The word “legend” only begins to tell the story of Bishop Rance Allen, one of the greatest artists of his time, and a singer who became iconic in both soul and Gospel music. He died in the hospital Saturday morning Oct. 31 while recovering from a medical procedure, according to a Facebook post from his wife Ellen Marie Allen. He was 71 years old.
One of 12 children of Thomas and Emma Pearl Allen, Allen was born in Monroe, Michigan (near the Ohio border), and began performing at a young age. He was gifted as a pianist and guitarist, and of course as a singer.
Billed as “Little Rance Allen-the Boy Preacher,” Allen preached and sang throughout Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania until he was 14. He said in a Stax interview, “It was almost like a route that I had every year.
My grandparents did all the booking and all the driving. To me it was just, ‘hey, I get to travel.’ Most of the messages that I preached were taught to me. My grandparents were very strict on me. I didn’t have a life like most kids had.
“I wasn’t allowed to go out and play baseball with the guys and do the things a kid does. After I found out that this preaching was all work and almost no play, I started to slow down a little bit. I didn’t get back into things again until the age of 17. This was when I decided all over again for myself that I wanted to be a preacher.”
As part of his ministry, he formed the Rance Allen Group with his brothers Steve, Tom and Esau. The group was signed by Stax Records and began a string of gospel and crossover hits on that label, including “Just My Salvation,” “There’s Gonna Be a Showdown,” and “Ain’t No Need of Crying.” He also discovered that he was singing to much larger audiences.
“The first show Stax booked us on was not a gospel show. I had reservations about it. I prayed about it and I found that my answer was, ‘Yeah, you should play anything you get; Isaac Hayes or whoever, you should play it.’ The first thing they put us on was as a great big coliseum thing with Isaac Hayes.
(Below, the Rance Allen Group sing their recent hit “Like A Good Neighbor”).
“It was the first time we had played before an audience that big-something like 12 thousand people. We lit up ourselves and lit up the audience too. It was a new experience for us. It overwhelmed me to have Isaac Hayes tell you that you’re great.”
In the mid-80s, Allen became the pastor of New Bethel Church of God in Christ in Toledo and was later named a Bishop. He continued to record with success and to perform regularly, particularly in the Midwestern U.S. I last saw him perform at a celebration in Detroit three years ago, and he lit the room on fire.
Allen was only weeks from celebrating his 50th wedding anniversary with his wife, Ellen Marie Allen, and we will be praying for her consolation at this difficult time.
Chris Rizik is the publisher of Soul Tracks. He welcomes readers’ responses to firstname.lastname@example.org. We thank Soul Tracks for sharing this story with us.