son, who is also a part-time musician.
Allen was gracious with everyone, frequently encouraging musicians and others he knew to get onstage and share their talents, which his son said he found very rewarding.
“My dad was never a millionaire, monetarily, but he’s always been a very wealthy man. If you look at the amount of friends and people in his life that he’s had the opportunity to enhance their lives. Dad just had a natural affinity for that. He loved to bring new talent and nurture people and just create stars out of people,” Bill Snivley said.
Mr. Snivley is also survived by daughters Susan Grochowski and Kelly Thomas, three grandchildren, a brother and a sister. There will be no services, but at 4 p.m. June 5 at Ricky T’s Bar and Grille in Treasure Island, Fla., the family will hold a memorial celebration of his life.
Friends and family will gather, sing some of Mr. Snivley’s favorite songs and hoist a few Salty Dogs (his favorite drink) in his honor. There will also be a slightly altered, sing-along version of Eric Clapton’s Tears In Heaven, and Bill Snivley and his own guitar-playing son, Christopher, will duet on Cat Stevens’ Father and Son, which Bill used to enjoy playing with his father and was also a favorite of Judie’s.
“I’m sorry he’s gone, but I’m really happy he’s not in pain anymore or suffering. He had a good life,” Bill Snivley said, noting that even in death his father was trying to help people; he accepted an experimental drug regimen that was unlikely to save him but could help others, and he donated his retinas to the Cleveland Eye Bank.
“He did a lot of wonderful things and he had a great time. He got to experience a lot of things that most people don’t have the opportunity to do,” his son said.