MONTICELLO, NY — In 1926, composer Ray Henderson sat with lyricists Buddy G. DeSylva and Lew Brown to pen what was destined to be a classic: “The Birth of the Blues,” which went on to be a major hit for Cab Calloway, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. among others.
Another birth of the blues took place here in Sullivan County, when Slam Allen was born in Monticello, just before the area became famous for the Woodstock Music Festival in 1969. I caught up with Allen, now 44, in between European bookings for a cup of coffee in his hometown, as he prepared for a night of music at the Dancing Cat Saloon (www.dancingcatsaloon.com ) in Bethel.
“My father was a musician and in fact, was playing a gig the night I was born,” Allen said. His dad and uncles, known as The Allen Brothers, were a great influence on the youngster, and he claims that as early as five, he knew where his destiny would take him.
“Family has always been at the heart of it” he continued, “and my musical heritage comes from them. When I finally picked up a guitar at the age of 13, I knew I was home.” Allen is soft-spoken off stage, but when the lights come up, it’s showtime, and Allen takes the audience along with him for the ride. “That’s just how I am,” he said. “When I am on stage, it’s not just my playground, it’s the people’s show as well.
“I think of my musical adventure as a journey, and I hope that I can take the audience with me as I continue to explore the musical heritage of the jazz & blues world that has been careening around the globe since the early 1900s. I like to think that I see things as they are and not through rose colored glasses. This journey is not just one of my musical roots, but a deeper, spiritual path that I have been on since I can remember.”
Allen spends up to six months a year touring Europe with Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL) as one of the headliners for their newest flagship, The Epic, alongside world class entertainment “Blue Man Group” and “Cirque Dreams.”
Having just returned from South America, Allen enthused about the audiences he encounters with his band, all over the world. “Many of these folks don’t speak English at all,” he said, “but music is truly the international language—and when I see grown men cry, with a hand to their heart, I feel fulfilled and grateful that I can share this experience with people from all walks of life.” Allen’s love of entertaining shines through in everything he does and when he took the stage at the Cat last week, I was in the house.
Many of his musician pals showed up to support Allen, but he managed to turn the tables, and invited several to join the band on stage as they performed two soulful, searing, smokin’ sets that ran the gamut of jazz, blues and a bit of funk for good measure. “I feel it is my responsibility,” he told the crowd, “to make sure that when you come out to hear Slam Allen, you get to see a show.” Performing standards and originals for the crowd, Allen displayed his toothy grin and basked in the glow as the audience leapt to its feet, dancing, swaying and “feelin’ it” to their toes.
“I make home wherever I am,” he told me, “but the Catskills always calls me back.” Never one to rest on his laurels, Allen has bigger dreams, goals and desires, one of which is to give back to the world that “has given so much” to him.
“I am by no means done,” he said. Determined to grow as a musician and human being, Allen’s spiritual journey has just begun. “Yes, I would love to be rich, but not just for selfish reasons. I already feel rich in my heart. It is truly my desire to put the ‘wow factor’ back in music and with the help of my friends and family, I feel well on my way.”
Charming, endearing and talented, Slam Allen is on the rise. How fortunate for us then, that he makes time to return to the Hudson Valley and share the ride with the rest of us. Singin’ the blues is only half of what this man does. Lifting us up and spreading the love is a magical, magnificent gift that must be experienced firsthand. Visit www.slamallen.com . Make no mistake: the “birth of the blues” is back.