Veteran Chicagoan drummer Allen Kirk talks about his amazing experiences on the road of blues

"The blues and blues music is a way of life. The way of life can't be a fad."

Allen Kirk: The Blues is Allright

Growing up in the tough west side neighborhoods of 1950’s Chicago, he didn’t have much. Many times, Allen’s Uncle Joe would take him out for a walk that would end up at the corner bar where Joe would sit Allen on a stool; drop a quarter in the jukebox and step outside with his friends to drink a little bit of wine. While waiting there, Allen would hear all the greats...Muddy, Wolf, Little Walter, B.B., Jimmy Reed as well as Ethel Merman, Elvis, The Moonglows and the Spaniels.

Those days laid the beginnings of a lifelong passion for music. As a teen, baseball was his claim to fame, but there was a different dream calling. Allen Kirk has been a natural since the day in 1965 when he sat behind Dirty Red’s drum kit and started playing favorite soul hits. Allen paid his dues on Halsted Street backing up many of Chicago’s greatest at the Kingston Mines. Across the street at B.L.U.E.S. he worked with Sunnyland Slim, Bob Stroger, Sam Burkhardt and legendary blues drummer Robert Covington.It was Robert who took Allen under his wing and schooled him in the blues shuffle. Allen filled in for Covington behind Sunnyland and later again took Robert’s place when he left Mississippi Heat.

From the sizzling shuffles of Magic Slim & The Teardrops, the hard biting grooves of James Solberg, the sweet and soulful sounds of Deitra Farr to the funky rhythms of Johnny Rawls, Allen has mastered the art of staying in the pocket. Currently based in Minneapolis MN, Allen can be found performing both locally and on the road behind a variety of artists from Johnny Rawls to the Twin Cities’ Jimi “Prime Time” Smith. He enjoys carrying on the tradition of teaching the younger drummers how to play the blues.                       (Photo by Sheila Dougherty)

 

Interview by Michael Limnios

 

What do you learn about yourself from the blues, what does the blues mean to you?

What I learn from the blues is that blues is a feeling. It comes in many forms. It comes at anytime and it comes in many ways. It means Patience and Dedication. It means your Heart and Soul. I have learned that the blues is a way of life.

 

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD BLUESMAN?

I don't know about being good, but a bluesman I am. None the less there are many experiences and really too many to mention, but in saying that, I guess one would be being able to play the blues with some of the greatest musicians in the world and another being able to call them my friends. A good long life that has been granted to me by God is a great experience itself. To travel the world. To spread Love and Music to the world. To meet, make friends from all Races and Colors. The feeling of being one with the audience. One of the greatest highs of them all is when thousands of people are screaming at you after you have just laid down a good show and they liked it. Experiences have been many and I hope that there are a few more left. (Ha ha).

 

How do you describe Allen Kirk sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

Now that’s kind of funny to me. Funny because my life is sound. My sound is life. The crash of a glass, the rumble of the car rolling down the road, traffic, crowd noise,  The singing of the leaves when the winds blow through them. Even the rhythm of the rain splashing against the ground. There is lots of music everywhere. My sound is all that I have heard in all my years rolled up into one. Thousands of little grooves and ditty's to make you wiggle and (or) pat your feet. Songs and grooves that have been running through my head since the day I was born. That is all part of my sound.

The progress in that I think is it's like being a Chef learning to cook. Taking all the ingredients (sounds if you may) putting them in a pot. To add a little flavor, seasoning, Mix it up real good, maybe let it sit overnight, stick it in the oven and when it's done hopefully it's a dish that will have a taste that is well received and that they may want to have more. A friend once said to me that he would love to sit in my head for one hour just to see what the hell is going on 'cause I've always got some weird bass line or chord progression that he always asks "what kind of mess you got now? “. Hey, he might have been saying I was crazy too.

My philosophy and characterizing of my music is that it's a smorgasbord; Of Blues, Gospel, Soul, R&B, Do-Wops, Funk, All World and yes I have even been accused of listening to a little (ooops) Hip-Hop and Rap. (I’m gonna pay for that dearly…). On my Cd I tried to put a little something on it for everyone. Something to make you feel like you want to pat your feet, Shake your head from side to side. Something to make you wanna jump out yo' seat and dance or just sit there and bob your head.

 

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music?

I don't think there are any "secrets" about blues music. If there are then they are still secrets to me. I have learned how to play blues from some of our forefathers and from some people you'll never know. I have had the honor of playing and learning from a great many of them before they passed, but secrets I don't know of any.

Steve Freund said to me one day.  "You know you're a good drummer, but if you could shuffle like Robert Covington I would hire you more". Well then the thing to do was to learn to shuffle. Not just shuffle, but to shuffle like Robert Covington. So I went to watch him play every Sunday at B.L.U.E.S. On Halsted for about 8 months straight. Robert kinda took me under his wing and showed me some things. He hired me to play in his band from time to time. He would play and sing on the 1st and 3rd sets and I would play the 2nd set while he stood out front. Also Sunnyland Slim would call me to replace Robert when he couldn't make it.

Drummers would sit in with Sunnyland Slim and he would say to them. "Ya' play niiice drums, but when ya' gon' play da' blues". The first time I sat with him. Sunnyland turned around to me and said "Boy! Ya' gotta niiiice thang goin' on up dar'". Was that a secret?

There are many styles of blues that I have learned, but that just comes from playing with different people. Everyone has their own style and interpretation of the blues. Listening at what’s going on around you and having eye contact with everyone is a plus. Always play dynamically. Play hard, cause people like to see you sweat. Giving all you got every night. 

I don't know. If there are any secrets, I don't think they'll tell me now. (Ha ha)

 

Which was the best moment of your career?

The best moment is still to come. There have been many great moments. The meeting and playing with Louis and Dave Meyers (on different occasions). Johnny Littlejohn, Lefty Dizz, Sunnyland Slim, Otis Rush, Otis Clay, Chi-Lites, Magic Slim and The Teardrops, Eddie "The Chief" Clearwater, Hubert Sumlin, Magic Sam when we all were getting it together on the Westside, James Solberg, James Armstrong, Johnny Rawls, Deitra Farr. The Magical moments of Mississippi Heat. Recording and releasing my own Cd. Only to name a few. There have been lot of good moments and with God's grace I hope there will be more.

Another fun moment was when I was asked to record with “The Duke Ellington Orchestra” (I snuck that in there didn’t I) with James Solberg.  Wow! I thought them to be crazy but they wanted my feel. The recordings were hot and we had a lot of fun.

 

       Carl Weathersby, Pierre Lacocque (Mississippi Heat) and Allen Kirk 

...and which was the worst?

The worst moment came early on. Back in the days of the ‘Keyman's Club’ on the Westside of Chicago. Our little singing group (I was singing background) is gonna do a show for the first time with a band. We had good players (I won't mention any names (LOL) but not much rehearsal. We were doing well but for some reason, while we were doing ‘My Girl’ (had to be right). It all fell apart at the modulation. I don't know what happened. I couldn't hear what was going on or hear any mistakes but you could see people laughing and pointing and I could see my girlfriend holding her head down in her hand. Today I still don't know what happened, but I do know that we were so ashamed that we didn't show our face in the hood for about 2 weeks. (LOL).

 

What is the “feel” you miss most nowadays from the “OLD DAYS” of Kingston Mines?

That's easy. The joy of playing while learning this game. The smiles on all the faces. The passing of the Guitars from one bad ass to another. All the "Big Boss Ladies" belting out a tune. The clinking of the glasses. The feeling of I can't wait until tomorrow to see what’s gonna happen next and to see who's gonna show up. Just the togetherness that was. 'Cause it was about the music but also we did care and we did look out for one another.

 

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?

That would have to be now. I have a joke that I say and it's "I have everything that a ‘Poor Black Man’ could want". Besides more money that is. At my age I have a lot to look back on and reflect. Born in Chicago on the Westside in '49. Never picked cotton but I been in the cotton fields. Began working at an early age delivering papers, 'cause of the big young family my single mom had. (Y'all know that story). Having only one pair of pants. Brogan's shoes with a hole in the bottom of the sole that has come apart where you can walk by a nickel and pick it up without bending over (lol). Overcoming all kinds of obstacles’. Through it all though. The wrong I may have done and maybe all good too. That I have been granted this beautiful and wonderful life on Earth and this beautiful wonderful life of music. With the release of my first Cd I am able spread it and also give love to people as they give love back. I am always trying to live a good life. To stay joyful and cheerful. Treat people right all the time and to stay loving and caring. So many of my friends didn't make it this far on their life’s journey. So far for me it's been a great ride. I'm hoping the train stays on the track and not pull into my station just little longer.

 

How has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music?

Drastically: but at the same time it's still the same. Most of the big record companies are gone but a lot of little Indie companies have come out. You used to try to get monies to get some studio time to record a single. Now you get monies to buy you own studio and chunk out albums every week. (Yep, I got mine to down in the basement.)  How about you used to try to get people to travel to your town or you would get the "Tapes" and travel across the country to their town booking studio time in hopes that you can get some good takes. Now since everyone has their own studio at home you just call 'em up and say I got some tracks I need an instrument on. They say Ok. Then I send it to them via the internet. They have it in seconds. All Mixing. All Mastering. No one ever leaves home and all the work gets done. Saving time and money. Everyone’s happy.

78 rpm records, ( I still own a few and a turntable to play them on) 45's, Lp's, 8 track's, Cassette's, Reel to Reel Tape, Cd's, and now Digital Players. Hummm. I wonder just how much has the music business changed since I started.

 

                                        Allen, Nick Holt, Steve Freund and Michael Dotson

Are there any memories across the street at B.L.U.E.S. worked with Sunnyland Slim, Bob Stroger, and Sam Burkhardt, which you’d like to share with us?

Yes. As I write this I can see myself sitting in the corner beside the stage. There every Sunday listening and watching those guys play.  I never in my right mind would have thought that I would be playing music and actually working with them. I never even dreamed it. At that time it as out of my league. For them to take me in like they did (the knucklehead that I am) was another one of those blessing's from God. 

Steve Freund: Guitarist for Sunnyland was all instrumental in me meeting and playing with The ‘Big 4 Band’. While we played in a band called ‘The Fabulous Fish heads’ together (a blues rock cover band) he was the one who got me to play more of a blues style instead of rock and funk.

Sunnyland Slim: was a soft speaking man. Moving on in his age and not talking loud. Didn't care much for loud guitars or banging drums. (I bet he was a rough house back in his day), but I knew him as a kind and gentle man and whenever he opened his mouth to speak it was history talking to me itself. I can still see him waving his left hand at me if I got too loud on the drums.

Sam Burkhardt: was and still is cool as the other side of the pillow. Always making sure that everything ran smooth and taking care of Sunnyland. Forever blowin' soft and sweet. Sam is a great friend. Sam and I still work together once a year. We do a Benefit for ‘St. Martin's Episcopal Church’ called ‘Blues in The Sanctuary’ with ‘Zora Young’ on vocals, ‘Barrelhouse Chuck’ on piano and ‘Bob Stroger’ on bass.

Bob Stroger: I call him ‘Cat Daddy’. Always smooth and a big smile on his face, bouncing from side to side and playing the bass. When you want blues bass you call the ‘Cat Daddy’. I can remember listening to him and Robert locking in on songs. So soft. So Smooth. So Mellow. To hear that was a treat. I can hear them now.

 

                                 James Wheeler, Jim Liben, Allen Kirk, and Bob Stroger

Why did you think that Chicago blues continues to generate such a devoted following?

I think because of the migration from the south and the tradition that it all brings. It’s like the ‘Jazz is New York’. The ‘Rock in California’. The ‘Hip-Hop in Atlanta’. The 'Blues in Chicago’. Honestly, I really don't know and I don't think that I am qualified to answer that question but I know that some of the greatest Bluesmen have created a sound and laid a path for all of us to follow in Chicago. They built a Foundation, if you will here in Chicago and we as the next generation try to keep it up with the tradition that we have been taught. Maybe the devoted following understands and appreciates that. Another thing. There are some great new and up and coming Bluesmen from Chicago right now that are keeping the interest up.

 

What's been their experience from “studies” with Robert Covington?

Watching Robert from my corner at B.L.U.E.S. was a lesson every time he sat behind the kit. Always poised. In a three piece suit with tie and hat. Sitting back there just as smooth as can be. Never breaking a big sweat but always laying down a groove that was straight forward and masterful.

Robert also had that 'Golden Voice". He was a great singer as well as a great drummer. As I said before, Robert would call me from time to time to play in his band. We also worked crossed the street at The ‘Kingston Mines’ in ‘Frank Pellegrino’s’ band where Robert was the featured singer on our given nights. 

Robert was also a funny man. He had lots of good jokes. Could always keep you laughing so hard you think your side is gonna split. Riding in his big car leaning to the side he was a simple and uncomplicated man. Living a good life and not worrying about to many small things. Robert in his talking and joking as well as his drumming has been a great part of my blues.


              Michael Blakemore, Danny O'Connor, Magic Slim and Allen Kirk 

Tell me a few things about your meet with Magic Slim and the Teardrops, which memory from him makes you smile?

Ha.....And you know it. Just thinking about the Magic man all together or at anytime makes me smile. No doubt about it. That man is the real deal. When I first saw Slim and his band pumpin' it up and throwin' down. I went "MY GOD. THIS SHIT IS AWESOME". I think it was Slim, Daddy Rabbit, Nick Holt and Nate Applewhite. "Lawd have mercy". Talk about blowin' your hair back....Smokin'. The Giants of the blues. Four big motor scooters up on the stage layin' some blues so strong you couldn't get through with a tank. (Ha ha LOL).

While working with Slim we worked hard every night and twice as hard on Sunday. Pumpin' the blues like a Mack Truck rollin' down the highway. Slim sittin' on his stool playing nice and cool. Laid back. Then all of a sudden the feeling hit's him. He jumps up off his stool. Screams "Ho!" then all hell breaks loose and you better watch out because him and that Jazzmaster is about to go ta' work.

One story. We were on tour early on with Michael Dotson on 2nd Guitar. Michael was playing awesome. Every show was a killer. He was kinda playing rings around Slim. It was a great tour. Slim was very happy, But one day while on our way to the last gig. Slim said "Be careful now. I can play like that too!” The last night of the tour, with Lil' Ed and his Blues Imperials and Deitra Farr. Slim takes his guitar to his room. Now he never does that.

At the show we were humpin', bumpin' and pumpin' as usual. The crowd was screamin'...And Michael’s guitar was at fever pitch. Man, that boy was hot!

But like I said. Slim sittin' on his stool. Got the feelin'.... Jumped up.....He snatch his guitar and went to playin' some Magic Slim Guitar Licks that sent the crowd into a manic frenzy...Right in the middle of some blazin' stuff he threw is guitar down.....Ran ran over to Michael and scream at him "I TOLD YOU M***** *****R to watch out". The crowd went to an even feverous pitch and we all laughed so hard that we couldn't play the song. That was a beautiful thing. Everybody loved it.

Winning a W.C. Handy Award with Slim also makes me smile. Slim took me a lot of places playin' the blues and showed me a lot of things. There is a tune on my Cd called "Ol Skool” that is put together like he taught me. He's still my favorite Ol' Man of all time.

 

                                 John Lindberg, Allen Kirk and Jimi 'Prime Time" Smith

What are some of the most memorable tales from Johnny Rawls, Deitra Farr to the Twin Cities’ Jimi “Prime Time” Smith and James Solberg?

‘Johnny Rawls the Mississippi Blues Man’. The most memorable would be the night I was introduced to him at "Brother Jimmy's" in Chicago. He came in with Deitra who was talking to him at the Blues Fest earlier that day. Deitra and Johnny got together and started writing songs and soon after we were recording. Johnny always seems to get the crowd going. They all want to get up and dance when the Mississippi Blues Man comes to town.

Jimi ’Prime Time’ Smith. The Chicago boy who was taught by Mr. 'Jimmy Reed' himself. It's really funny about Jimmy. We lived in the same Neighborhood. Played with some of the same people. At the same clubs but never did we meet until I came to Minneapolis. My first gig in Minnesota was with Jimmy. Now we have a band called 'Chicago Flavor' where we feature each other. Jimi's has a couple of Cd's out himself.

Working with Jimi's mom ‘Ms. Johnny Mae Dunston’ was an honor too. The ‘Big Boss Lady’. A song writer who wrote lots of blues tunes and she played drums for Jimmy Reed for awhile. We were recording a cd for her when she passed. We only got five tunes done but I listen to them and I smile from her memories.

James Solberg: An honor to play with James. I got to play (and still do on occasion) with one of my favorite guitarist of all time. It was 'Balls to the Walls" every night. ‘Hot Dam!’  I loved playing with James cause like Magic he truly had no fear and played like it every night. Riding around in the big bus bringing in blues that stung you hard. Blowin' hairs back wherever we went. Always liked playing with James 'cause I would get a good, good workout with him.

Now last but not lease. What can I say about Mama D. that has not been said? She is the boss and like "E.F. Hutton" when D.K. speaks............. (LOL).

Deitra took me on a long time ago and I shall be ever grateful. The teacher. She taught me her kind of blues. The soul of Deitra K. Blues from the heart and my classes are still current (ha ha). We were making music at ‘Chicago Blues’ down around the Gold Coast in Chicago.

We have traveled the World playing the blues on many occasions. In many bands. Spreading that joy in many, many places. A true confidant. An excellent friend. Someone I can call on the phone anytime. A voice that I listen to even when she thinks I'm not (ha ha). Hey, much respect. To me she is and will always be "Mama D".

 

Billy Flynn, Rodney Brown, Deitra Farr, Allen, Melvin Smith & Johnny Iguana

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

There have been some great and awesome jams. Luther Allison, Jeff Healy, Dan Akroyd, Neville Bro's, The Stones, Taylor Dane, my man Billy Branch, John Mooney, Lee Oskar, Kenny Neal, Jr. Wells, Hubert Sumlin, James Solberg, Valarie Wellington, Eric Sardinas. That's only a few and to, to many to mention.

All the gigs have been memorable. They all have a special place. (Even the worst one ha).

But how about the night, of the birth of a special version of Mississippi Heat. That should be a fond memory. The night in knowing that this was special. The band they said couldn't last because it was a band of all leaders. James Wheeler, Billy Flynn, Bob Stroger, Deitra Farr, Pierre Lacocque and Myself. We felt something on a night in Montreal that has grown into its own life form. The town of 'Sherbrook’ in Canada adopted us on our first night there. On that night we found our sound. We dubbed it our favorite City. Though I’m not in the band today. The band still moves on.

 

How do you describe your contact to people when you are on stage and what compliment do you appreciate the most after a gig?

Euphoric. When I am on the stage playing I am in a world that is hard to explain. The count. The crash of the cymbal. The ringing of the guitars. Screamin' organs. Blarin' horns. Golden Voices and Grooves so strong that they can stop wars ‘cause when the music’s goin'. There is 'No Black, No White. Just Music'. The people love the music. That's the contact. We all connect there. We all have the music and the blues. We are sharing it together.

The smiles on the faces to me are more appreciated sometimes than the applause. It is a good show of appreciation. It doesn't have to be a big smile but it's the smile you see of acknowledgement that I did a nice job. It just might be the nod of a head. For the acceptance that have been given to me by the people who appreciate what I try to do. It's sharing love at its greatest.

 

 

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us.  Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES.

I really don't know. Maybe it's because the story is so simple and true. Maybe it's the feeling and the memories of hard times. Hard times that you and I will never know anything about. Not just of the south, but of the men and women in the covered wagons. I don't think I could have lived like that. How they laid the path so that I and a lot of us can be a musician today.

The blues and blues music is a way of life. The way of life can't be a fad.

My one wish for the blues is that the young people don't forget. Learn the original version of these songs and stop thinking that Clapton and Stevie Ray wrote all the songs. Nothing against Stevie or Clapton. Just that a lot of musicians don't do their homework or know their history.  I bet ya' Clapton Knows and Stevie knew. I used to love listening to Steve Freund play the original solo's to songs, and I mean all parts especially the Sax parts. Sax parts with the guitar. Awesome. Another great Soloist from Chicago "Tony Palmer" he became the song when he played. My wish, Just Keep the Blues Alive.

 

Which things do you prefer to do in your free time? What is your “secret” DREAM? Happiness is……

In my spare time I like to do a lot of different things. Make music down in my studio. Grab the guitar crank out some lick's and some new grooves. Take walks with the wife. Cook dinner. I like to go to baseball and basketball games. I like to read even though I don't read as much as I should. Enjoying the Grandkids on occasion. Watch cowboy and action movies. Enjoy my life.

My secret dream, there isn't one. There isn't one 'cause I’m in my dream now. Happiness is what you make it.

 

Allen Kirk - Official website

 

                                                                               (Photo by Sheila Dougherty)

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