Slow Burner: Alabama Slim at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival
In addition to the impossible-to-replicate lineup, the real legacy of the original 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival is in how a group of college students helped introduce mainstream, white America to the incredible music being overlooked all around it for years in favor of repackaged versions from the U.K.
If there's such a secret hiding in plain sight at this year's revived Ann Arbor Blues Festival, it's probably Alabama Slim. Born Milton Frazier in Vance, Alabama, Slim didn't record an album until he was in his 60s, when he finally teamed up with his cousin, fellow New Orleans guitarist Little Freddie King (not to be confused with the late Chicago guitar great Freddie King) to record The Mighty Flood for the Music Maker Relief Foundation.
Slim's a first-rate storyteller, whose warm baritone voice and tasteful, hypnotic playing recall all-time greats, like Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker on a slow burner.
We talked to Slim briefly by phone on the eve of a family reunion in Birmingham, Alabama, where he was looking forward to some good food, drinking a couple of beers, and relaxing after a long drive.
Q: How did you get started playing the blues?
A: My mother had a Victrola. You know, one of those Victrolas with the little dog looking down the horn? We had this record of Big Bill Broonzy: "Mean Old Frisco," and I liked it, and I fell in love with it. And then I heard Lightnin' Hopkins and Muddy Waters and different ones, and I said, "Aww, man. I wanna play."
When I was about 11 or 12 years old, a guy across the district, you know, we lived in the country, he had a guitar and he would come over and play, and I would get his guitar and start strumming on it and strumming on it. And he said, "This boy's gonna play one day."
So somehow my uncle got a guitar. I think he paid $10 or $12 for it. I started blummin on it, you know, "blum, blum, blum," and my fingers and my thumb got swollen up. I had to soak them in salt water and all that stuff.
So one day, I played this record by Lightnin' Hopkins, "Rocky Mountain." And after that, I played this Bill Broonzy record, and I was like, "Aww, shucks. I got it goin' now."
Q: When did you start playing out?
A: We were going to school, and we had three or four cats that were wannabe musicians: piano, horn. So we'd get together and play. People would get us, you know, out in the country where we had that whiskey drinking and home cooking going on. They'd say, "You boys come over and play for us." We'd go over there and play, and good God almighty, they'd give us about $10 a piece, and that was a whole lot of money then.
Q: How old were you when you're playing these parties?
A: About 18 or 19. After that I started running a little wild. You know how it is with them girls, man, and taking a little taste of that liquor and going on, you know. So I put it down, and I come back at it again, and I put it down. So when I came back this time, I stayed with it.
Q: You didn't record an album until later on in life, is that right?
A: I recorded an album in 2006.
Q: But before that you hadn't made any recordings?
A: No, I hadn't done any recordings. Just playing around with this band, that band. I'd get me a couple of guys and we'd play around and that. But after Katrina hit in 2005, then I made that CD, The Mighty Flood
My cousin Little Freddie King, me and him would jam around. He had a 335 Epiphone guitar, and he said, "I know you can handle it." So I got to playing with him and going around. His manager, he was crazy. He didn't want me being with Freddie. So, after Katrina hit, me and Freddie went to Baltimore. I was supposed to play a couple of numbers, but Freddie's manager made sure I didn't get a chance to play. So I told Tim Duffy (founder of the Music Maker Relief Foundation), and that kind of made Tim a little mad. He said, "I tell you what: when you get ready to cut a CD, you call me," and he gave me his card and said, "My secretary will set it up." And so I did. I went and cut that CD The Mighty Flood with Freddie, and I've been rolling ever since. I've been all different places: Germany and Scotland. I go all over. Everything's going sweet and good now.
Q: Do you feel like you're making up for lost time?
A: Yeah, I am. Really, I am. I'm catching up, and this music keeps me going. I'm 78 years old now. This music is keeping me going. You know, I'd be sitting around or something, I'd probably be real down. When I play my guitar, I feel like I'm 16 years old.
Q: So when you were "putting it down and picking it up again," what were you doing for a living?
A: I always kept a job. Some of the jobs were really rough. Working at a sawmill, doing coal mining, digging ditches, and whatever. When I got to New Orleans in '65, that's where I stayed. I got a job at the World Trade Center of New Orleans. I worked there 24 years. I was a porter there. In other words, a maintenance man. When they had parties and things, that's when I really made my big money. That was a nice job. And I had my little band going, and we were doing pretty good.
Q: You have a distinct style we don't hear as much today. I saw someone describe it in a YouTube comment as "Blues with possibly the fewest notes." It was a compliment, and I agree. Where did that style come from, and is that something you're conscious of?
A: The blues tells a story, because the real blues is the problems that you have and things that you're going through. That's real blues: heartache, or something that you want, you can't get it; or you think you can get it, but you're like, "Why can't I get it?" So you've got the blues.
And then if you love someone and something's going wrong and your woman quits you or something, man, you've really got the blues!
Q: I'm thinking about the sound. There's a tendency in newer groups to focus on big solos. When I listen to you and watch you with the band, it's like everything just fits together.
A: Right. You know, a lot of guys come out here today and talk about playing the blues, but their set will be halfway blues and halfway rockin' stuff. But the real blues, you just can't get around it.
Q: That heartache, it really comes through in your songs, and you're telling these stories about "The Mighty Flood" and "Crack Alley." Are these real experiences you've lived through?
A: Yeah, man! I been through that stuff. I'm serious. It's funny, I hooked up with a girl, and I really didn't know at the time, and then I found out she was addicted to crack, and I had to cut her loose. And I was in the flood. I saw it.
Q: Are you living in New Orleans now?
A: Yeah, that's where I live right now. When the flood hit, I went to Dallas, because my wife has two sisters out there. So me and Little Freddie and my wife went there and stayed about 14 months, then I came back to New Orleans.
Q: When you were in Dallas, is that when you started thinking about making the first album?
A: That's when I put it together. Sure did. I was devastated with that Katrina. Water everywhere. Oh, my God. If you listen to the record real good, I tell the whole story of it.
It's kind of amazing how something so disruptive gave you an opportunity you might never have had.
➥ Resurrected: James Partridge on the 2017 Ann Arbor Blues Festival
➥ Put a Spell on You: Michael Erlewine on the 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival
Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to Concentrate Ann Arbor.
Alabama Slim plays the Ann Arbor Blues Festival at 2 pm on Saturday, August 19, at the Washtenaw Farm Council Fairgrounds, 5055 Ann Arbor-Saline Road, in Ann Arbor. The whole event runs from 1-11 pm and advance tickets are $35 ($17.50 for kids age 13-18, free for kids 12 and younger). For tickets and more info, visit a2bluesfestival.com.