Fat Cats is the jazz and blues club on Norwegian Breakaway. However, unlike most other cruise ship bars, guests do not go there to have a drink. While they often have a drink while they are there, the reason that guests go there is to see Slam Allen perform.
Supported by a bass player, drums and an organ, six nights a week Allen plays the guitar and sings the blues in Fat Cats. He plays both original compositions and his interpretations of the songs of the old blues masters with a little R&B and rock thrown in. However, beyond his considerable musical abilities, Allen has the type of personality that makes an entertainer a star. Consequently, he has developed a considerable following, first on Norwegian Epic and now on Norwegian Breakaway.
Allen's musical journey began in Monticello in New York's Catskill region where he was born and raised. He credits his father and his two uncles who were part-time musicians as inspiring him to go into music. “They did blues, soul, R&B, funk, a little jazz. One of my uncles played saxophone, my other uncle played guitar and my dad played bass, drums guitar - - he played a little bit of everything. Ever since I was born I was around the music, I heard it.”
“My dad turned me on to guys like BB King, Freddie King, Albert King, Albert Collins. Then on the R&B and soul side, we started going into things like Wilson Pickett. He was a DJ at one time too so he had all these records and so I had access to all this music. My dad was really a big influence on me.”
Not content to just listen to music, Allen began to play instruments as well. In high school, he studied the string bass. “Basically, all the stuff I learned in high school, I have forgotten. I always tell people I never really learned music, I just learned to feel it. I just let my ear be my teacher.”
“Early on, I wanted to be George Benson. I said [to myself] I am going to take that smoothness that he has on the guitar and I am going to put that to the blues. I have to move my fingers like BB King. I have to sing my vocals like Otis Redding. Wilson Pickett, I have to get that soul. That's what made me, I am just a hybrid of all those people. That is how I started building my formula for myself.”
After turning professional, Allen became the front man for the legendary James Cotton Blues Band. “I played with James Cotton for about eight years. It is an experience that you can't get anymore - - to be connected to one of the original people. It was an experience and an education that just took me to another level. I've been all over the world. It made me the person that I am today, still growing, still learning.”
Allen came to Norwegian Cruise Lines directly from the James Cotton Band. “I wasn't looking to get on a ship,” he recalls. “ I was in the right place at the right time and everything fit right in.”
The manager of a club that he was playing at knew an agent who knew that Norwegian was looking for a blues band. “The agent submitted my information to Norwegian. Norwegian liked what they saw and here I am. I never dreamed that it would be a huge success like it is.”
“When I came to Norwegian, it was one of the first times in my life that I was able to be me, fully me. I had learned all the stuff I needed to learn and I had a platform now to mold it. I have taken it and molded it into a show where I am an entity, what they want to call a brand, where I can reproduce this formula every single week.”
No two Slam Allen shows, however, are the same. “I have a master list that has about 150 to 200 songs, I keep adding songs to it. Each night I make a list [of the songs that will be performed] but I drive the band crazy because they never know what I am going to do. I read the audience to see what makes people move. If I am doing one thing and it doesn't work then I do something else.”
During a set, Allen often leaves the stage and mixes with the audience.
The show is a two-way street. “I am not just a lounge band. I am interactive. I want to give them something to take away that is a lasting memory. Once you meet me, you'll never forget me. I am one of the last of the breed of this type of entertainment.”
“I always tell people: 'your energy makes me do what I do. So how you give it to me that is how I am going to give it to you and even more.”
“Some nights I come in and you have some loudmouths who want to talk a lot. That is good for me because I like to interact with people like that. It helps me with the show when people are like that. Some nights people are sitting there looking at me like zombies. I am like 'People, this is not church, it is not opera.' So you have to push people sometimes to get them going.”
There is often comedy and laughter in Allen's exchanges with the audience. “I like to laugh, I like to make other people laugh.”
“I'm not doing the music for myself, I am doing it to make people happy. It is a beautiful thing. I have always been a people person. I have always liked being around people. People form an instant bond with me because they know that I am doing it for real. This is the way I am on stage as well as off stage.”
Allen's genuineness and warmth serve to make the audience more receptive to the music. Some people who come into Fat Cats are blues aficionados. However, many guests are unfamiliar with this type of music. “If you mix it with something, it goes down a whole lot better. I say whatever kind of music it is, if you can put it across in a genuine way, people will like it.”
“I always tell people don't try and understand it just feel it. The blues is a music of feelings. I didn't pick the blues, the blues picked me. I am just trying to represent it to the best of my ability.”
“A lot of time people come and say to me: 'Man, I did not even like this music until now.' I get happy when I see people bring in their little kids. All the music they are listening to today, if it wasn't for the blues, it wouldn't be here. You've got to know where you've been before you know where you are going.”
“I'm going to tell you something about Eric Clapton, if it wasn't for him the blues would be dead in this country. He let people know who the original people were and that started getting people to search and look for the original guys. Even the Rolling Stones. They came out and let people know who the original guys were. They got their name from Muddy Waters.”
While Allen plays in the style of the old blues masters, his performances strive to make people aware that this genre is still alive, relevant and capable of expressing contemporary feelings. “That's what keeps me doing it - - I see happy people. [Music] is a tool to express love energy. This is my platform, what I am supposed to do. Some days are really rough but people keep bringing me back.”
Cruise ship review and interview - Norwegian Cruise Line - Norwegian Breakaway - Slam Allen