After one day's performances at this year's Pocono Blues Festival, I headed to a nearby restaurant hosting an after-party featuring singer Johnny Rawls. Straining with one ear not to miss a drop of the good music coming from inside, I stepped out to see if there was anything I should make note of for this blog.
As I walked out the door the band launched into Big Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll.” The high-energy song, later covered successfully by Bill Haley and the Comets, has always been one of my favorite oldies. But something about the way this singer, a sit-in, belted it out stopped me in my tracks. As good as the band was, Michael Benjamin, commonly known as Alabama Mike, almost did not need it. There was a smoothness and power to his voice that makes you think of great singers.
I later found out that Benjamin was born 46 years ago in Talladega, Alabama, where he grew up singing in the church. His first album, Day to Day, is one of five competing for the title of “Best New Artist Debut Release” in the 2010 Blues Blast Music Awards (Marquise Knox, interviewed earlier in this blog, is competing in the same category.) He is now coming out with a sophomore outing, Tailor Made Blues. Both CD’s contain original material written by Benjamin.
Alabama Mike tells us more about himself in this BBP interview:
BBP: Tell me a little about yourself, where did you learn to sing like that?
Benjamin: Where’d I learn, well you know the music, I grew up singing it man. I’m from Alabama and my dad’s a quartet singer. My dad’s a quartet singer and while I was growing up, I was exposed to singing all my life. Then to that I just developed a style for the blues that’s all. But I always loved singing.
BBP: So you’re going to sing tomorrow.
Benjamin: Oh yes, most definitely man. Yeah, that’s what I came here for. They brought me out here to sing the blues. No question, I got to do my job, man.
BBP: Did you grow up in the church? Did you sing in the church?
Benjamin: Yeah, I sung in the church choir. And my family and my siblings, there were six of us at that time, we would…my mother would have us sing as a group in the church. We didn’t have the harmonies down, wasn’t that great. But we’re in the church, people in the church they always appreciated it, they don’t care whether you’re off-key or whatever. They just enjoy kids doing something positive. So we had a little group there, we would sing in church.
BBP: Did the group have a name?
Benjamin: Not really, other than the Benjamins.
BBP: The family group that…
Benjamin: Yeah. Kids.
BBP: So when did you decide to sing professionally?
Benjamin: It just happened and it wasn’t no big ol decision or nothing like that. Just started making music and people enjoyed it. The music kind of did it’s own thing. So it did what it’s been known to do forever. Make people get people excited about it and they support it, man. They support real music. I was just lucky to be able to get with some good people and put out some good music. It kind of took off on it’s own.
BBP: Have you been touring a lot.
Benjamin: Not really. Just here mainly I’ve been able to do more festivals than ever. Actually this is my first national, major festival. This one here. Normally, guys starting out, they don’t get to play the Pocono festival. You know this is a pretty big deal.
BBP. How do you feel about playing it?
Benjamin: Oh man I’m ready. Do you think I’d come all the way from California and not be ready? (laughs) I’m ready to play this joint, man, I’m ready to rock it.
BBP: You’re living in California, you said.
Benjamin: Yeah, I live in California.
BBP: Where in Alabama were you born.
Benjamin: Oh, Talladega. Talladega, Alabama, that’s where I’m from.
BBP: And where in California do you live now.
Benjamin: I live out in the San Francisco Bay Area.
BBP: So who are some of your influences as a singer?
Benjamin: Oh I like Lightnin’ Hopkins, Elmore James, Magic Sam, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, all these big heavy weight guys, man. I like their story, I like the way they express it, you know I like the way they play I like it all. I like all the legends, man, really. Muddy Waters, Pinetop, B.B. King. Them guys man, they were grounded in the blues the way it’s supposed to be played. And uh, you know, so, I try to stick to that and stay within the framework.
BBP: Do you like popular music?
Benjamin: I like all music. Because all musicians are artists. And I’m an artist too. So that way, if they can claim music and being an artist, I’m a party to that. That’s me. I mean you’re talking about that especially the blues. I mean when you said pushing something out in the name of the blues then I’m a party to it. Some of it might not be favorable (laughs) but you know, you support the art. And somewhere along the line it’s going to carry someone else to get involved with the blues. You always want that.
BBP: Do you play an instrument?
Benjamin: Well I understand the rudiments of guitar and harmonica but I wouldn’t say that…I’m an amateur.
BBP: You’re instrument is your voice.
Benjamin: Definitely. Now I’m very well trained in my voice, yeah.
BBP: You took professional lessons at some point?
Benjamin: I never really got trained in that.
BBP: Just the training you got in the church.
Benjamin: Yeah, basically, the training I got in the church. I was just taking after my dad and trying to learn his style.
BBP: How did you come to Pocono?
Benjamin: It wasn’t me. It was friends of friends of friends that know people and then on top of that the music was good, everybody likes the album. The album is getting wide acclaim and good reviews everywhere. Every major blues magazine in Europe. Everywhere they’re talking about the blues…so the album is a good album, I wouldn’t be here if…trust me if people didn’t. So that’s how it is. That’s how I got here. The album that I put out “Living Day to Day” Day to Day, that was the first one. Living Day to Day. You know anything about that? Oh, your giving the interview, I’m sorry.
BBP: (laughing) No, I do.
Benjamin: Live day to day, huh? Hand to mouth, check to check. All that kind of stuff.
BBP: So what do you want to do in the future in terms of music?
Benjamin: Go along with it, I want it to take off….and I’m getting prepared to get out there with it, man. Support whatever the music is doing and stand behind it and if people want to see me, if they like the music then they got to see me. That’s my job, to get out there and be seen. I’m a real stickler about preserving the blues too, I’m a stickler for that. You know I’m really into that. I really think that enough is not being done by young black people, it’s a major part of our heritage. It happens in the home. If you don’t introduce your children to playing instruments and the history of music and our culture and the part that music played in the development of it, and the major part that it played in our lives and that comes from slavery. If you don’t teach that in the home then you can’t blame the kids for not knowing about it. I mean if it’s not taught in the home, where are they going to learn it at?