Authentic practitioners of the blues are hard to find these days. Most have passed on or are retired, and while there is some young blues talent assuming the mantle out there, it’s impossible to faithfully re-create the sounds of the Delta, Texas and Chicago blues giants whose music influenced a generation of Brits, who, in turn, introduced the blues to a new generation of Americans. Alabama Slim, discovered late in his life, is one of the few remaining bluesmen whose sound is genuine, rooted in the work.
Alabama Slim’s new album is The Parlor, produced by drummer Ardie Dean (Gregg Allman, Taj Mahal) and Tim and Denise Duffy of the non-profit Music Maker Relief Foundation. Tim Duffy is the one who originally brought Slim out of the juke joints, and into the studio and onto the concert stage, through the Foundation, which preserves the musical traditions of the South by directly supporting the musicians who make that music, including bluesmen like Alabama Slim. The Foundation since has issued two albums of his, The Mighty Flood and Blue & Lonesome.
Speaking to American Songwriter from his longtime home of New Orleans, Slim (born Milton Frazier) talked about how he became a recording artist, and about playing over the decades with his cousin Little Freddie King, who appears on the new album.
“I hadn’t did any kind of recording,” Slim recalled. “I was with my cousin Little Freddie King, and he was playing at the Jazz Fest in New Orleans, and I done this guitar thing and I sung a little bit, and that’s where I met Tim Duffy. And he told me, when I get ready to cut a CD to call him, he gave me his card, said to make sure I call. I then cut my first CD, A Mighty Flood, when [Hurricane] Katrina hit.”
In a tradition that almost echoes some of the work of the ethnomusicologist Lomax family, the Music Maker Relief Foundation helped Slim get a passport, and provided him with sustenance grants to help get his career on track. He has since performed throughout the US, including at Lincoln Center in New York, and across Europe with the musical assemblage known as the Music Maker Blues Revue. “I’ve played a few spots around here in New Orleans,” he said, “but when I hooked up with Tim I was gone so much I couldn’t do too much in New Orleans, because when they needed me I might be in Belgium or Spain, Paris, the United Kingdom, I been around the world. Sometimes it would be five or six of us, we had a lot of fun doin’ that. I was so glad to get the opportunity to do that, man, I was hoppin’ around like a little boy.”
Jimbo Mathus of the Squirrel Nut Zippers makes a large contribution to The Parlor’s instrumentation, and cousin Little Freddie King appears on guitar throughout, where his and Slim’s guitar styles don’t always mesh in a traditional sense, but still work with each other. “Freddie plays a blues different from me, I play a blues different from him, but we can play the blues together,” Slim said.
Influenced as a young man by blues musicians like Big Bill Broonzy and Lightnin’ Hopkins, Alabama Slim can be compared to them, and any number of the blues greats who came before him, like John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. And he can be compared to a non-blues legend, Willie Nelson, for his occasional disregard of singing in time to the chord changes.
Unlike the majority of today’s male performers, the soon-to-be-82-year-old Slim is old school, dapper and dressed to kill in a suit and tie, with a fedora on the top of his already 6’6” frame. “Well,” he said, “when I was goin’ to school I always wanted to be clean and neat, y’know? That’s the way my mother raised me, be clean and neat. [She said] You ain’t goin’ anywhere lookin’ like that.”
Even though he understands the comparisons of one bluesman to another, he still considers himself an original in his own way. “My style is just my style,” he said. “This is just my natural voice that the good Lord gave me, y’know? This is just what I do. The blues, some people don’t like the blues because it brings back too many memories on ‘em, because when you play the blues, this is what you’re goin’ through in life, this is the stuff that you’re goin’ through and that you have ran into. And that’s that. And people say, why you wanna play the blues? And I say, ‘Well, this is me!’ Because when you’re goin’ through some stuff, sometimes you be hurt, I just lay it out to the people. And that’s all I can say about it.”