They were sure at the time
By John Firminger
These days, the Euro-vision Song Contest has become almost a parody of itself, thanks – in part – to some of the show’s presenters.
However, back when it started in the 50s and 60s it was a great international event of great pride for all its participants, especially if you were successful. One such act was the vocal duo, The Allisons, Bob and John.
Unrelated, in reality they were Brian Alford (John) and Colin Day (Bob) although their matching image tended to give them the appearance of being a brother act.
It was the song that John wrote in 1959, the ‘Hollyesque’ “Are You Sure” that came second in the Eurovision Song Contest for 1961 and gave them a double whammy when it scored a No.1 hit on all the various pop charts in April ’61, knocking Elvis’s record of “Wooden Heart” off the top spot.
Before their unanimous success, the Fulham-born chorister Brian had been swept away in the skiffle boom and, with some mates, formed a group calling themselves The Shadows, two years before Cliff’s backing group chose the same name.
As skiffle lost its momentum, in 1958, Brian and fellow group member John White became a duo and sang as The Shadow Brothers. An attempt to check out the sights and sounds of Soho was halted by their parents, but an appearance on the nationwide talent show Carroll Levis Discoveries got them two appearance on Levis’s ‘Television Discoveries’ show at Finsbury Park Empire.
Following John White’s decision to quit music in January, ’59, Brian continued as a solo performer while looking for another singing partner. In July of that year, he met Colin Day with whom he was still singing in the church choir.
As a duo, they decided upon the collective name of The Allison Brothers and to unify the act Brian became ‘John Allison’ and Colin became ‘Bob Allison’. In August, ‘59, they made a test recording with songwriter Ian ‘Sammy’ Samwell and, although it wasn’t successful, it was very encouraging.
This new pairing came together well and by 1960, they had managed to obtain a residency at ‘The Breadbasket’ coffee bar in Cleveland Street. This had also been a launching-pad for other names including Emile Ford, Wally Whyton, and Jimmy Justice.
Entering a national talent contest co-sponsored by the pop weekly DISC and Stuzzi Tape Recorders with 600 entries, Bob and John went on to win in the finals at ATV’s Wembley studios. As a result, on the same day, they were invited to appear on Bert Weedon’s ‘Lucky Dip’ TV show.
They also won a recording test and laid down several songs that John had written back in 1957 and ’58. A recording test for EMI failed as the duo were considered too similar to the Everly Brothers (a compliment in itself). They were then submitted to Fontana Records, in the hope of gaining a recording contract. Fontana were impressed and A&R man Jack Baverstock chose “Are You Sure” to record and also, after the session, he submitted it to the UK heats of the Eurovision Song Contest, albeit totally unplanned!
Also, at the time, they were still known as the Allison Brothers and it was a typist’s error that shortened the name to a more commercial-sounding Allisons.
Although only just having turned professional, the duo won the British heat and went on tour shortly after, backed by Marty Wilde’s band The Krewcats. In the Eurovision contest, in Cannes, the boys went on to reach second place, losing out to Luxembourg. However, the duo set a number of precedents, having the distinction of being the first performers in the contest to write their own entry and the first young act to hit No.1 with their first record.
“Are You Sure” was also covered internationally by acts such as Jan & Keld and The Blue Diamonds.
More than one million records sold, which earned them a gold disc and a Top 5 hit in Germany, while also earning John a prestigious Ivor Novello Award.
Unfortunately, the duo’s chart statistics have never been accounted for correctly in the Guinness Book Of Records, which took its position at the time from Record Retailer, which rated it as No.2, instead of No.1 as per the more accurate NME, New Record Mirror and DISC.
According to John, this mistake cost the duo considerably – financially, – especially himself as the song’s writer.
Along with the success of “Are You Sure”, John and Bob became Britain’s No.1 duo. Now the darlings of the pop world, they were seen regularly in all the British musical press and at various events and happenings in the pop world plus offers for live appearances.
The duo also enjoyed a couple of minor Top 20 follow-up hits with “Words” in 1961 and “Lessons In Love” in 1962. Another single ”What A Mess” also gave them the distinction of having it released in a picture sleeve which was indeed very rare back in 1961.
Like other British duo’s, Bob and John were obviously influenced by Americans such as The Everlys and Buddy Holly as was evident in their recorded work. Their album, titled after their big hit, combined five more of John and Bob’s own songs while reflecting the American influence with versions of “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore”, “Never Be Anyone Else But You”, “Bebop-A-Lula”, “Be My Guest” and “That’ll Be The Day” all of which were complimented by their tight harmony vocals. The latter title featured a quite creative arrangement which combined the song with another Crickets hit. “Think It Over”.
Despite their success, the duo were poorly prepared for the big commercial pop world. “Are You Sure” was reported to have earned the duo an estimated fortune of £12,500. However with poor promotion, disputes with managers and their own naivety, their time as big pop names was brief.
As their career together dwindled, the duo disbanded in 1963. Staying with music, Alford initially tried songwriting. He and Day also reunited for short tours to keep the name of ‘The Allisons’ alive.
In 1969, “Are You Sure” was given a re-release, reminding everyone of its significance and also had the recognition of being Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s favourite Eurovision song, and still is, probably as a result of it musically resembling their own personal favourites, the Everly Brothers.
Continuing with the act into the 1970s and 1980s John Alford was joined by other singers to work as The Allisons with Mike (King) “Allison” and Tony (Allen) “Allison”. It was with one of these partnerships as The Allisons that they appeared on the 80’s TV show ‘Unforgettable’ performing “Are You Sure” and “Words”.
In 1988 John and Bob were reunited and performed together again onstage with occasional gigs on the oldies circuit. Moving forward to August 2011, they performed at the Tales From The Woods promotion at the Water Rats pub in London where they received a good reception from the capacity crowd.
In January 2012 they made another special guest appearance at the annual 2 I’s tribute event at London’s Borderline along with other names from Britain’s pop past. In their set John and Bob sang Are You Sure, Think It Over, Sheila, Hello Mary Lou, All I Have To Do Is Dream and, as an encore, La Bamba. Coincidently, one of the other acts on the show was Dave Sampson who toured with The Allison back in 1961. Performing on the show certainly rekindled John and Bob’s enthusiasm for the music and hope for the future together again.
Sadly Colin ‘Bob’ Day died on 25 November 2013, aged 72, after a long illness of Motor Neurone Disease, ironically just as he and John were contemplating a return to the music business and becoming an attraction on the oldies circuit.
Through the years various press coverage has continued to remind everyone of the duo and their achievements. Today John Allison still has plenty of enthusiasm for the music business and would like to return to it in some way, although devastated by the tragic loss of his partner. Indeed, whilst The Allison’s may be regarded as ‘one hit wonders’, erroneously by some, what they achieved certainly goes beyond that and their name and contribution in the history of Brit-pop are valid and secure.