The team of Billie Haywood and Cliff Allen were together for seventeen years, and their association only ended when Allen was tragically killed in an automobile accident in the early 1950s. They entertained on both coasts, and appeared in both feature films and Soundies. Yet they are sadly forgotten, so here we turn the spotlight once again on two artists deserving of renewed attention.
Vocalist Billie Haywood and her musical foil (and pianist) Cliff Allen first gained recognition in the Broadway review New Faces of 1936. While they undoubtedly appeared on stage before this Broadway debut, the review was in itself was an unusual way for two black artists to find initial success. Big bands, radio and recordings were the more commonly traveled roads to fame and fortune.
New Faces of 1936 ran for a respectable 193 performances, and the two were able to parlay this stage appearance into steady work in Manhattan nightclubs like Leon and Eddie’s and the Famous Door. While they were often booked alongside “big names” – Coleman Hawkins and Billie Holiday, for example – string bassist John Levy told me, “They were a draw by themselves. Billie was a great vocalist, a sense of humor too. And Cliff, who I knew well, was a wonderful piano player.”
The team was called to Hollywood in the mid 1940s, and they were cast in a 1945 Republic feature, An Angel Comes To Broadway, in which they performed a novelty piece by Lawrence and Buddy Harris titled “Gyp On the Nile.” Talent agent Harold Jovien knew the two during the 1940s and told me that, “despite not being major headliners, they were popular attractions who worked regularly” until Allen’s death. By the 1970s they were sadly forgotten, although their careers were once again brought to the forefront in a 1973 documentary film short I’m the Prettiest Piece in Greece.
“I Can’t Dance (I Got Ants in My Pants),” if not a standard, is still a fairly well-known jazz tune. Composer Clarence Williams recorded it twice in 1934, and soon after it was waxed by Claude Hopkins and Chick Webb. Our Soundies version opens and closes with a short orchestral segment recorded by Roy Milton and his Band, but the remainder of the film features Haywood and Allen alone on stage. While certainly jazz-influenced, the performance here is more characteristic of a nightclub-style routine, high energy level and frenetic in nature, with any number of comic turns in the lyrics.
Sadly, the team never recorded commercially, and only one vanity disc from their Broadway appearance shares their music in the 1930s. This Soundie, like so many others, is an important puzzle piece in black entertainment, painting a picture of an otherwise undocumented variety act that relied on musicianship and the strong interaction between two artists, rather than music played for dancers or jazz listeners.