Best remembered for the R&B classic "You Can Make It if You Try," singer Gene Allison was born Versle Eugene Allison in Pegram, TN, on August 29, 1934. Seven years later, his family relocated to Nashville, where he and brother Leevert (later a professional gospel singer) honed their vocal talents singing in their church choir. While still in high school, Allison was asked to fill in with the famed gospel quartet the Fairfield Four. A stint with the Skylarks followed, and brought him to the attention of songwriter and producer Ted Jarrett, who convinced him to sign to his Calvert label and pursue a career in secular music. When Vee-Jay Records began courting another Jarrett protégé, singer Larry Birdsong, the producer insisted the label could only sign Birdsong if they took on Allison as well -- the latter's first single, the Jarrett-penned, gospel-inspired ballad "You Can Make It if You Try" was recorded at Owen Bradley's Nashville studio and released on Vee-Jay in 1957, cracking the top five on Billboard's R&B chart and crossing over into the pop Top 40.
The record was such a success that Allison was able to open his own Nashville restaurant, a 24-hour soul food joint called Gene's Drive-In -- his mother was even installed as manager. He returned to the R&B charts with two more Top 20 hits, "Have Faith" and "Everything Will Be Alright," but although the raw, soulful power of his voice remained undiminished in the years to follow, he never again matched his initial success. Allison died from liver and kidney failure on February 28, 2004, at the age of 69. ~ Jason Ankeny, Rovi