Slam Allen was out on a tight wire metaphorically half way across the Grand Canyon playing with a bass player and guitarist he’d never met in a suburban bar on a Saturday afternoon benefit for guitarist Rhett Tyler. He stepped forward, motioned for the band to quiet down and launched into an a cappella version of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” The dull roar in the bar came to an abrupt halt. With his eyes closed, the veteran blues man drove that song into the corner pocket. He has lived those words for half a century.
It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die
‘Cause I don’t know what’s up there beyond the sky
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gon’ come, oh yes it will
Slam drove home the pain and the promise more than half century after Sam Cooke crossed over from the religious to the secular world with a song whose spiritual message transcends genre. A hush settled over the Flightline Bar in Glenville, New York turning the club into an AME church on a quiet Sunday morning. About as far removed from his 2016 Blues Music Awards showcase in Memphis with his regular band a few weeks before, it was every bit as dynamic. Here is an artist who was born an entertainer.
Slam’s dad was on stage performing the night his son was born. “My dad said to me one day, ‘Boy, you ain’t entertaining anybody.’ I said, ‘I see what you’re talking about now. I’m not giving all of myself to people. I’m not giving them something special when they walk away. They come back, and it’ll be like, ‘I want to see that guy again.”’ So, that’s what I did. I made myself special so that when people see me they know it’s Slam Allen and not some dude up there playing the blues.
Slam calls himself “The Ambassador of The Blues.” His seventh album, Feel These Blues, contains 11 originals that showcase a showmanship that calls to mind climactic encores by icons like Otis Redding, BB, Albert, and Freddie King. A soul man, he reflects the smooth but impassioned delivery of Wilson Picket and James Brown. The only cover on Feel These Blues is Prince’s “Purple Rain,” a show stopper of Slam’s live shows long before Prince passed.
“I really learned the music. I was brought up in it. Since I was a little boy, I was around the music. It’s something that’s just a part of me. It’s who I am. I’m not trying to be anybody else. It’s a part of me. It’s a part of my culture, part of me growing up.
“People always compare me to other people and other situations and stuff, and I say, ‘You’re absolutely right because I’m here to keep people reminded of this music that started it all, to have the even younger generation know where the music came from and, by the grace of God now, I feel that title of Ambassador of the Blues is just taking what the masters started and bringing it to a younger generation, making them feel what the original people started – you know – put out.”
The New York State Hudson Valley native was doing the chitlin circuit with Dad at 13, and for a while he was in a family band called the Allen Brothers. “I learned from my dad and my uncle. I used to play drums in the band with them. They would start off a song and not tell you what the song was, and they expected you to know, to be there and not miss a beat and keep that heavy back beat, keep that heavy fire.”
But his memories go much further back than that. “I can remember as early as five years old being up on stage messing around. I remember a song out called “Tighten Up.” I was just drawn to that song many, many years ago, and I used to get up there and dance and sing to that when my dad was playing it in the band. I’ve always been around it, but that’s one thing that really stood out, and there’s another song called “Groove.” These are the songs I just recall off the top of my head that he sung to me as a little kid hearing these songs and just going, ‘Dad, I like this.’ I couldn’t have been more than five years old when I first did this.
“I was probably about 13 when I really got it in my mind (to be an entertainer) and starting to form in a little kid’s head when I said, ‘This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.’ I can remember saying to one of my cousins that very thing. I said to him, ‘This is what I’m gonna do for the rest of my life.’ When I hit the stage for the first time, I was just playing little parties and stuff like that, wasn’t really nothing big time and nothing like that, but just the fact that we were playing something and making somebody happy was what gave me the drive to do this today.
“I was down south with my dad basically playing that chitlin circuit, that thing where you go to juke joints. At the time I didn’t know exactly what was happening to me, but I was getting an education and experience that is long gone now, and a lot of people thought I was older than what I was. I just was glorifying music and wanna be like my dad and so on and so forth.”
His dad, who held a day job and performed on the side, wasn’t sure his son’s passion was such a good thing. “I’m gonna tell you the truth. He was hot and old. He really liked the fact that I wanted to be like him and the music and stuff, but at first he was saying to me, ‘Boy, you better get a job. You better get a job.’ He was looking out – he wanted me to have things. He didn’t want to see me struggle – (things) that were bad for me and stuff, and the way that he seen it was that I should get a job and work and stuff like that, but me and my passion was music and for a while he didn’t really get that.
“Even though he played music, he never made it a career for himself. He always worked a job. He came from the old school, an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work, and he didn’t believe or he didn’t see that I could make a career out of it. He just thought it was something you could do when you were not at your job.
“One day many years later, he saw me at a festival. I had a young son at the time. He was about three years old, and he’s about to turn 19 in a few days, and that day I had the full band. I had the horn section and everything, and when my dad saw the reaction of the crowd, and when he saw my passion for what I was doing and ever since that day he said, ‘That’s my son, the entertainer.’”
Slam was up for New Artist of the Year at this year’s Blues Music Awards. The only thing “new” about Slam and the artists he competed against was that they all were new to the Blues Music Awards competition. Going into the contest, Slam said, “I got nominated whether I win, lose or draw. Just the fact I am recognized for the accomplishment that I have made and the music I put out there, that’s a great thing for me.” He lost to Mr. Sipp, an established Mississippi native gospel singer/songwriter/producer before he took up the blues.
Slam was James Cotton’s lead singer from 2001 to 2010. He sang on and wrote two songs, “Heard You’re Getting Married” and “Change” for Cotton’s comeback Grammy-nominated album Giant. Slam laughs, “Cotton would sneeze,” and I would say, ‘Bless you’ before he sneezed. I knew it was coming.”
Cotton had been Muddy Waters’ harp player in the early ’60s. Writing in the New York Times, Jon Pareles wrote, ‘The Muddy Waters Band was dominated by James Cotton on harmonica, bounding across the stage and turning his harmonica into a wordless moan, a horn section, a huffing kind of percussion or a train whistle.”
In 2005, Slam explained the thrill of playing with Cotton. “For me, I’ve heard a lot of harp players, and there’s a very select few that can actually play with that soul where they can take one note and have you feel that one note, and you can feel all that history. You can feel all the soul and sacrifice and everything that he went through. You can feel it coming out of the harp.
“It changed my whole life. Just to have that knowledge of working with a legend, hearing the stories that he’d tell, and learning how they do things on that level. It’s something you can’t get from any school, from any book. You have to experience it. For me to do that, there was like hundreds of guys that could have took that spot. I was blessed to get it, following guys like Rico McFarland, even going back to Matt Guitar Murphy, guys of that caliber, just an honor. It was a blessing for me to be there.”
Today Slam feels just as strongly. “You know, when you’re performing with a legend, you get to see up close and personal how they operate on a professional level, and you get to hear all the stories and all the experience that he went through with legends. Muddy Waters was a big, big influence on the blues and just to hear these stories and be connected with someone who is connected to the genre is an experience you can’t get anywhere, and you probably can’t get anymore. So it really helped me and opened my eyes on being the professional or seeing what it is through somebody else’s eyes to groom yourself to become a legend. That’s what I walked away from. It taught me how to get out of the garage and get to the main stage. That’s what I walked away from it.”
As wonderful as it was playing with Cotton, the job could not scratch Slam’s itch to do it on his own. “I’m here to remind people of this music that started it all and to have the younger generation know where the music is made and, by the grace of God, take what the masters started and bring it to a younger generation.
“Working for James Cotton is very humbling, (but) you know it’s not you. Your name is not on the marque. You are hired to do basically a job, and my job was to make James Cotton look good. I took it very serious. It wasn’t about me. It was about him.
James Cotton has similar thoughts about leaving the Muddy Waters Band in 1965. He once told me it was a hard decision. “Yeah, it was, but I felt I’d done everything that I could do, and I wanted to play some rock and roll, and I knowed Muddy didn’t like that.”
Slam: “So, when I took the stage I’m coming with the best. In any job if you say to me right now, ‘Slam, I want to hire you to paint my house,’ you better believe you’re gonna have the best painted house that you’ve ever seen, and I’m not gonna stop. I’m not gonna accept pay until I do a great job for you, and that’s my work ethic I have playing music and entertaining people.”
Both of his parents passed before they got a chance to see him play with Cotton.
Slam performed at the Blues Foundation’s Blues Music Awards on May 5th, his father’s birthday. “Everything I do right now musically or whatever is just for (dad), for him and my mom. Both of them have passed on. My mom, she was my biggest fan. She believed in me before I believed in myself. I’m 49 years old. I’ll be 50 September 5th.
“I’m here to remind people of this music that started it all and to have the younger generation know where the music is made and, by the grace of God, take what the masters started and bring it to a younger generation.”
Visit Slam’s website at: www.slamallen.com
Interviewer Don Wilcock has been writing about blues for nearly half a century. He wrote Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, the biography that helped Buddy Guy jumpstart his career in 1991. He’s interviewed more than 5000 Blues artists and edited several music magazines including King Biscuit Time.