A musician, Allen was not a composer, but an arranger — a specialist in “adding compositional techniques, such as new thematic material for introductions, transitions, or modulations, and endings,” says Vince Corozine, author of Arranging Music for the Real World. “Arranging is the art of giving an existing melody musical variety.” Or in other words, it’s not writing the music, but taking the composition and setting up the way it sounds — and Allen was brilliant at it. “Allen spent most of his career as a hidden-in-plain-sight master,” says Mark Stryker, the Music Writer at the Detroit Free Press. “He wrote arrangements for the Motown and Stax labels, and his associations ranged from Billie Holiday to the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, the Dramatics, Luther Ingram and the Staple Singers.”
In the 1940s, Allen was Musical Director at Detroit’s Club Congo, where he wrote arrangements for popular tunes for the night club’s 12-piece band, which played for musical guests such as Holiday and the Mills Brothers. “The young talent really set the band apart, and Johnny was right in the middle of it,” said Lars Bjorn, the author of a history of the Detroit jazz scene, Before Motown. Once the Motown label started up, Allen worked there, writing arrangements for the Originals, the Temptations, Stevie Wonder, and more. He then moved to Stax to do arrangements for the Staple Singers (“Respect Yourself”), the Dramatics (“What You See is What You Get”), and Isaac Hayes. And in 1971 he shared a Grammy Award with Hayes, for his work creating the sound of the iconic “Theme from Shaft”. Allen died January 29 from pneumonia, at 92.