Throughout the history of blues music, there are many artists who left the South from areas like the Mississippi delta region and headed north, settling in large metropolitan areas like St. Louis, Chicago, and Detroit, where they established careers that for some lead to lasting fame. But, just as many Americans live close to where they grew up, not all blues musicians have a burning desire to give up the family ties and support network that come from staying close to home. You can count Dexter Allen as one of those people.
“My great grandfather, John Henry Sandifer, my grandmother’s father, was born in 1898. He did a lot of sharecropping, and had plenty of stories to tell. He was born and raised in the Delta region and later migrated down to the Crystal Springs area, which is where I was born. It is about twenty miles south of Jackson, MS. That is one of the things that keeps me grounded. I have traveled all over the world, seen a lot of things. There was a song I wrote, “Coming Home to Mississippi,” where I talk about my upbringing as well as what my granddaddy taught me. If I am home, I will still go down home on Sunday to my Mother’s house, visit with my uncles and cousins”.
“I was talking with a friend the other day about how we get caught up in a “microwave Society”. That’s where everything is fast. You stick something in and it is done real fast. Sometimes you can forget where you come from. It helps me stay grounded to be home with my uncles, going fishing on the river or coon hunting, pulling a transmission out of a vehicle. All of that stuff still goes on down there. It is one of the mechanisms that I use to help me cope. You can’t forget where you came from. You need to stay connected”.
Growing up on a farm, Allen got started in music as a teenager. His father became a pastor at the Christian Open Door Church, a non-denominational church.
“He is still the pastor there. It is not Catholic, Baptist, Methodists, Presbyterian, or any other religion. All Christians are invited there. That is how I was raised.. He had a gospel quartet called the Christian Travelers. They were an older group that probably started in the 1960s. They lost their bass player. My uncle Porter had been secretly teaching me how to play bass and guitar. They would rehearse every Thursday evening at my dad’s house, so I knew all of their songs. I’d be in room with my four string bass playing along. In those days they didn’t have five string bass guitars, at least I didn’t know about them. It was easy for me to find the notes that they were playing”.
“Uncle Porter heard me playing, and told me, boy, you know how play that bass. I told him that I could make the changes. They needed a bass player and there I was! I remember my uncle was telling them that I could play, but no one would believe him, because no one had ever seen me play but my uncle. At their next rehearsal, he told me to come out and play bass for the group. They started the song, and I played right along with them. Bass was my first instrument. I played from the age of twelve until I was eighteen or nineteen. But I was also playing other instruments along the way, like drums and keyboards, mostly in church”.
“I could play a little guitar, but I didn’t really get into it. I was playing some of everything, so guitar was the last thing that I really focused on. I was playing with another gospel group, the Robinson Brothers, and they needed a guitar player. So I made the switch. Their guitarist wanted to get out front and just sing. I was probably twenty-one or so at the time, been playing just anything I could pick up that was interesting. It wasn’t just blues, or gospel, that I was working on. Whatever I heard, I’d try to learn, any type of music. You had to have that skill in the church because you never knew what somebody was going to come up and sing. or how they were going to sing a song. So you had to be able to pick things up by ear, hear the changes. You might have somebody up there singing in five different keys!”
It took some time before Allen was ready to step out and start singing.
“I got in with the Robinson Brothers doing backing vocals. I used to sing around the house but not in public. My brother and sister were the singers. They couldn’t play anything, and I was the musician. I sang a lot of background with the Robinson Brothers, and they let me take the lead on a couple songs that I liked. That was my first brush with singing until about 2001, when I sang some songs on the secular side with some local bands around the Jackson area. That started to get me more interested in singing”.
Being raised on a farm taught Allen a number of key lessons that have helped him to maintain his musical career.
“You have to be willing to work for what you want. Remember that things don’t come easy all the time. They seem to for some people, but if you aren’t one of the chosen few, you’ve got to work. It’s a daily thing. If you want to get a yield from your crop, you can’t sit idle and expect it to grow. I was raised by two old men, my great grandfather, who lived to be 103 years old and had a big hand in raising me, and my grandfather, Calvin Dixon, my mother’s father. We grew our own crops, had chickens, pigs, and hogs. It was farm life”.
“A lot of that stuff transcended into me being the person I am today. You mean what you say, and say what you mean. Sometimes your word is all you’ve got. It is what I call old school ethics. I tell the youngsters of today that things seemed pretty simple back then. There weren’t a lot of distractions. Even the music was different. It was understandable, it was simple. Now you have to get a thesaurus to figure out some of this stuff. You used to know what a song was about the first minute into it. Now you have probably listen to the whole thing to maybe get it. Country music always used to have great story lines. Other artists, say from R&B, would redo country songs and take them to another level. The biggest one might have been Whitney Houston’s version of Dolly Parton’s song, “I Will Always Love You””.
In 1995, looking for better musical opportunities, Allen decided to move to Jackson. He played in several churches as he worked on getting acclimated to the local scene. Since gigs were in short supply at first, he worked at a number of day jobs, too many to remember.
“I was a weekend music warrior, playing all kinds of music. A lot of people in Crystal Springs actually worked in Jackson because of better job opportunities. There weren’t any clubs back home”
“One church I played at, St. Luther, was where I met Bobby Rush. He and his band had been in a very bad accident on the road. One member was killed and the rest were injured”.
“When he got ready to tour again, he approached me about playing guitar with him. I was reluctant as I didn’t really know much about blues music. Bobby’s words to me were, “you can play the blues, I hear you play them, you just don’t know that you are playing them.”
“Bobby gave me a lot of his music, plus stuff by Luther Allison and Muddy Waters, to listen to at home and at his house. I quickly learned that he was right, I was playing blues. I had licks that I got from gospel music or R&B without realizing they came from blues. Gospel music didn’t have the blues lead licks, but it certainly had lots of the rhythm licks. Blues and gospel are like brother and sister – there are a lot of gospel songs you can sing over blues songs, and vice versa.”
“Even with my family coming from the church, I didn’t get much backlash from them when I made the switch to blues. I had played music since I had picked up the guitar at age seven or eight. They were used to me playing music, and probably expected me to do something bigger or different with music. There were some comments made by church members, especially when I pulled out of Bobby’s band to do my own thing, started playing the casinos. They would see my name on a big billboard along the highway, “ Dexter Allen – Live at the Ameristar Casino – This Weekend!”. Kind of hard to hide that on Interstate 20!”
“I would hear little remnants of comments about me being the preacher’s son playing the blues. My father just told me to do what made me happy. He will come to a show if I am doing a festival near home. I heard him make the statement one time, that if I go in to see my son, I should come out the same way. What my family didn’t understand at the time, because they didn’t know the music business, is that I was going to be on the road, working music full-time. They thought music was something you did as a pastime.”
“I started with Bobby in 2000, and was part of the band until 2005 or 2006. I will say this – once you are with Bobby Rush, you are always with Bobby Rush. He might call me now, saying I got this thing going on and I need you, and I am back with Bobby Rush. Once you are in, you are always part of Bobby’s family. And if he needs you, you got to go! I toured extensively with him as the guitarist, and sometimes band leader. He took me in when he saw that I was interested in the music business. Bobby took me to his meetings with promoters and others in the business, introduce me to them. He showed me quite a bit on how to conduct business, how things are done. When I told him I was going to go out on my own, he gave his blessing and told me that he thought I would do well.”
“One thing Bobby taught me, that I try to pass on to younger musicians, is to recognize not only the music industry, which is very large, and includes fans, the clubs, the venues, the festivals, but also the music business. That is where you get the sustainability. They are two different animals. Most people in the industry don’t know many of the people in the business part, because those people are not there for the limelight. Whitney Houston was a big star, but what about Clive Davis, who guided her to stardom? The business side includes points, and publishing rights for original songs, things that many musicians don’t understand. But they are avenues to generate income outside of your live gigs.”
Allen released the first recording under his name in 2008. He had been playing locally in a cover band, The Essence of Soul, getting his feet wet playing guitar and handling the lead vocals. At one point, he played some of the band’s stuff for Rush.
“He looked at me, smiled, and said, you are doing just what I thought you were going to do. I said, what do you mean, Pop? I always call Bobby that. He answered, where’s your name at? Now, being a preacher’s son, I was reluctant to do that. But he told me to put my name out there, not to worry about what the church folk might or might not say. And he was right, so that is when I started using my own name.”
“That first recording, Bluezin My Way, was self-produced. I wrote all of the songs, and played all of the instruments. The band wanted money to come in and record with me. But I didn’t have any money! I couldn’t afford studio time, so I bought a workstation and some software to do it myself in the house. It seemed I finally had a reason as to why I had learned to play all of those instruments over the years. The record did well, and people thought it sounded real good. To this day, I don’t know why I started putting a “z” in there. But if you Google “bluezin,” the algorithms will probably pull up something about me.”
His second disc, Bluezin For Life, was released in 2011, featuring several musicians including Derrick D’Mar Martin on drums and Fred Robinson on bass. Both of those releases were on Airtight Records. He also had a Christmas single, “Hello, Ms. Santa Claus”. The Tate Music Group released a compilation album, Bluezinology, in 2014. Then Allen once again got a helping hand from his mentor.
“Bluez Of My Soul was my first one on Deep Rush Records, which is Bobby’s label. He had only been handling his own releases at that point. I approached him about it, telling him I had done four self-produced, independent projects up to that point. I took him to my studio and let him hear the record, which he liked. I asked him to endorse the record, and he agreed, even though he had never done it before for anybody. Told me that I was going to make him proud. He played harmonica on a few tracks, ones that he picked out. I worked with Joey Robinson, who played keyboards, on that one, and the next one on Deep Rush, Trilogy Of My Bluez. Bobby and I did one song together, “Tell Somebody.”
“My latest one is Live From Ground Zero Blues Club. It is a CD release but they also shot video, which as yet has not been released on DVD. They were shooting the video for Netflix. That one was done by Pass The Pick Productions. It opens with Morgan Freeman bringing me on stage. The cool thing was that they had some affiliation with Paul McCartney. Somebody on Paul’s team wanted me to do one of his songs, so I was told to pick any song from his catalog. They gave me a couple of days of access to his music, a massive catalog. I picked out one called “Big Barn Bed”.
“It was a song he wrote with Linda, his wife. When you went through the lists of songs, it would show how many people had covered each one. The one I selected had never been covered by anyone. I gave it a bluezy, gospelish sound, and I heard that McCartney liked it. Now I am getting ready to release another project this year. It is pretty much written, with about twenty-two songs ready to go. I am hoping to do some collaborations with some other artists. We have a list and plan to figure out who would be the best fit”.
When it comes to equipment, Allen favors Fender Stratocaster guitars. But he does have a secret weapon.
“I don’t collect guitars. I play a guitar on the tone and the feel. It doesn’t matter where it was made, which collectors really harp on. If it feels good to my hand and I like the tone, that is what I am going to play. I once saw Vasti Jackson in a club with a Fender Squier, and he was killing everybody’s head with it. That was the night I learned that it ain’t about the name, it’s about who’s playing it. I have an Ibanez Artcore model Ar620 that I like. There aren’t a lot of people playing Ibanez models on the blues side. It is known more in rock music. But mine has a real good tone.”
“For amplifiers, my go-to is a Peavey Delta Blues 210 model, a little amp that has the sound I like. I have a lot of effects and pedals, but don’t use them a lot. For blues, the one I use the most is the Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer. Lucky Peterson made me a believer in that little thing. I want a pure blues tone that will cut through. Like Bobby Rush used to say, you got to hit the guy standing in the back of the room. And not kill the people that are sitting up front!. It’s not about volume, it’s about tone!”
Allen had another unique experience when he was hired for a part in the major motion picture, Get On Up, which told the life story of James Brown.
“That was definitely an experience, seeing how a company like Universal Pictures does things. It is a lot of work, even if you don’t have a speaking part. For the band members, they picked musicians who could actually play the songs. Once they recorded the songs, we wouldn’t be playing them, but we had to be able to make the movements like we were playing them. Every time we rehearsed it was the full band, all the equipment, and we played the music. My part was Sam Thomas, who was Brown’s bass player around 1969. I am in the part about the T.A.M.I. Show.”
“If you buy the DVD, you can see me and Mr. Sipp, who was also in the movie, on the back of the box. It is hard to find me in the movie because you don’t recognize me with this big wig I had on. There I am standing next to Chadwick Boseman on the box playing the bass and Mr. Sipp is off to the left with a guitar. We had to get up at 5 am to sit in chair and get make-up on and they would glue the wig on. But it was nice to be able to reach up on my head and touch something. I hadn’t felt that in many. many years. I tried to get them to sell me the wig but they said no! That opened my interest in movies. A local filmmaker, Maximus Wright, gave me a speaking part in one of his movies, Soul Damage, and I had another role in the short film, Lola. So some people seem to think I can act. I’m not focused or driven on the acting thing. I leave that for my publicist, Karen Beninato, my manger Rod Carbo, and my booking agent, Kimberly Horton.”
“If it happens, great, but I will focus on the music.”
Visit Dexter’s website at:www.dexterallen.com