Marco Islanders were doubtlessly surprised when they tuned in to NBC’s “The Voice” on Monday, October 26, to see local favorite Ben Allen steal the show on his Blind Audition by turning the chairs of Blake Shelton, Gwen Stefani and John Legend. Allen lured Shelton into turning just four seconds into his song, then tried to coax Kelly Clarkson into being the fourth judge to turn after Stefani and Legend had joined Shelton.
So, how did Allen feel when he turned Blake Shelton’s chair just as he began his rendition of Brooks and Dunn’s Red Dirt Road?
“Very surreal,” Ben Allen said with a hearty laugh. “You almost feel you’re watching it while floating above yourself, watching it happen. You’re monitoring everything. You’re monitoring yourself down there singing and playing guitar. You’re monitoring Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani and these other celebrities. It was a strange moment. You’re so jubilant, but at the same time, you have to keep singing the song. It’s hard to not have a million emotions at once going on. It’s something I’ll never forget.”
Allen is very familiar with Marco Island and Goodland residents. Tony DeLucia, formerly of the Marco YMCA, and Steve Gober, owner of Stan’s on Goodland, have worked with Allen for years.
“Somebody told me he was going to be on ‘The Voice,’” Tony DeLucia said. “So we watched it and I was like, ‘Oh man, how ‘bout that, huh!’ He turned three chairs, went on Blake Shelton’s team. As soon as he opened his mouth, Blake Shelton turned his chair around. I booked Ben Allen for the Chili Cook-Off and Taste of Marco for 2 or 3 years, the Seafood Festival for 4 or 5 years. I’m happy!”
Allen worked his way onto Stan’s Sunday stage and stayed there for 5 years.
“We watched it last Monday when he was on,” Steve Gober said. “So yeah, we wish Ben the best. He was always good to us and we were good to him.”
Allen felt confident going into the Blind Auditions. “Going into the Blind Auditions, I felt like I had prepared as much as I possibly could have for the moment. I don’t want to say that I expected to have chairs turn, but at the same time, you want to own the moment and tell yourself you’re good enough to make this happen. Any time you walk on stage, you need a certain amount of confidence, balanced with humility, if that makes sense. You just try to balance all these emotions and go out there and do the best that you can. I had a feeling that I would be able to get a chair turned, but you never know until it happens,” he said with a laugh.
It didn’t take long after Shelton turned his chair that Stefani and Legend followed suit.
“Then you see the other couple of chairs turn,” Allen recalled. “And you’re like, ‘Oh, wow, this is really happening. This is the real deal. This is the culmination of what I’ve been working for.’ You just almost explode inside in that moment. And then, even though it’s only 90 seconds, in certain ways it feels like it’s going on for a long time. It felt like I spent the whole rest of the performance singing to the back of Kelly Clarkson’s chair. Just willing her to turn her chair around.”
Allen made a coaxing gesture with his hand in Clarkson’s direction as he continued to sing.
“That was totally just in the spur of the moment, just trying to prod her along mentally, just being like ‘Come on, you can do it,” he said in his most persuasive voice.
Analysts figure Clarkson didn’t turn around because she knew she had no chance to lure Allen onto her team, given Shelton’s quick turn around and his success with country acts.
“That’s kind of what she alluded to on the show when she was making her comments,” Allen said. “She said, ‘That cowboy down at the end turned so fast, and I heard your voice and you sound very much like Ronnie Dunn from Brooks and Dunn, and I kind of saw the writing on the wall.’”
Regardless of the reason, Allen would have loved to have turned Clarkson around.
“I can’t lie,” Allen admitted. “It would have been wonderful for her to turn. But at the same time, I have to say, I feel there’s a certain pressure that comes with all four chairs turning around. Because they kind of build that into a big thing on the show. Like there’s a certain prestige level that goes with that. So, in the next round there’s a pressure that goes along with that. You have to live up to that. In certain ways I think three might be better than four. Maybe I’m just telling myself that,” he laughed.
Allen comes across as very happy and confident as the last round of Blind Auditions are about to begin.
“Tonight is the last episode of the blind auditions,” he said “Now that I’ve already succeeded at the Blind Audition level, I’ll be going on to the Battle Round. It’s basically a duet. Blake Shelton paired me up with another contestant and we worked on it together. You are battling these folks to stay on the show. But at the same time, you become good friends with the person you’re battling with, because you have something in common. It’s such a strange thing because you want to see your new friend succeed as much as you want to succeed. However, I think every battle that goes on is bittersweet for both contestants, no matter how it goes. One stays and one might not.”
When we talked on Monday, Allen had already competed in the Battle Round, but was not at liberty to say how things went.
“That is actually pre-recorded,” he said. “So the Battle Round has already been recorded and is ready to air. That’s a done deal on that. Anything that hasn’t aired on television stays in the dark for the moment.”
So, you may wonder what’s happening behind the scenes with Ben Allen?
“I’m home in Southwest Florida at this point,” he said. “I work for a living during the day. I’m back on my regular day job at the moment,” he chuckles as he thinks of his current work life. “I work for Collier County and have been for 11 years. I’m a construction inspector.”
It’s been a challenge to get work done with all the notoriety he’s receiving.
“The reaction has been very large and very positive, as you can imagine,” Allen said. “I spent my first couple days back on the job being a goodwill ambassador. There were so many people wanting to know what went on that it was hard to get much work down for a while.”
Allen, who’s a modest man, has been totally humbled by the feedback he’s receiving.
“All of Southwest Florida,” he said, “I knew there would be support that would come out, but it has been overwhelming the level of support, both locally and nationally at this point. My phone just never, never, stops going. It’s just constantly messages from one source of social media or another, or the phone just ringing off the hook.”
The sudden fame has its pluses and minuses—but mostly pluses.
“It’s very fun to have that kind of interest coming your way,” Allen reflects. “At the same time, it’s like trying to drink from a water hose—it kind of splashes all over! I mean I’ve been a musician in Southwest Florida for quite a while. We built a good following and a good fan base. So that is like a launching pad for that to ignite. It’s just been awesome so far.”
Allen moved to Estero from a suburb of Nashville. Ironically, he had no interaction with country music despite his proximity to the country music mecca. It took a move to Southwest Florida to ignite Allen’s passion for musical performance.
“I lived just outside of Nashville in a suburb just north of there,” he said. “Was not in music in any capacity. I moved to Southwest Florida in 2009. It took moving down here, that was really the catalyst for me. If I had stayed up there, I don’t think I would have ever picked up a guitar and done anything with it. All my buddies were back in Tennessee. I get to Florida and I get a guitar out of the closet that’s been in there since I was a teenager. I didn’t know how to play it. I knew three or four basic chords on that guitar, that was the extent of it. I just picked it up and started learning to play it. But I’ve never had a guitar lesson in my life. To this day I’ve never had a lesson. I just started working on learning to play the thing a little bit. I thought it would be the coolest thing to be able to sing a song and play the guitar along with it and get all the way through it. So, I learned to do that at a very basic, rudimentary level.”
An advertisement for an Open Mic Night got Allen started on his road to “The Voice.”
“I saw an ad for an Open Mic Night,” Allen recalled. “I thought, ‘Who in the world goes to an Open Mic Night?’ I never really even thought of such a thing. I went and checked it out. There were only three people signed up for it. It was a flop. It didn’t go over well,” he laughed. “That contributed, ultimately, because the guy who was running it kept coming over to me and saying, ‘You’re the only one watching. The other three have already sang. Do you play?’ I said, ‘A little.’ He said, ‘Here.’ He basically forced his guitar into my hand. So I got up and did it. I wasn’t planning to. I basically got forced into it. Which is exactly what I needed. I did a couple of songs. Was very timid. I couldn’t stand up and play the guitar at the same time. I had to sit down. It sounds funny, but that’s what it’s like when you’re learning to play. If you’re sitting down learning to play, and all of a sudden you put a strap on your guitar and try to stand up, the position changes and the muscles in your hand don’t want to work right. The muscle memory just isn’t there yet. It was like that for me. And it scared me to death.
“It was a scary moment,” Allen said of his first time performing in front of strangers. “And it was so thrilling; the fear of it. You get up and sing a song in front of people and you’re inviting people to pass judgment on you. And to do it openly. You can look at people in a room and you know what they think of you when you’re doing that. And not only that, they’ll come and tell you. There’s no net in doing this. And I think that’s one of the things that I love about it the absolute most. You have the opportunity to succeed or to fall flat on your face every time you take the stage. That makes it new and thrilling every time you do it.”
Allen quickly progressed by hitting the Open Mic Night circuit. “I started to go to several Open Mic Nights. It lit a fire under me to learn more songs. I’d work all day and at night, I’d be at home just trying to learn a song, trying to learn a song, trying to learn a song. Playing a basic version of it and singing to it. So I went to another Open Mic in Naples a couple months into it. Still extremely green. Still having to sit down to play. Had only learned maybe five or six songs, tops. All cover songs. I played at an Open Mic at a place I never did. Afterward, the owner came over and said, ‘We need somebody on Thursday nights, would you like a job?’
“It had never occurred to me that I could actually earn money doing this. I thought she wanted me to wash dishes. I couldn’t get my mind around it. She said, ‘Look, we don’t have any entertainment right now on Thursday nights.’ She wanted me to come in and play music every Thursday night. I thought, ‘Okay, I don’t have a P.A. system, I don’t know how to play the guitar and stand up at the same time—literally. And I have about five, maybe six songs that I can get through right now. And she wants three hours every Thursday.’ I said, ‘Okay.’
“I called a friend who was already gigging and had the ability to help me with this. I said, ‘Hey, man. Do you want to split a gig at this place every Thursday night?’ He said, ‘Yeah!’ So there we went. For the next year solid we played every Thursday night for three hours. Next thing you know we’re playing three times a week for the next 14 months. Then I put a band together and it’s been busy, busy ever since.”
Tony DeLucia has booked a lot of acts in his nearly 40 years in the business. He enjoyed watching the Ben Allen Band climb the ladder to success.
“His rate was like normal compared to the other guys,” DeLucia recalled, “but it kept going up and up and up year-after-year because he got more in demand and more well known. The Seafood Festival was the first time we started talking. He played the Seafood Festival for me for several years. He was booked this year, but, of course, we had to cancel it.”
“That is the truth of it,” Allen laughed. “People sometimes think you book gigs on talent, or how good you sound. What your history is or whatever. None of that is exactly it. You book gigs and how much money you get based on how many dollars you’re going to bring to the venue for that night. When you’re bringing a nice, large crowd, that helps you be able to pay your band more. To keep good quality band members. So many bands come together and they might play a few shows, then they fall apart. They just don’t have any longevity. Being able to draw a good crowd every time, and being able to run it like a business, gives you longevity.”
Allen’s professionalism also made him a popular act on the island.
“I’ve known him 6 or 7 years at least,” DeLucia said. He’s well respected. Has a great following. He’s gone from just a local act to a regional act. And maybe by himself he’ll become a national act. Very professional from my first dealings with him. Very agreeable, very approachable, very down to earth. He didn’t think he was Garth Brooks or anything.”
“Locals would come and see him,” Gober recalled. “We get big crowds with other bands, too, but he did have a big following. I think it’s great. Maybe that’s a dream of his to go further. I think it’s great. Being that he played at Stan’s and everything. I think he played 4 or 5 years here. Ben always did a good job for us. And always brought a good crowd.”
Allen has good memories of playing on Marco Island. He is especially fond of his days of playing Sundays at Stan’s.
“I’ve had some great times on Marco Island playing,” Allen said. “The number one thing that stands out, of course, you can imagine, is playing at Stan’s. Stan’s is such a fixture for so many years, out there on Goodland. We have over time, on Sunday afternoons in Goodland, we became the band that has the best draw of any band that plays there. Stan’s on a Sunday afternoon in season with us down there, it’s such a festive atmosphere. It’s like the moment you walk on a cruise ship, that first moment when you cross over that bridge onto the cruise ship. ‘Okay, the party is on.’ That’s how it feels when we’re down there at Stan’s. It’s like people are here to let loose and have a good time and enjoy the sunshine. All these Snowbirds, their sole mission for the next few hours is to have a blast. To get to be at the epicenter of that truly is a gift. We’ve done the Marco Island Seafood Festival several times. We were scheduled for that this year. I’ve done a lot of private gigs at hotels down there on the beach.
“It’s hard to beat Stan’s on a Sunday afternoon. It’s a tough job. We usually end up doing five and a half hours on stage. I mean for musicians, national performers who tour as a headline, as an opening act you hope to get 45 minutes—it’s usually 30 minutes. As a headliner, you usually do about 75 minutes. Then move to the next city and do it again. You go to Stan’s and do five and a half hours. That’s a lot of music.”
Many great bands have honed their style by playing long gigs that require a large repertoire.
“That’s totally true,” Allen said. “Those days like that, they demand things of you that you can never demand of yourself in the rehearsal space. If you get with your band in the rehearsal room, you just can’t pull out 65 songs in one rehearsal session. That’s something you have to do in a day like that. And truthfully, it’s a challenge to be able to play that many songs—and to play them at an entertaining level, where it’s not thrown-together songs. That’s something that took a long time to get there.”
DeLucia, who has booked country acts from Garth Brooks to Crystal Gayle, thinks Ben Allen could become a star.
“A late in life discovered talent,” DeLucia calls Allen, who is 41. “I think he’s going to go far; with the personality and the voice he has. He’s a natural. I see him, if he doesn’t win ‘The Voice,’ but finishes pretty high up there, he’s still got the connections now, in Nashville, with Blake Shelton. He might start as a second or third–tier touring act with somebody big. Get to be known, then all of a sudden people will discover him more and more on a national level. And ‘The Voice’ has already given him that stage.”
Gober sees Allen’s talent, too. He watched The Ben Allen Band grow on his stage at Stan’s.
“They were always very professional and did what they were supposed to do,” Gober said. “I kind of knew as time went on that Ben might not be playing at Stan’s all the time anymore. Because I knew that he had a good voice and that he might get an opportunity down the road and that we wouldn’t be able to keep Ben there with his popularity rising like it did. So I kind of said to myself last year that this might be the last time that Ben plays at Stan’s for a while, because their band really got a lot better. And he learned a lot of songs. So I kind of had a feeling that we were short-lived with Ben.”
Allen has pondered what his future holds as he tries to advance on “The Voice.”
“I think the future is yet to be seen, of course,” he reasons. “That is, I would say my goal, it lands somewhere on the target—that DeLucia described. Not necessarily that I want to hit the bullseye of being a big huge star and traveling all the time. Of course, aspects of that would be wonderful. At the same time, I’m not 23 years old and trying to make it in Nashville. If you don’t have roots, you can get on a tour bus and spend 18 months on the road. When you do have roots, when the tour bus pulls out of the parking lot, all of your roots get pulled out of the ground. That’s not really going to work for me, to be honest. Where I land is going to have to be somewhere in the middle, where I can maintain my daily life, somewhat, with my family. I would love to be out nationally making the rounds. And it is most definitely on my bucket list to make at least one good record. So when it’s all said and done I can say, ‘I did that.’ That’s something that I need inside of me to be able to say I’ve done. That’s coming, for sure. I’d love to be a big star, but at the same time, I love what I do in Southwest Florida. If this is as big as I ever get, I’m still super-proud of that. Totally.
“I auditioned for ‘The Voice’ a couple of times. The first time was really early on. Before I ever had my band. I found myself in a room with the people who make the decisions about things. The truth of it is, I didn’t realize it then, but I do now, I had no business being in that room at that moment. I was not prepared for that moment. I didn’t know it then, but I know it now.
“If I had made it past that point, at that moment, there’s no way I would have ended up making it. I wasn’t anywhere near the point of being on the program. I don’t think I would have ever got to the point of being on the show at that point. I just wasn’t up to par. So I went back and worked on my craft a while.”
While he was working on his craft, Allen happened upon an important phone number on his cellphone.
“Basically, I just happened to run across a contact on my phone,” he said as he recalled the fateful moment. “It was a contact for one of the people on the show. It was on my mind that I really should try that again. But it wasn’t something I was like totally focused on at the moment. When I saw the guy’s phone number I thought, ‘You know what, I’m going to call him.’ And I called him on the spot. Just randomly. ‘I’m going to ring his phone. See what happens.’ I thought, ’The guy probably doesn’t work there anymore. But if he does, there’s no way he’s going to answer the phone. So I’ll leave a voicemail, and he won’t call me back. And that will be that.’
“Turns out he did still work there. He did answer the phone. He did remember me. Because I had auditioned 2, maybe 3 years ago. He said, ‘I know exactly who you are. You were very close. I believed in you then and I believe in you now. Where can you come to audition? We’re doing it right now.’ I didn’t even know auditions were going on then. Four days later, I flew to North Carolina and auditioned. Then you turn around a couple times and all of a sudden, you’re standing there looking at the back of those red chairs,” he said with an obvious sense of wonderment.
While listening to Allen speak after his performance on “The Voice,” Shelton thought Allen said he was from Sterile, Florida.
“You know, it’s funny,” Allen said. “I have quite an accent, I know. But for Blake, dadgummit, he ought to be able to understand my accent pretty good. But it’s funny, I thought, going into that moment, ‘Remember, try to annunciate your words really good because people aren’t going to be able to understand you.’ But then you get excited. In my mind, I said Estero very clearly. But apparently it didn’t sound that way to everybody else’s ears.”
Allen has a great support team with his wife Laura and their 12-year-old son.
“I’ve got great support from my wife,” he shared. “She’s there with me every step of the way. She doesn’t seek the attention of people, but she’s putting up with it, for sure. She’s wonderful at being there with me through the process. To have somebody by your side to go through something like this, and to experience it at that level, makes it so much more enjoyable. You’ve got somebody there to see the whole thing and get an idea of what it all feels like. Having her to share it with makes it better.
“I have a 12-year-old son. He’s always known dad as somebody who plays music. For him, it’s like the normal thing. I’m like, ‘Kiddo, you realize this is in front of millions of people.’ He’s like, ‘Oh yeah, you’ve been doing this all along.’ In his mind, it’s the norm. But in actuality, it’s not the norm. It’s definitely awesome to have this Blind Audition. It’s something he will be able to look back on his whole life. And have that moment of something his dad did that was cool.”
Blake Shelton appears to have a real interest in Allen.
“Well, so far he’s just hit me on Twitter a couple of times about stuff. But that would sure be nice—if he took a personal interest in Allen’s career—wouldn’t it?
Allen rarely plays songs he’s written, but that’s mainly because of the type of show he does.
“I do write a lot of my own songs,” Allen said. “I don’t typically play a lot of my own music up to this point. Because doing what I do, people want to keep dancing, they want to keep the party rolling, and they want to listen to songs they know. When the timing is right, I have originals I can pull out of the closet and play for them if I can catch people listening and paying attention. I can hit them with the lyrics. There’s a few of ‘em hiding around in the bushes waiting to come out.”
Allen and his wife have considered the problems that fame can bring to their lives.
“We’re both of the mindset of ‘let’s keep our fingers crossed and see where it goes,’ he said. “We feel like there will be problems that will come along with that, but they would be good problems to have. It will be challenging, but I love a challenge.”
Allen is counting on Southwest Florida’s support—especially if he makes it to the portion of the program when audience voting begins. But he urges Southwest Floridians to sign up for the official Voice App now.
“The hope is always that we will be able to make it to the rounds where America is voting,” he said hopefully. “Regardless of that, the first thing for people to do is to put the official Voice App on their phones. I can be added to their team, right now, at this minute. That’s a great way that people can help, if they’re interested in helping. If I make it to the voting rounds, that’s the easiest way to vote. People can vote by text or phone, there are different ways. If I’m lucky enough to make it to that point, it will be the votes that carry me on to whatever comes after that. Either people vote or I’m done. I’d just encourage people to be ready for that. And to keep their fingers crossed for me, that I will be able to get that far. And to follow us on social media at benallenband across all social media platforms. The more exposure I get there, as well, the better it will be for me.”