Blues man Alabama Slim, born Milton Frazier, tends to punctuate his sentences with a ‘yeah.’
It’s not dramatic. It’s not said with an implied fist pump. It’s not even particularly loud.
It’s more a product of his enthusiasm spilling out of him. Slim loves the blues. Slim loves people. He was made to watch the world and channel those observations into songs.
His album, The Parlor, is groove-oriented blues chaos (review here), barely reigned-in, post-production, by Drive-By Truckers/The Dexateens' Matt Patton and Squirrel Nut Zippers' Jimbo Mathusm, who added bass, organ, and piano, after Slim’s four-hour, efficient recording session.
Slim’s initial recording session, resulting in what he calls low-down, dirty blues, included Slim; his cousin, guitarist Little Freddie King (actually related to Lightnin' Hopkins and not Freddie King); and drummer Ardie Dean. And while the track enhancements add a lovely shine to Slim’s songs, his natural charisma and blues energy is more than capable of standing on its own.
Slim came to the blues as a child, when his mother and uncle brought a Grafonola record player. “When my mother came back home with that Muddy Waters and that John Lee Hooker, that just flipped me, man,” Slim recalls. “I forgot about everything else. I loved that sound that they were playing and I loved [the] voices. Hey, it just stuck with me.”
Waters and Hooker are touchpoints for Slim. His voice is unique, but he bares some resemblance to the two blues icons. “When I'd be playing, they'd say 'Hey man, you kind of sound like Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker'” he says. “And I'd say, 'Well, this is my natural voice.'” But where Hooker is an unflappable beat, Slim is prone to flights of guitar fancy. And where Muddy Waters could often read as serious, Slim’s songs are coated in playfulness.
Slim had a long journey to The Parlor. Born in Vance, Alabama, he arrived in New Orleans in 1965, after a decade or so of playing around in blues bands. He eventually drifted away from music, until the 1990s, when he felt ready to return to performing. Slim, and his cousin King, evacuated New Orleans together following Hurricane Katrina. They both settled in Dallas, before subsequently returning to New Orleans.
New Orleans is known as the Big Easy, but Slim disagrees with that assessment. “New Orleans is hard place for a musician,” he says. “It's kind of mixed up here. There's a group of people who just like jazz. And there's a group that just likes the blues, and there's people who just like that funk stuff. So it's just mixed up, man.”
Slim listens to different music, including jazz, but there’s nothing mixed-up about his old-school sound, even after all of those years in New Orleans. He’s pure blues. And in this interview, Slim talks about his songwriting process, which is as straight-forward as his songs. He makes it sound easy, because he’s been doing this for so long, but Slim imparts a lot of lessons, from following your inner muse to closely watching the people around you for inspiration.
And of course, you always need some kind of drink nearby, because the blues is thirsty work.
Writing The Parlor
Working Mojo: How did you write your songs for The Parlor?
Alabama Slim: Sometimes I sit out on my porch. I get my acoustic guitar and start strumming around. And then I look at people, and get conversations from people and I put this stuff together.
WM: Are you writing stuff down all the time?
Slim: Yeah, well, so far I've been having a pretty good memory. But like, when I’ll be sitting on my porch or something, drinking a Coors Light, I strike out something, a verse or two, and I hurry up and write that down. And go ahead on, write that down. And then I put it together, and I play it and see how it sounds.
WM: Do you ever write things and think ‘This isn’t great.’
Slim: Yeah. I'll do something and say 'Nah. I don't like that.' And I'll start over, and I'll put something else in it. I'll put another line or two in it, and then it'll come out all right. Because I have a couple of songs that just to me, it didn't sound right, but other people said, 'Man, that sounds good!'
WM: Was there anything on The Parlor that you didn't like that other people did like?
Slim: They put 11 or 12 [tracks] on this, but I think I [recorded] about 13 or 14. So they took out a couple like, "Shake Your Booty All Night Long." I really liked that one, but they didn’t put it on the CD because, I guess for too many [songs]. Because you don't put but about 10 or 12 on a CD.
WM: Were you like disappointed that it didn't make the cut?
Slim: Well, not really, because the first demo, you know, the CD, I have it on there. I play it every now and then, in my car on the CD [player]. But those that are on there are really great. [There's] one on there, I said it could have [been done] a little bit better, but the people said 'Man that's great.' And hey... [laughs]. It's kind of a funny thing.
WM: Which song was it that you think could have been a little better?
Slim: "Hot Foot."
WM: What would have made it better?
Slim: Really, to tell the truth about it, I don't know now [laughs]. Everybody said ‘You whooped that thing up, you stretched it out there out a little bit. It was a little pop-up. A little uppy.’
WM: How long does it take you to write a song?
Slim: Not long. It doesn't take me long.
WM: Like a day? A week? A month?
Slim: Oh no, man. I could get one together, I can go ahead on and knock it out in about 10 or 15 minutes. I can do that, when I get it together the way I want it. I know I got a few of them laying in the archives back there at the Music Makers [Slim’s label].
WM: And you talked before about your demos. Do you do demos at home or do you go into a studio?
Slim: No. There was a studio we did it at, the Parlor, but that was the first demo. So Ardie Dean, the drummer, mailed it to me, and then when they when they redid this, I said '"Shake Your Booty" ain't on here.' So I looked and said, ‘Well you've got the album now, so that's it.’ That's all you do, is about 10 or 12 on a CD. Well it'll probably be on the next one that I do.
WM: Are you working on the next one?
Slim: Yeah, kind of. A little bit there. I got a couple there, [I’m]shuffling around. Because when I write something, I want it to be what the people will like it, will pay attention to. Like this thing I wrote, "Rob Me Without a Gun," I hope the men pay attention to that because a woman can rob you man, and she don't have to have a damn gun.
WM: Does that song come out of a specific experience? Did something happen where you were robbed like that?
Slim: Sometimes I listen to people talk, you know, 'Oh man she took me for everything. Boy I'll tell you. Yeah. She robbed me without a gun.'
WM: So this is something you overheard?
Slim: Yeah. Mostly. Like I said, you can be around people in a barroom or maybe on a corner, where they'll be gathering and drinking, and you hear different conversations, about women or hard times or whatever and you get to thinking, and if you think straight enough, you can put it together, you know?
WM: Do you wait until you have 10 or 12 songs, and then you're going to let your label know you're ready to go?
Slim: Yeah. I'll probably do that. Because I have so many songs that I want to do: low-down dirty, good rocking and all that stuff, and I'll take my time to do that. I don't want to do it too fast because you can kill the first CD with this CD.
WM: You recorded the album in four hours?
Slim: Yeah, we did it.
WM: You laid down your tracks with you and a drummer, right?
Slim: Just me and Freddie and the drummer.
WM: How do you record so well and so fast?
Slim: Well my [cousin, Freddie King Jr.], he knows me. He knows what I'm going to do. He knows. We just go in there and lay it down, man, and get it over with.
WM: So after you and Freddie and the drummer laid everything down, then the producers came in and they added a bunch of stuff to it right?
Slim: Yeah, right.
WM: So did you know what they were going to do? Like, ‘We're going to add some organ here, we're going to add some bass,’ or did they just give it to you finished?
Slim: Well they finished it and told us, 'We kind of added a little something to it.' I said, 'Well, okay, send it to me, let me hear how it sounds.' When they did send it to me, hey man, it sounded alright to me. It sounds great. Then, the thing about it, I have it in my car, you know, I'll ride alone sometimes and I'll be playing it and the people love it man. So they popped it up a little bit there. I appreciate that. Because a lot of people would like to hear a little pop up instead of that hard, low-down dirty blues.
Whichever way it goes, I'm a blues man. That's it. When I was a little boy, I raised up, I heard John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. Man, I just went crazy. I said, 'Oh yeah, I like that there.' William "Big Bill" Broonzy, “Mean Old Frisco.” Yeah, man. I mean, that Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker just stuck with me. And people say I sound kind of like Muddy and Hooker. And play kind of like them. What do you think about it?
WM: I thought you sound like Muddy. I love your guitar playing. John Lee Hooker, to me, is always like the bass and the drums and everything. It's just thunk, thunk, thunk. I like your guitar playing because things kind of pop up and pop out. It’s almost jazzy. I can't even think of another blues man who plays that way.
Slim: Well, whenever I play I have to do it my way. Just play it my way. And so that's my way of playing. Because like you say, you have a little bit to it, and pop out, pop back in, pop out.
WM: So is it harder for you because with Covid, people aren't out and about? Is it hard for you to get inspired the way you did pre-Covid?
Slim: Yeah. It is. It's very hard because, man. Look here, I'm used to playing. This is my thing, just like a person loves to fish, that's his thing, or love to play ball, that's his thing, so that guitar and singing is my thing. I feel good about it. Sometimes I get really high on it. Because that's what I like to do. That's what I want to do. And this pandemic has shut us down.
WM: You were supposed to play the New Orleans Blues Festival?
Slim: I sure was, man. That New Orleans Jazz/Blues Festival, I was booked for that. And I was booked for one in Baton Rouge. And one in Mississippi. And I think one in Tennessee. And you know that just shut us down. Wooo. That kind of hurt a little bit [laughs].
WM: How come it hurt?
Slim: I can't play. And then, you know, it shuts the money down and all of that. I'm just like a little kid because the guitar is my toy.
WM: You write with little Freddy King, right?
Slim: Yeah. That's my little cousin. He's on all my CDs that I cut. He's with me on it. He has his own band and I have my own band. But like the Music Maker [founder/president (Slim's label)] Tim Duffy, that man just loves for me and Freddy to play together. He loves that.
WM: Does Freddy help you with the songwriting? Does he contribute to the songs?
Slim: No. He doesn't help me with that.
WM: So you're working, just you, by yourself on the porch?
Slim: Yeah. I'll sit on the porch there, and like I say, I'll strike out something, I'll write it down, I'll strike out something else, I'll write it down and then I put it together. I do the whole thing and I [say], 'Well I think they're gonna be alright you know. Right.'
WM: Do you and Freddie rehearse?
Slim: No. We didn't practice about it. We just went in and did it. When I start it off, when I kick it off, he knows where I'm going. He knows what key I'm in. He knows what I'm doing. He's just right there on me, all the time.
WM: How does he know?
Slim: Well, he knows the way I play and I know the way he plays. We have two different movements and sound, but when we get together it sounds damn good.
Slim: That's right. People ask a lot of times, 'Hey, how can y'all do that? Y'all don't practice.' I say, 'Well we know where we're coming from.'
WM: Were you guys living together for a little bit?
Slim: No, not really. Because I always stayed a little distant from him. He always stayed a little distant from me. And because we see each other. We'll talk and go on, maybe we might run out to the Guitar Center, may get some strings, or whatever we need for the guitar. That's about it, because I think he and I have practiced something maybe a couple of times. And that was it, because he knew where I'm coming from and I know where he's coming from. It sounds amazing to some people. They say, 'How do you all do that, man?'
WM: It is amazing. Do you think it has to do with being related at all?
Slim: No, I don't think that's got anything to do with it. You know, when you listen to music, you kind of understand the licks and the riffs. And so, when the two of you get together and say we're gonna do this in E or B or G or whatever. That's it.
WM: Do you have that kind of relationship with anybody else?
Slim: Well, the little band that I have, that I've been been playing with. They know. Because they have played with me so much.
Low-down dirty blues
WM: Do you think the album was a little more low-down dirty blues, kind of like you were talking about before, before they put the other stuff on?
Slim: Yeah. I think it was more pull-off-your-shoes-and-walk-in-the-mud [laughs]. I think it was a little more low-down and dirtier. But since they popped it up a little bit, man it's great.
WM: The type of blues that got you excited when you were young and coming up—why don't people get as excited by it anymore?
Slim: Well when I think about it and can see and hear it, like I said, I've been hearing people talking, going on. To tell you the truth about it, most everybody [has] got the blues. But when you start playing that low-down, dirty stuff, they kind of back away because it brings too much remembrance to them, because a lot of people man, they've been through this stuff, they've been hurt and different things. The woman has put them out, or some lover like that, and the blues really brings back a whole lot of memories.
WM: So when you're when you're writing and performing, do those feelings come back to you? Because you've had a tough life.
Slim: I've been riding up and down. It's never been too bad really, because if man or woman don't get along, I'll go to another one. I was like that. But for me, being a blues man, I love the blues, so it didn't bother me too [much]. Because I always thought when you [lose]one [relationship], there's another one.
WM: What do you love about the blues?
Slim: Well, I just love the blues and when I play the blues, the people, I like to see their reaction. Some be moving around and some be like they're drifting off thinking, or whatever. I said 'Oh yeah, I got him right there.' [laughs]
WM: And you talked before about wanting to sound like yourself. How did discover your voice?
Slim: Well, this is my natural voice, the one that God gave me. That's a natural voice. Because I really don't try to imitate anyone, I just go ahead on and sing what I'm going to do and play what I'm going to do.
WM: Do you think you would ever do like a lowdown dirty blues record, just you and Freddie and drums, or something like that?
Slim: Yeah, I probably would. It takes me a while to do this because I'm kind of busy now a lot of [the] time because my wife has been down kind of down in her health, but she's doing better now. So I'm a little relieved. But when I get through writing them out, I'll see what my producers say about it and if it will just go low-down dirty or a kind of pop-up, like this one.
WM: I wanted to ask you about an Albert King quote that I love. He said that the blues is designed to soothe. Have you ever heard that before?
Slim: The blues will soothe you sometimes, man. If you haven't been through too much [rigmarole]out there, it'll soothe you. And then sometimes it'll kind of down you. It don't bother me because I'm just a blues man, and like I said, when something doesn't go right here, I just move on over and see if it'll go right over here. The blues is like a baby when he can't get his bottle; he'll start crying. He got the blues. And you give him that bottle, he'll shut his mouth up.
WM: So is the blues the bottle?
Slim: Yeah. Let me tell you something. You a man and you know that when you want something and can't get it, you say 'Why can't I get it? How come I can't have it?' or whatever? You've got the blues. Because you want that, right?
Interview edited for brevity and clarity.