‘Multi-talented’ is a term I’ve casually used when writing about various performers, but I can’t imagine anyone better suited to the description than Steve Allen. He authored dozens of books, composed thousands of songs, was an accomplished musical performer — and along the way became a TV pioneer, the forerunner to Carson, Leno, and Letterman.
Stephen Valentine Patrick William Allen was born in New York and raised in Chicago, the son of Vaudeville performers. Although he was a talented pianist and was never far from a keyboard, his career began in Arizona (where he was attending college) as a radio announcer. His professional life was interrupted by his service in World War II, but in the post-war years he eventually relocated to the Los Angeles area, where he began to find some success as a radio host and comedian.
Witty and intelligent, he was an audience favorite and soon began to climb the ladder of success in radio. After a few years he moved to New York, where TV was beginning to take hold and many radio stars were making the transition. Performing as host on a number of shows — among them professional wrestling — he began to attract some notice, especially when he filled in for Arthur Godfrey on the Talents Scouts show. Although the famously-prickly Godfrey might not have appreciated Allen’s brand of humor, the audience loved him and it gave his career a nice kick upwards.
It was the early Fifties by then, and new TV shows were being created almost every day. Allen found himself hosting a New York late-night talk show, one that was soon taken nationwide on NBC — the Tonight Show had been born. (See rare video below.) It was a key moment in early TV and Allen stayed with the show for several successful seasons, but eventually moved on to prime-time hosting duties and a long career that included everything from movie appearances – most memorably in The Benny Goodman Story – to countless awards and honors. Along the way he helped many young stars get their start (including Johnny Carson).
Throughout his life, Allen was a busy performer and a tremendously prolific writer, penning everything from self-help books to fictional mysteries starring himself. But he also devoted a lot of time to music, and as a composer he churned out a staggering number of songs. The best-known is probably his Grammy-winning “Gravy Waltz,” which is still a familiar melody to most of us. Countless jazz performers took to the instrumental and a version with lyrics has been recorded by many top singers, among them Mel Torme.
Steve Allen died in 2000, survived by his wife of forty-six years, actress Jayne Meadows. He left behind a legacy of astonishing magnitude and diversity, and I’d urge anyone who is intrigued by a modern renaissance man to dig a little deeper into the fascinating story of Steve Allen.