SINGING FROM THE HEART
THE KEN SLAVIN STORY
Born in New London, Connecticut, USA, in 1961, jazz and cabaret crooner Ken Slavin grew up a military brat, attending 10 schools in seven states by the time he was 17. After graduating from high school in Alaska, he settled in his father’s hometown of San Antonio, Texas, where he enrolled at St. Mary’s University, one of the most respected liberal arts institutions in the Southwest, graduating with honors in 1983.
Despite being naturally drawn to the stage and deeply in love with all kinds of music, Ken put his show business aspirations on hold for several years while he pursued a successful journalism and public relations career. He finally listened to his heart and began singing professionally in 1990 at the relatively late age of 29.
Although his smooth and intimate vocal style is often favorably compared to such legendary pop singers as Frank Sinatra, Matt Monro and Tony Bennett or noted jazz vocalist Johnny Hartman, he has steadfastly followed his own musical path and has never tried to emulate anyone. He has no formal vocal training — just an exceptional ear, a God-given voice and an innate sense of how to communicate to audiences through song.
“I choose to work in the jazz and cabaret genres because they offer me the most freedom,” he says.
Ken came of age in the 1970s and ’80s – during the height of Disco and New Wave music – but always had a secret love affair with the music of the 1930s and ’40s: the timeless jazz and pop standards of the Great American Songbook. “I was born in the wrong era,” he has often commented.
He was influenced by many classic jazz and pop singers — all of whom were famous before he was born. His “music school” was his bedroom (and sometimes the shower!), where he sang along with records by Sarah Vaughan, Nat “King” Cole, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis, Patsy Cline, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, Matt Monro, Peggy Lee, Mel Torme, Doris Day, Eydie Gorme, Bobby Darin, Jo Stafford and his longtime favorite, ’50s and ’60s pop superstar Connie Francis.
“People think I’m a little nutty because of how much I love Connie, especially my jazz friends,” he says. “But she is an incredibly gifted and talented artist with a vast repertoire, an unforgettable stage presence and a phenomenal voice. She could sing multiple styles, including jazz. And she recorded in a total of 15 languages! If that isn’t true accomplishment, I don’t know what is! To this day she is one of the top 10 best-selling female artists of all time. I believe she is sadly underrated by the music industry elite.” If you ever visit his home, he will gladly show you his collection of Connie Francis LPs and CDs — more than 100 in all – as well as dozens of memorabilia items. (In 2011 and 2012 he was invited to host four editions of “A Visit With Connie Francis” on Baltimore Net Radio and realized a lifelong dream of speaking with his favorite female singer of the golden age of American pop music. The programs he produced focused on her jazz/swing and foreign language contributions to the recording industry.)
IT ALL STARTED AT HOME
Ken’s earliest musical memories include dancing with his mother every weekday afternoon in the early 1960s to the hits played by Dick Clark on “American Bandstand” and singing songs like “You Are My Sunshine” with his mother and little brother in the living room while his father played the alto saxophone. His parents also had an eclectic record collection, boasting such artists as Ray Charles, Floyd Cramer, Little Richard and The Drifters. “I would even dance with my baby sister when she was barely out of the crib!” he chuckles.
During his years in Catholic grade schools, he sang with the choir. (“Everyone had to!” he laughs.) On frequent family vacations in his father’s hometown of San Antonio, he was exposed to classic country music by the likes of Tammy Wynette, Hank Williams and Jim Reeves. And, at the age of 13, he took up the clarinet in the junior high school band and his father introduced him to the great music of the Big Band Era. (It was about this time that Ken discovered that his paternal grandfather, the late Albert Slavin, was an accomplished alto saxophonist and had been a San Antonio bandleader in the 1920s and 1930s.) He also spent years collecting and listening to classic pop and rock ‘n’ roll records from the 1950s and early 1960s. He even went through a disco phase in high school which culminated in a summer job teaching ballroom dancing at Fred Astaire Dance Studio.
“My musical tastes were — and are — pretty much all over the map. I think they somehow coalesced into my own personal style,” he recalls. He gave up the clarinet in high school to follow what he believed (at the time) were “more serious educational pursuits” and eventually graduated at the top of his class, earning five scholarships to help pay for college. At St. Mary’s University, where he was editor of the school newspaper and yearbook and a member of the Lambda Chi Alpha Fraternity, Ken joined The Shoestring Players, eventually starring in several productions — although he never landed a singing lead. He took to the stage like a fish takes to water. But he never thought he would pursue an entertainment career after graduation.
“It didn’t seem practical. And I was terribly shy about singing. Despite being encouraged by my parents and friends to do ‘something’ with my voice, I was also a very serious student. I dismissed any thoughts of going into show business and focused on a communications career. I thought I would become a journalist or a teacher.”
Earning a bachelor’s degree cum laude in English-Communication Arts and winning a student journalism award from the American Newspaper Publishers Association, his first job was as a reporter at the now-defunct San Antonio Light. After a year, he tried his hand at public relations and found that he had a natural talent for it. Over time, he also dabbled in radio news reporting and anchoring, as well as travel writing. But despite success in the communications field, he always felt that something was missing.
“I was miserable. Strangely, despite trying many different approaches to my communications career, I was afraid to take a chance with my singing voice. Therefore, I had no artistic outlet for several years. It was an unhappy time in my life,” he recalls.
HIS FIRST BREAK
Then fate stepped in. In early 1989 he met bassist George Prado, leader of the Regency Jazz Band at Dick’s Last Resort on the San Antonio River Walk (“I became somewhat of a groupie!”) and after listening and getting to know him and his band over several months, eventually mustered up the courage to ask if he could sing a song with them. George agreed, letting Ken sing “Mack the Knife.” Encouraged by a very warm audience reaction, Ken sat in with George’s band for about a year, strictly as a guest. Then on Valentine’s Day 1990, George hired him to sub for the band’s lead singer. The rest, as they say, is history.
Since his professional debut more than 20 years ago, he has made up for lost time by working everywhere possible – as much as possible – memorizing hundreds of songs, partnering with veteran players, studying the vocal techniques of his favorite singers — and taking as many musical chances as he can. He believes that being “older than average” created a sense of “now or never” and jump-started his suppressed desire to sing. As a result, he has become one of San Antonio’s and South Texas’s most popular and respected entertainers. And, with the explosion of the Internet and social media, he has earned devoted fans all over the world. “I am happier now than I have ever been — singing is my one real joy,” Ken says.
His unique style, something he calls “jazz crooning,” incorporates the best qualities of traditional pop and jazz vocal performance. He has honed his craft by learning “on the job” with many of San Antonio’s most seasoned jazz bands including the Regency Jazz Band and Small World – playing everywhere from hamburger joints and church socials to concert halls and the Alamodome. He also has played in Dallas, Houston, Austin and on the Texas Gulf Coast. Not long ago he ventured to Anchorage, Alaska and Mexico City for performances.
Ken has worked with the city’s most accomplished jazz musicians, including his first mentor George Prado, jazz guitarist Polly Harrison, her husband Hank (of theTennessee Valley Authority), drummer and vocalist Kyle Keener, the late piano legend Joe Piscatelle, pianist Morris Nelms, pianist John Sheridan (currently with the Jim Cullum Jazz Band and internationally known in his own right) and drummer Eddie Torres (formerly of the Jim Cullum Jazz Band), sax player Morgan King, pianist Andy Langham, bassist Chuck Moses, trumpet master and Grammy Award winner Al Gomez, jazz violin legend Sebastian Campesi, drummer Kevin Hess and the hipper-than-hip Jazz Protagonists, led by pianist Barry Brake — just to name a few!
Jim Beal, arts writer for the San Antonio Express-News, says Ken “has no peers” and that he is “quite possibly the city’s top saloon singer” because of his intimate approach to his craft. National and international reviewers have also been full of praise:
“Slavin is blessed with a haunting, broken-hearted baritone that reaches beneath the skin, crawling its way into the deepest recesses of your soul.” (SHOTGUN REVIEWS)
“His voice is stunning . . . Brimming with passion and soul, Slavin is not trying to sing like it’s 1940; he simply sings, letting the emotional weight of every word, either lovelorn laments or unrestrained giddiness, leap from his silky throat.” (ADAM HARRINGTON, BASED IN THE U.K.)
“During an era when male jazz singers are few and far between, a new recording by Ken Slavin is a welcome event. . . Slavin loves to sing songs written long before he was born, standards from the 1930s through the 50s. Based in San Antonio, he (has) become established as arguably the city’s top jazz crooner or saloon singer.” (SCOTT YANOW, LOS ANGELES JAZZ SCENE.)
In addition to many long-running gigs at local hotels and nightspots, Ken has appeared at most major concert venues in the city, including the historic Charline McCombs Empire Theatre, the Majestic Theatre, the Carver Cultural Center, the Ruth Taylor Concert Hall at Trinity University, the Josephine Theater and the Church Bistro & Theatre at King William. He also has enjoyed success in Austin, billed as “The Music Capital of Texas,” where he headlines several times a month at the swanky III Forks Restaurant and Lounge in the heart of the trendy Second Street District.
He has appeared eight times at the city’s nationally renowned jazz festival,”Jazz’SAlive” at Travis Park (including three main stage appearances), and he has played many other notable outdoor events, including “Concert Under the Stars” at the San Antonio Botanical Gardens, “Sunday Jazz at the Witte Museum” “Jazz at the McNay” “The San Antonio Art & Jazz Festival” and the Fiesta Oyster Bake at St. Mary’s University. Ken has opened for jazz legends The Four Freshmen, David Sanborn, Chico Hamilton, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Eddie Palmieri and pop legends The Platters, and many other famous musical acts. He also has given private performances for Grammy Award-winning recording stars Vikki Carr and Helen Reddy. Through the years, he has met and talked with some of his singing idols, including jazz and blues crooner Joe Williams and contemporary jazz vocalist Kurt Elling, as well as the late great Bobby Short, the renowned cabaret star.
Local charities and non-profit organizations often enlist his talents for fundraising events, including the American Heart Association, the Leukemia Society, the USO, the Rotary Club, the San Antonio Public Library Foundation, the Children’s Bereavement Center, the Muscular Dystrophy Association, Any Baby Can and the YMCA. He also has entertained thousands from floats on the San Antonio River Walk during the nationally televised Fiesta River Parade and the Christmas River Parade. He appears regularly on local TV and radio programs and for the past decade and a half has starred on the annual “Wrappin’ With Jack” Christmas special hosted by Jack Riccardi on radio station 550 KTSA in San Antonio.
Over the years, Ken has starred in many self-produced concerts (including a six-year series benefiting the San Antonio AIDS Foundation) and is in strong demand for galas, private parties, wedding receptions and other special events.
Ken’s CDs are included on numerous radio play lists, including Trinity University’s 91.7 KRTU-FM and San Antonio College’s KSYM-FM, and can be heard on select jazz stations around the country. He has produced and released four critically acclaimed albums: Fascinatin’ Rhythm in 1992; Tender is the Night in 1996 (which raised thousands of dollars for the San Antonio AIDS Foundation); The Song is You in 2001 and I’ll Take Romance in 2007. His version of “Mack the Knife,” recorded in 1992 and with which he regularly ends live performances, is featured in a 36-track, two-CD set, Música San Antonio, produced by the San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau to market the Alamo City’s eclectic music scene around the world.
While he loves his adopted home town of San Antonio, he hopes that continued hard work, practice and seasoning will help him to eventually spread his musical wings beyond the Alamo City. He still contemplates going on the road one day, landing gigs on the two coasts and in Europe. “I want to keep growing as a singer — and see where it will take me,” he says.