Nearly 83, John Allair, Marin’s original rocker, is still rolling
By PAUL LIBERATORE / MARIN INDEPENDENT JOURNAL
March 16, 2023
When the history of Marin County rock is written, the first chapter will be devoted to John Allair.
Undisputed as Marin’s original rock star, Allair was pounding the piano and singing hits by his idols, Fats Domino and Little Richard, at sock hops and pep rallies at San Rafael High in 1955, when he was 15.
To put that timeframe into context, 8-year-old Carlos Santana was just learning to play guitar in his father’s mariachi band in Mexico, Jerry Garcia wouldn’t form the Grateful Dead for another decade and Huey Lewis, who respectfully calls Allair “the godfather of the Marin County music scene,” was a 5-year-old preschooler.
In Marin in the ’50s and early ‘60s, Allair was the hero of aspiring young rockers who would go on to music careers of their own. One was an underage Bill Champlin, who would peek through a bathroom door at the Country Club Bowl in San Rafael to watch Allair play and sing in the bar. Champlin would later form the ’60s band the Sons of Champlin before joining the platinum-selling rock hall of famers Chicago.
“When I was a kid growing up, John was the biggest star going,” he once told me.
What’s truly remarkable is that this modest, soft-spoken rock founding father, who turns 83 in April, is still rolling. He’s been playing on and off with the tempestuous Irish superstar Van Morrison for 50 years. But he’s never seen himself as just a sideman. His 1995 album, “John Allair Cleans House,” has recently been rereleased as a limited-edition double disc set in blue and white vinyl with photos from his life and career along with liner notes by the noted rock critic and author Joel Selvin, who writes of Allair: “In the realm of rhythm and blues, he is a pianist’s pianist, a virtual Horowitz of blues and boogie.”
A lasting legacy
Longtime fan and supporter Terry Hansen, project coordinator for the album, says: “Being aware of the recent vinyl resurgence, I suggested this project to create a lasting legacy for John.”
The record features a host of Allair originals, many of them New Orleans-flavored rockers interspersed with jazzy interludes on piano and organ and a couple of classic ballads, “Autumn Leaves” and “Since I Fell for You.”
He’s set to perform songs from the album from 6 to 8 p.m. March 25 at Giaco’s Valley Roadhouse in San Geronimo (formerly Two Birds Café), accompanied by bassist Tom Martin and drummer Pete Lind, who first started playing with Allair in high school 68 years ago.
Before his family moved to Terra Linda when he was a teenager, Allair spent his boyhood in Oakland, learning to play basic chords on his grandmother’s piano and teaching himself R&B songs that he heard on the radio, playing along with them on records.
“I played them over and over and over and drove my mother nuts,” he recalls.
She wasn’t the only one. He banged the keys so aggressively that he was thrown out of a Sherman Clay piano shop for beating up their expensive instruments.
For the past 30 years, Allair has lived in a modest yellow house that’s tucked incongruously on a busy commercial street in Petaluma. His living room is stuffed with instruments and memorabilia from his life in music — posters and pennants from his concerts with Morrison, an actual harpsichord, an electronic keyboard, a chestnut brown cello with bow, a vintage Harmony acoustic guitar and an alto saxophone that Morrison gave him as a gift. No longer married, he has three grown children, a son and two daughters, who live nearby.
On this particular rainy afternoon, the eternally hip octogenarian is wearing a T-shirt that says “I’m the boogie man!” under a picture of a keyboard. Trim and fit from hiking, one of his passions, he has snowy white collar-length hair, a disarming lack of pretention and a personable, self-effacing manner that has served him well in winning fans and getting along famously with the mercurial 77-year-old Morrison, who’s as notorious for his prickly personality as he’s famous for hits such as “Brown Eyed Girl,” “Moondance” and “Gloria.”
Along with the late drummer Steve Mitchell, Allair first started backing up a young Morrison in the early 1970s at the Lion’s Share, a legendary San Anselmo nightclub where Morrison often performed while he was living in Fairfax during that prolific period in his career.
Coaxed by Morrison
Allair’s head isn’t turned easily, so he didn’t throw in completely with Morrison right away, preferring to keep performing locally with his own groups, including the short-lived Touloos ta’ Truck with Sons of Champlin guitarist Terry Haggerty and Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh. In the late ‘60s, he had hooked up briefly with a band called Pure Love & Pleasure, recording an album of Mamas and Papas-era pop rock for Dunhill Records in L.A.
In 1980, Morrison finally coaxed him out on the road, and Allair vividly remembers the scary beginning of his debut tour. The kickoff concert was in the singer’s native Belfast at a time when the revolutionary and sectarian violence of “the Troubles” was still raging in Northern Ireland.
The Europa Hotel, where the band was staying, had been bombed the week before and British tanks were rumbling through the tense streets of the city. Not exactly a festive atmosphere.
“That was my introduction to touring with Van,” Allair recalls. “It was heavy. There’s always an element of danger playing with him.”
In the mid-‘80s, Allair released his first solo album, naming it “Larkspur” after the Marin town where he was living at the time. While the album was hampered by a lack of widespread distribution, it nevertheless attracted positive critical attention. “Cool late-night blues and reflective originals make up a pleasant group of pieces for voice and solo piano,” Jazz Express wrote.
Allair had studied jazz and classical music at College of Marin and then at San Francisco State, earning a degree in music. The some of those reflective tracks are sensitive piano odes to Ravel, Ives and Mendelssohn.
Last year, Allair went on two short U.S. tours with Morrison, and when he hits the road with him again this year, it will mark his 50th anniversary as one of Morrison’s first-call West Coast musicians “He’s had a lot of bands and a lot of keyboard players, but I think I’m the longest running of all of them,” he says. “I just keep coming back.”
During a tour break in October, Allair was summoned into Sausalito’s Studio D to play on Morrison’s upcoming album of blues duets with Buddy Guy, Taj Mahal and Elvin Bishop. At the end of the intense, week-long sessions, Morrison pleasantly surprised his longtime keyboard player by recording a duet with him on “Go to the High Place In Your Mind,” Allair’s best-known original song. Combining a driving Fats Domino-style piano with a playful spiritual sensibility, Allair’s version is a highlight of “Cleans House.”
When they aren’t in the studio or on the road, Allair and Morrison carry on like the old friends they are. They occasionally go out to lunch when Morrison is away from his home in Belfast, staying at the house in Mill Valley he bought decades ago. And, after a particularly successful concert, he’s been known to invite his trusty sideman to fly to the next city with him on his private jet.
“He’s pretty jaded, but he’s a good-hearted guy,” Allair says of his boss. “And he’s real sensitive. He puts up this front to keep people away from him, but underneath he’s pretty shy. I’m not a yes man, but I don’t bother him and I don’t say much. I’m fortunate that I’ve gotten to know him for as long as I have.”
In September, Allair goes out with Morrison on another Western U.S. tour with shows in Las Vegas, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, as well as three nights at SF Jazz (Sept. 12 through 14) that have long since been sold out.
“It’s a little hard on me but I can still do it,” he says of touring. “I never liked the travel, though, the airports and hotels and riding with the band on a bus. There are too many people around. I like my solitude. But it’s work and it’s prestigious.”
Allair isn’t just blowing smoke about not being a yes man. When Morrison was making a big stink opposing lockdown restrictions during the pandemic, he contacted Allair about doing some U.S. dates.
“I told him I’m just not comfortable with it because of the COVID thing,” he recalls.
As it turned out, Morrison thoughtfully made allowances for him, and Allair agreed to play only at safer outdoor concerts in Napa and at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley.
“He even held a special John Allair rehearsal so I could learn the tunes,” Allair says.
Despite his precautions and his vaccinations and up-to-date boosters, he caught a mild case of COVID that laid affected him more emotionally than physically. But he’s snapped out of it his lethargy, caught up in the excitement of the album release and performing again.
From the start of his career, Allair has supplemented his income as a working musician by tuning pianos, often for celebrity clients like Linda Ronstadt, Tracy Chapman, Journey, members of the Grateful Dead and, most recently, Tom Waits.
Waits once hired him to refurbish an archaic air-powered calliope for a recording session. And on another job, he wanted a piano “detuned” so it would sound like the ticky-tacky upright in the 1958 Orson Welles movie “Touch of Evil.”
“It’s a fine art to detune a piano so it sounds like it’s been sitting around for years,” says Allair and gives a sly grin. “You’ve got to do it a certain way so it sounds antique.”
While he’s considered a revered elder in Bay Area rock, he takes his music more seriously than he does himself, often flashing a wry sense of humor.
“Cleans House,” for example, features a cover photo of him with a big smile on his face as he vacuums around stacks of vinyl albums sliding haphazardly on his carpet. In the liner notes, he even credits the vacuum: Hoover.
The late Marin filmmaker John Korty, an Oscar and Emmy winner, was so taken with Allair’s story that he produced and directed a documentary short, “John Allair Digs In,” that premiered at the Smith Rafael Film Center in 2011. On opening night, the man of the hour arrived at the theater in a limousine as a parody of a rock star, emerging on the red carpet in an all-white outfit with two flashily dressed young groupies (women friends going along with the joke) on each arm.
When Korty died last March, Allair played at his memorial.
Rancho Nicasio owner Bob Brown, a friend of Allair’s for more than 45 years, has hired him as a piano tuner and as a frequent and popular performer at his West Marin roadhouse.
“He’s a great guy and a great musician,” Brown says. “He plays wonderful classical piano, jazz, ’50s rock ‘n’ roll. He owns it and he can still do it. He can switch from classical to jazz to Fats Domino in 10 minutes.”
And to those who have been around the rock scene in Marin for as long as some of us have, Allair is much more than Van Morrison’s keyboard player.
“He’s the humblest rock star I’ve ever met,” Brown says. “And he is, in fact, a rock star.”
“John Allair Cleans House” is available at johnallair.com, at Mill Valley Music and the Next Record Store in Santa Rosa.