There are countless tricks of the trade and important pearls of wisdom that a budding young musician could pick up from the great Bobby Rush, a veteran who has certainly been there and done that.
Things like to how to give an audience their money’s worth, or the correct way to treat and respect your band members. Or even how to look sharper than a $1,000 bill up on the bandstand.
‘Bluezman’ Dexter Allen learned all that from Bobby Rush.
But maybe the most important nugget of advice Allen ever got from Rush is something that everyone – in all walks of life – should pay attention to.
‘Face the facts.’
“The most important advice Bobby ever gave me was to face the facts; don’t fool yourself,” Allen said recently. “Find your thing, be who you are and face the facts in whatever you’re doing. Know what you can and can’t do and be good at what you can do and accept what you can’t do.”
What Allen has proved he can do is to take an infectious blend of traditional southern soul music, mix it with the deep Delta blues, sprinkle some hints of R&B on it and then slather a layer of good ‘ole country funk on top of it all.
That tasty concoction fills up the grooves on Allen’s newest compact disc – Bluez of My Soul (Deep Rush Records). One spin of the disc and it’s fairly easy to see why the singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist originally from Crystal Springs, Mississippi, was hand-picked by Rush to be the first artist not named Bobby Rush to cut an album on Deep Rush Records.
“Oh, man, that feels good (recording on Deep Rush). I’ve been knowing Bobby Rush for a long time now. As some people know, I was his bandleader and lead guitarist for awhile,” said Allen. “I think he knew in the beginning what my aspirations were, because when we would go places, he would say, ‘Come on, Dex. Come with me.’ And I’d go with him when he went to do interviews and meet promoters and he’d introduce me to this person and that person. He was showing me the ropes and teaching me about the business, because he knew I had aspirations about the music.”
For over three years, Allen toured the world with Rush, before deciding the time was right to strike out under his own banner. The one thing that Allen was adamant about from the very beginning of his solo career is to try and blaze new trails and reach undiscovered territory en route to delivering his brand of the blues. The way he sees it, in 2014 and beyond, the same-old, same-old is just not going to cut the mustard.
“The songs (on Bluez of My Soul) are all original songs and it encompasses different elements of today – along with elements of the past – in the origination of the blues,” he said. “You hear the blues in it. You can feel the blues in it, but it still feels contemporary, it still feels like today. A lot of people are putting out good records – I hear them all the time. But not many artists are doing stuff that is good and different. That’s the kind of work that sets trends and stands apart from all the other records out there. It has to be good AND different in these days and times.”
Allen released a pair of albums prior to his latest one (Bluezin My Way and Bluezin for Life (Airtight Records), but he knew he was on to something good with Bluez of My Soul when it perked up the ears of his mentor after listening to it.
“I do think it’s different (than his first two albums). My other work is good, but you can hear the growth and the distinct direction I’m going in on this one,” he said. “On my first record, I was trying to feel my way. I was recording what I thought people wanted to hear, versus what I wanted to record … because I just didn’t know. I was trying to do what I thought the flavor of the month was. So it took some time before I decided I needed to cut a record that sounded like me. Every record I record, I let Bobby hear it and he’ll say a few words. But when I let him hear this one, he was like, ‘Hey, you got something here. I like this.’ He could hear the growth.”
That quest to find his own sound – the sound that comes right from his heart – wasn’t a hard one to undertake. However, hard work, dedication and patience are key companions on that journey.
“Well, it’s just a lot of time … and trial and error; along with growth; growth in my music and growth in the industry. My philosophy is that I want to be a trend-setter,” Allen said. “If Howlin’ Wolf was trying to sound like Robert Johnson, you would not have had a Howlin’ Wolf. You’d have a Robert Johnson copycat. I want to be the one that 50 years from now someone looks back on and says, ‘Man, that Dexter Allen, he had his own sound and he did this and he did that.’ But it all just takes time. Nowadays you have thousands of blues artists all over the world and the only way to do something different, to do something original, is to just do what’s inside of you. Then you just throw it out there and see what happens.”
Like a host of blues musicians from the deep south, Allen got his start in music as a youngster playing in the church. That was also the place where he formed a couple of important and lasting bonds with other members of his soon-to-be musical fraternity.
“I first met Bobby when I was playing for Saint Luther (Church in Jackson, Miss.), which was the church he was a member of. I was playing in the choir and that’s how I first met him. I knew who he was (before that), but that was the first time I actually had met him, was in church.”
The way that Allen sees it, blues and gospel music are cut from the same cloth and both have the ability to soothe the soul when needed.
“In my opinion, gospel music and blues music are twins. One may be male and the other may be female, but they’re still twins. They came out at the same time,” he said. “You’ll never see a gospel promoter and a traditional blues promoter have a big show on the same day, because they’re going to draw the same crowd. In gospel, you’re singing about a deliverer. In blues, you want to be delivered. So anyway you look at it, it’s still a delivery … a relief.”
Church connections also helped to provide Allen with his current bandmates, the Robinson Brothers – Fred (bass); Joey (keys, bass, guitar); and Jeremy (drums).
“Oh, man, the Robinsons are my band. Fred Robinson – my bass player – has been with me ever since I started playing. Prior to that, I started out playing in the church at 12 years old. My dad was the pastor and he had a gospel quartet called the Christian Travelers and I was the bass player in the group,” Allen said. “And when I was 18 or 19, I left the Christian Travelers and started playing with another gospel group, which was the Robinson Brothers. It was my (current) bass player and his brothers. They were more around my age. We were still doing gospel, but the guys were younger and we did some funkier stuff than what the Christian Travelers did. And I played for years and traveled all over the states with them.”
More than just a backing band that does little other than just play what the bandleader wants them to, the Robinsons were involved in the complete evolution of the new album from the get-go and keyboardist Joey Robinson ended up with a co-producer’s credit for his role on Bluez of My Soul.
“Joey and Fred and I all went in (the studio) together, because I wanted them to be in on the creation of the album. I wanted them to do what they feel and that’s what I tell them,” Allen said. “Even on stage. They know the material and I’m not going to tell them to play it just like the record. I want them to play it the way they feel it, because that’s what I do when I’m up there on stage. I’ll sing a song five times and it’s not going to sound the same all five times. That helps to keep things from getting stagnant.”
Allen didn’t just step off the gospel train and immediately board one bound for Bluesville. He started to take a detour through the world of R&B before his course got righted by rubbing elbows with some legendary blues forefathers.
“I was in the studio with a band and we were working on an R&B record, which was the hot music around my neck of the woods at that time. I was a young guy, but I started thinking about it, like ‘Shoot, I ain’t got no six-pack (abs) and I don’t look like the flavor of the month, either,” he said. “Then I started meeting people like Honeyboy Edwards, Pinetop Perkins and Solomon Burke. And I was like, ‘You know what? I could lose six teeth and gain 300 pounds and still be a great blues artist, because it’s all about the music. It’s not about the image. I can’t turn flips and I don’t dance very well on stage. I mean, I’ve never see a 98-year-old R&B singer that’s still going; or a 98-year-old jazz or rock singer. But you do see a lot of 80- and 90-year-old blues singers – blues or gospel.”
He may not ‘turn flips’ or ‘dance very well’ but that’s about the only thing Allen can’t do on the bandstand. Watching him command the stage up close and personal, it becomes readily apparent that the cat knows just exactly what he’s doing. He immediately engages the audience and by the time the second song is completed, Allen has them eating right out of his hand. His vocals are emotionally-charged and his guitar playing is extremely explosive. And oh, he’s also not opposed to hopping off stage and strolling through the crowd while ripping off a series of red-hot solos on his guitar. But that just scratches the surface of Allen’s prodigious musical talents. He’s also quite skilled at playing bass, keyboards and the drums.
“On my first two records, I played all the instruments – all except the drums,” he said. “I would do the drums on a drum machine and then take them to Derek Martin – who drummed for Little Richard – and he would lay down the live drums over the track. I could do the drums, too, but I wasn’t as precise a drummer as he was. And I can play bass, but I wouldn’t call myself a bass player, you know?”
And once again, the church is to thank for Allen’s versatility.
“You learn all that in church, because like I said, my dad was the pastor and whatever musician didn’t show up for service, I had to take their place. It might be the bass player, drummer … you just had to learn how to play some of everything,” he said. “So that was a help to me. I didn’t know just how big of a help it was at the time, but it has ended up saving me money, for one thing. I have my own studio at home and if something hits me at 1 or 2:30 in the morning, I can go in and cut it. I sure can’t call my guys to come over at that time of the morning to lay down a bass line or a drum line.”
It may not exactly be a magic potion that Allen has stumbled upon, but he does seem to have managed to forge a strong – and probably lasting – bond with blues fans wherever he plays. Peer into the crowd at one of his shows and you’ll see a good cross-section of music lovers, both young and those that are not so young. While he’s no doubt excited to have both along for the ride, it’s the younger ones that he’s reserved special seating for.
“When I was with Bobby, we were at a big festival somewhere in Spain – along with the Neville Brothers – with thousands and thousands of people out in the audience. Bobby and I were standing backstage and he said, ‘Look out in the crowd. What do you see?’ I said, ‘I see a bunch of people.’ He said, ‘Look closer. What do you see?’ I said, ‘I see a bunch of white people.’ He said, ‘No, look a little closer.’ So I said, ‘I see a bunch of drunk white people,’” Allen laughed. “And Bobby laughed and said, ‘Look at their faces. Look at their ages. They look kind of like you, don’t they?’ Then he said, ‘These young people have come to see an old man like me to sing the blues. If blues is what you want to do, this is where it is, because they will grow old with you. If you live to be an old man, you’ll have an old following.”
Allen certainly did not start playing the blues as a means to get rich. He knows far too well that while the possibility of pop stars commanding a million dollars per performance is by no means unrealistic, the thought of a blues artist bringing in even a quarter of that amount seems far-fetched on most days. With that in mind, his mission is more about showing the younger music lovers of today that the blues doesn’t have to be some stale and stodgy, antiquated-form of music.
“My thing is, what I’m trying to do is to bridge the gap (between the blues and mainstream music). If you listen to my (new) CD, I’m trying to use the production values and music of today and fuse it with the origination of the blues,” he said. “But my thing is, I have to sing my blues; the blues of today. I can’t write about walking up Highway 61 on a train track or playing in shacks, or whatever, like Robert Johnson and them did. They wrote about what was going on in their era – things they could relate to. I’ll never walk up the train tracks – I have too many cars. So things have changed. I don’t want to do a record that sounds dated. I do what I feel and then I put it before the people and I hope they like it, which so far, they have. I’m going to give them the blues, and that’s all I know.”
Visit Dexter’s website at: www.dexterallen.com
Photos by Bob Kieser © 2014 Blues Blast Magazine