Mark J. Price
They didn’t make a cent off the song they wrote, but it’s finally earned them international recognition.
Akron’s own Bill Allen and the Back Beats have been inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in Nashville.
Band co-founders Bill Allen Snivley, 75, of Coventry Township, and John Seli, 76, of Suffield Township, are stunned and thrilled that their music from 1957 is garnering attention 55 years later.
“This just came right out of the blue,” Snivley said.
“Ain’t that something?” Seli asked.
They credit renewed interest in their song Please Give Me Something, originally recorded in Akron’s WCUE studio for the Imperial label, for capturing the hall of fame’s attention.
With chugging guitars and hiccupping vocals, the single is a cult classic from the rockabilly era.
“Well, please give me something to remember you by,” Snivley wails. “Come on, baby, give me something to remember you by. Just a little bit of something so our love won’t die.”
Snivley and Seli were discovered in late 1956 while performing as the duo Bill and Johnny at Akron’s Back Stage lounge. New York producers Bill Buchanan and Dickie Goodman, who had a novelty hit with The Flying Saucer, caught the act while visiting Akron and offered the Ellet High School graduates a song titled Butterfly.
The self-taught musicians won an audition at WCUE and recorded the song and its flip side, Oo-We-Baby, in Cleveland for Eldorado Records under the name Bill Allen and the Keynotes.
Butterfly became a hit in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana, and earned the band a spot on the Rock-A-Billy Spectacular tour starring Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, George Hamilton IV, Buddy Knox and Johnny Burnette. The local group won some of the biggest applause March 13, 1957, when the tour stopped at the Akron Armory.
“Everything happened in a hurry,” Seli said. “Just like a whirlwind that winter and spring.”
After the tour, the band added Coventry drummer Dean Hanley and renamed itself Bill Allen and the Back Beats. It recorded Please Give Me Something, which became a hit on Akron radio.
“Johnny made up those licks,” Snivley said. “Nobody did it before us.”
“Bill came up with some words and I came up with this heavy, I call it like a locomotive coming down a track,” Seli said. “It’s just a big beat, you know? The sound was kind of raunchy, but the words weren’t.”
The group ruled local airwaves and dominated the local concert scene in 1957 and 1958.
“We didn’t really have a lot of competition when we were playing in Akron,” Snivley said. “There wasn’t really anybody else doing it.”
Just when the band got chugging, though, its music deal derailed.
Imperial Records founder Lew Chudd wanted Snivley to go to Los Angeles to remix the song, but the Akron singer and his wife were expecting their first baby.
“He told me, ‘I’ll fly you back when she goes into?labor,’ ” Snivley recalled. “But, you know, it’s your first child and she’s scared to death. So I said just wait until after we have the baby, and he got mad.”
Chudd pulled Please Give Me Something off the market, boxed up the records and sold them wholesale, Snivley said. The band didn’t realize it, but the song ended up in Europe, where it won a dedicated following.
“We did one song and we didn’t make a nickel off it,” Snivley said. “People who have any copies of that record are getting $600 apiece for them.”
After the band broke up by the early 1960s, Snivley found a job at Firestone and Seli worked at Seli’s Floor Sanding Service.
But their old song took on a life of its own. It appeared on rockabilly compilation albums and is still played on French and German radio as a rare gem from America.
“Rockabilly’s a pretty big thing nowadays — especially in Europe,” Seli said.
“Everybody has been looking for me and I didn’t know it,” Snivley said with a laugh. “Johnny and I were stars in Europe.”
A Canadian researcher tracked down Snivley this year and brought him to the attention of Bob Timmers, founder of the online Rockabilly Hall of Fame. Snivley is proud to be inductee No. 377. Seli and the late Hanley were added, too.
“I’ve got some pretty good company like Chet Atkins, Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, a lot of the guys I played with,” Snivley said.
Seli is humbled to be mentioned in the same breath with those musicians.
“Our song wasn’t that big of a hit to begin with, and here we end up getting a deal like that,” he said.
Snivley was invited to perform in Las Vegas, but he’s been diagnosed with a severe case of pulmonary hypertension and has difficulty breathing. He’s on oxygen 24 hours a day and has an IV pumping medicine to his heart, he said.
“So I don’t feel much like a rock star with all these tubes hanging off me,” he said.
As the song says, Bill Allen and the Back Beats gave us something to remember them by. They didn’t get rich, but they did get noticed. The band is thankful to receive credit and happy that its work still has a following.
“After all these years, I mean, we’re old people now,” Seli said.
“In a way, I am compensated for it — with the memories,” Snivley said.
To hear the song Please Give Me Something, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FDPvaKsP-7Y. To read more about Bill Allen and the Back Beats, visit http://www.rockabillyhall.com/billallen.html.
Mark J. Price is a Beacon Journal copy editor. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or send email to email@example.com.