[This biography provided to SoulTracks courtesy of Stax Records]
Rance Allen set the music world on fire between 1971 and 1974 with his electrifying recordings for the Stax-owned Gospel Truth and Truth labels. Hits like "Just My Salvation," "There's Gonna Be a Showdown," and "Ain't No Need of Crying" broke down stylistic barriers between gospel, rock, and soul musical styles as they never had before.
After one album for Capitol, Rance has re-signed with Stax, now owned by the Berkeley-based Fantasy/Prestige/Milestone family of labels.
"At Stax I knew everybody; everybody knew me," Rance says. "It was like a family situation. ˜Hey Rance, how ya doin'? I heard your new record.' The people were close.
"When I heard that we were going to get the chance to go back on Stax through Fantasy, I went down there and saw that Fantasy was a small but mighty company. It was just what I was looking for."
One of 12 children, Rance has been performing since he was five. As "Little Rance Allen-the Boy Preacher" he preached and sang throughout Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania until he was 14.
"It was almost like a route that I had every year," he remembers. "My grandparents did all the booking and all the driving. To me it was just ˜hey, I get to travel.' Most of the messages that I preached were taught to me. My grandparents were very strict on me. I didn't have a life like most kids had. I wasn't allowed to go out and play baseball with the guys and do the things a kid does. After I found out that this preaching was all work and almost no play, I started to slow down a little bit. I didn't get back into things again until the age of 17. This was when I decided all over again for myself that I wanted to be a preacher."
Rance began playing piano when he was seven and picked up the guitar two years later. He credits gospel giant James Cleveland as his main influence, but also names Ray Charles and Chuck Berry. (When Rance works out with the guitar he employs many of Berry's showstopping rock and roll theatrics.)
"For a while there I was taking everything I heard and converting it so I could play it in church," Rance explains. No one objected to his eclectic approach at his home church where his pastor-grandfather encouraged his experimentation. "He gave me total freedom to do what I was doing.
"When I used to go to different churches or somewhere strange, people were not used to what I was doing. I used to get some flack or bad things said about me, but every time something bad was said, someone would come along and say something good, and I just happened to remember all the good things and not the bad."
The Rance Allen Group, with older brother Tom on drums and younger brother Steve on bass, made its first record in 1969. It was a self-penned song called "Let's Get Together and Love," released on the Reflect label which was operated by a Monroe music shop owner. "When the record came out," Rance recalls, "we took copies to Toledo. . . It was one of those deals where you didn't have no distribution, just put your records in your guitar case and try to sell them when you go somewhere to sing."
In 1971 the brothers won a Detroit gospel talent contest. The prize was $500. "That let us know that we oughta be singing," he quips.
"There was a judge in the audience. Everybody had been whispering that it was Berry Gordy's father, but in actuality it was Dave Clark." Veteran record promotion man Clark, who was 71 years old at the time, was so impressed that he, along with Toby Jackson (Rance's current manager), booked a studio and, in less than four hours, cut an album.
"Stax bought the master," Rance remembers. "They even paid us a little money. For me, ˜Wow, you get paid for making records?' I began to feel somewhat like a star then.
"The first show Stax booked us on was not a gospel show. I had reservations about it. I prayed about it and I found that my answer was, ˜Yeah, you should play anything you get; Isaac Hayes or whoever, you should play it.' The first thing they put us on was as a great big coliseum thing with Isaac Hayes. It was the first time we had played before an audience that big-something like 12 thousand people. We lit up ourselves and lit up the audience too. It was a new experience for us. It overwhelmed me to have Isaac Hayes tell you that you're great."
Rance has been overwhelming audiences across the country ever since with his exuberant stage demeanor and shattering vocals that slide up and down the scale into what San Francisco Chronicle critic Joel Selvin described as "upwards corners other singers have only heard about." Rance punctuates his delivery with deep growls and tour de force rhythmic scats.