Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
Through sheer will, talent, and marketing savvy, Ken Slavin at age 28 turned himself into a popular jazz and pop crooner. He’s always loved to sing.
“I went to Catholic schools and they put you in the choir whether you can sing or not,” he said. In his youth he bought old records to emulate, but he didn’t sing in front of people.
That changed when bass player George Prado asked him to stand in for a singer at Dick’s Last Resort in 1990; Slavin accepted, and asked if he could get paid by teaching him about the entertainment business.
That led to an S.R.O. cassette release party at Chris Madrid’s, to performances in Texas, Mexico, and New York. He has become one of the most sought-after singers in south Texas, releasing five CDs and opening for or singing with the likes of Dee Dee Bridgewater, The Four Freshmen, David Sanborn, Gerry Gibbs, Richie Cole, and Eddie Palmieri.
Despite heart problems requiring stent implants in 2013, Slavin’s double career in music and public relations have soared in the last several years. His favorite pop star, Connie Francis, gave him a 14-karat gold ID bracelet engraved, “Love, Connie.” He performed to packed houses around town, including the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts and the Metropolitan Room in New York. Audiences love how his mellow style shapes the smooth baritone stylings they compare to a young Sinatra, Mel Tormé, and Johnny Hartman. One reviewer dubbed him “Mr. Tuxedo Voice.”
“The last few years have been incredible,” he said, “but it came to a grinding halt at the beginning of the year.”
Boardwalk Bistro, where he often performed, closed in 2016, and he had to suspend 10 years of gigging at an Austin restaurant, Three Forks, because he didn’t have the energy. In January, his mother had a stroke and discovered she had cancer, and Slavin developed GI problems. And the phone wasn’t ringing anyway.
“I’ve sung four times in 2017 when I usually perform at least six times a month,” he continued. “Mom, my health, long hours at work, and no gigs had me very down in the dumps and feeling like my singing career was over.”
His PR work for the San Antonio AIDS Foundation is gratifying, but his life’s passion is singing.
“I’m happy to sing to even one person,” he said.
So when the musician/fan website ReverbNation, host to 3.8 million users, contacted him just after Easter, he was stunned: his version of George and Ira Gershwin’s “Embraceable You” had hit No. 1 in the San Antonio region. The track was No. 15 nationally, and No. 19 globally on its Jazz Chart.
“What’s going on?” he promptly asked his 5,000 Facebook friends. “I recorded that song 16 years ago! I have never had these numbers before!”
“What I couldn’t believe is you’re 695 in the U.S. or you’re No. 1,200 globally and suddenly you’re No. 15 in the U.S.?” Slavin said as he was driving home from a private gig near Austin.”I couldn’t believe it. At first I thought it had gone up 15 notches, not to No. 15.”
Thanks to websites like ReverbNation, he explained, musicians of all genres who aren’t represented by recording labels now can be heard all around the world. Fans download his music in Japan, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Europe, South America, and the Middle East.
“I think people just surf around looking for music they like,” he said. “I get notes on ReverbNation from fans saying, ‘Do you ever come to Boston? Do you ever come to London?’ It makes you feel great.”
He also is on Apple, Spotify, CD Baby, and a few others, but isn’t getting rich off them.
“With Spotify it’s something like .03 cents per play,” he said.
He thinks the spike in his rating – which is improving daily – must be connected to another piece of good news. The Manhattan restaurant and cabaret don’t tell mama has engaged Slavin to perform on June 9 and 10 – the nights before the Tony Awards are announced a few blocks away. Slavin has aspired to perform in this ground zero for Broadway performers, from chorus girls to Liza Minelli, and he posted the gig on social media. Accompanying him in the larger of two cabarets will be jazz pianist Barry Brake, a frequent performer around San Antonio and member of The Jazz Protagonists, and a bass player.
Slavin had submitted a video of one of his performances at The Metropolitan Room, also in Manhattan, where he performed so successfully that he got a standing invitation to return.
“I had people tuning in from all over the world and posting comments in real time,” he said. “Lots of San Antonians tuned in, but so did people from Europe, Asia, and elsewhere. The engineer of Embraceable You watched from Macedonia, where he has retired. So with each passing year and each new show, I seek out new audiences via the internet. I’m still in wonderment how the music industry has changed.”
Slavin continues to have his heart monitored, and he’s had to change his diet, with one exception, appropriate to a performer Texas Monthly has called part of the Swing Set: “I’m not supposed to drink, but I won’t give up martinis,” he said.
“It’s been a rough couple of years but I’m feeling better,” he reflected. “Music always makes me feel better. And the new things happening – I’m just delighting in it and totally loving it.”
Slavin’s next local performance is The Ken Slavin Show! on Wednesday, May 10 at 8 p.m., at Sam’s Burger Joint, 330 E. Grayson St. Barry Brake will accompany him on keyboard, Chuck Moses on bass, Darren Kuper on drums, and Joe Caploe on vibes.