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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Leon Redbone--An appreciation

Leon Redbone on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show"

Leon Redbone managed to maintain his aura of mystery even as the renowned repository of great forgotten American songs and other antiquity shuffled off his mortal coil.

“It is with heavy hearts we announce that early this morning, May 30th, 2019, Leon Redbone crossed the delta for that beautiful shore at the age of 127,” read the post on his website Thursday.

“He departed our world with his guitar, his trusty companion Rover, and a simple tip of his hat. He's interested to see what Blind Blake, Emmett [1920s minstrel show performer Emmett Miller], and Jelly Roll have been up to in his absence, and has plans for a rousing sing along number with [late Hungarian operatic soprano] Sári Barabás. An eternity of pouring through texts in the Library of Ashurbanipal [King of the Neo-Assyrian Empire from 668 BC to c. 627 BC] will be a welcome repose, perhaps followed by a shot or two of whiskey with [1920s-‘30s jazz and blues singer] Lee Morse, and some long overdue discussions with his favorite Uncle, Suppiluliuma I of the Hittites [c. 1344–1322 BC]. To his fans, friends, and loving family who have already been missing him so in this realm he says, ‘Oh behave yourselves. Thank you.... and good evening everybody.’”

The singular pre-World War II ragtime, jazz, country, blues and vaudeville stylist was known for his “obscurantist tendencies,” as Andrew Flanagan wrote on NPR’s website, also citing his signature “masking uniform” of white suit, string tie, sunglasses, bushy mustache and Panama hat, all of which gave him “the aura of a quixotic time-traveler, someone who simply stepped onto the stage fully formed.”

Indeed, Redbone seemed to step out, fully formed, from the 1970s Toronto folk scene: In the 1980s the Toronto Star reported that he was a Cypriot named Dickran Gobalian, who came to Ontario in the ‘60s and changed his name. Then in its first year (1975-76), Redbone became the first performing artist to appear twice in the same season of Saturday Night Live. It was in 1975 that he signed with Warner Bros. Records.

“Truth is, nobody really knew what to do with Leon,” says Ron Goldstein, then general manager at the label. “We had Randy Newman, Ry Cooder and Van Dyke Parks, but he wasn’t part of that group, since his musical references went back even further, to the 1920s, and had very minimal crossover potential. So nobody knew what to do, but I absolutely loved him, and lo and behold, Saturday Night Live happened, and within hours we were selling thousands of records. Boom!”

Goldstein later signed Redbone when he headed BMG-distributed indie label Private Music.

“We had an album that was selling quite well, but not in Europe,” recalls Goldstein. “So we went to see BMG’s head of international, who asked where we were having the most problems. Beryl [Redbone’s wife and producer Beryl Handler] said that when Leon played in Germany, they couldn’t find any records there. So he turned to Leon and asked how many of his records they should be selling in Germany, and after a long pause Leon said, ‘What’s the population of Germany?’ They were dear and quirky and I loved them to death.”

Johnny Carson also loved Redbone, Goldstein notes.

“He loved talking to him and always brought him over to the couch after he performed on the show. One time he held up a CD we’d just put out and asked Leon how many we sold, and Leon said, ‘I just got a printout that said zero!’ What happened was that it was for his royalties, so we sent a letter to Carson saying that we’d sold 60,000 units—and please continue to hold it up!”

But Redbone, continues Goldstein, “was much more talented than he ever got credit for.”

“He was a great entertainer. He was fun—doing shadow stuff with his hands making birds and things. He had his look and everything else, but he was really, really talented—and an incredible historian.”

And he stayed true to his original deep pre-1950s historical pop music focus. A year prior to his 2015 retirement from touring due to health concerns, he released his last new studio album, Flying By—his first since Any Time in 2001. “Things take time,” he said of the long time between, adding, in his trademark laconic manner, “I get distracted.”

Flying By covered obscurities like “Wanna Go Back Again Blues,” which Redbone knew from Duke Ellington’s recording, and Jelly Roll Morton’s “Mr. Jelly Lord.”

“He was an amazing piano player and songwriter and singer—and what a character!” Redbone said of Morton in an interview. He further singled out Irving Berlin’s “But Where Are You,” which closed the album.

“That particular song, as far as I’m concerned, is his best work,” Redbone said. “But almost no one’s heard it.”

In fact, “But Where Are You” was sung in the 1936 Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie classic Follow the Fleet by Harriet Hilliard—of later Ozzy & Harriet TV sitcom fame.

“I just happened to come across it one day—and once you hear it, you can’t forget it,” said Redbone.

“The amazing thing is that it’s an extremely simple melody--which is the best,” he noted. “You get way more out of a simple melody than something that’s very complicated, and there’s a whole sentiment expressed in that simple melody, with heart and sincerity.”

Sentimentality in music, suggested Redbone, has “evaporated.”

“It’s just noise volume level, with no sentimentality at all,” he said of contemporary music. “It didn’t get better over the years, which is unfortunate. Maybe a slight jog in the planets might make it get better!”

He ran his hand across his neck in a slicing motion and added, “It’s just flatlining.”

Also on Flying By, Redbone revived the music of another legendary artist--the now largely forgotten Morse.

“She was a unique individual—everything about her was unique,” said Redbone, who opened Flying By with Morse’s “Just You and I” and later performed her “Main Street.” He noted that like Berlin’s “But Where are You,” “you hear [a Morse] recording one time and it stays with you.”

So much so, apparently, that he actually took a trip to Rochester, N.Y., to visit the grave of Morse, who died in 1954 at age 57--and was buried without a marker.

“There was snow on the ground, and I knew they might take a dim view if we started shoveling things in a cemetery,” he said wryly. “I’ve seen it.”

But he added that the reporter he was with went on to organize funding for a headstone for Morse.

As for Redbone himself, “Leon should have been a lot bigger,” says Goldstein.

“His albums and performances were great, and he always had terrific musicians with him. But certain opportunities came up that he refused because he felt they were out of his realm or too commercial.”

And not even Goldstein knew Redbone’s real name and age, “but I had no curiosity or need to.”

“I just accepted him as being the real thing,” concludes Goldstein. “He kept an era of music alive at a specific time—and now it’s gone.”



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