Leon Redbone is a mystery, perhaps not as much as The Residents or writer B. Traven but he is indulging in the same quest for anonymity.
But, he isn’t obscure and he doesn’t avoid exposure.
He tends, rather, to hide in plain sight.
Unlike Rodriguez (“Searching for Sugarman”) who was unknown in his home country, the US, (but, as an aside, very well-known and popular in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa – the documentary was quite disingenuous), Leon Redbone has never been unpopular, he just wants to avoid any digging into his past.
And, he has done it well.
Wikipedia reveals that he was born August 26, 1949 in either Ontario, Canada, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, or Cyprus.
Allmusic reveals: “Because Redbone first emerged as a performer in Toronto during the 1970s, he was believed to be Canadian, though some sources have cited his birthplace as the Greek island of Cyprus or Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. A Canadian magazine profile in the '80s reported that his birth name was Dickran Gobalian, though Redbone has never confirmed or denied that. Redbone's musical style was a revival of pre-World War II ragtime, jazz, and blues sounds, recalling the work of performers ranging from Jelly Roll Morton and Bing Crosby to blackface star Emmett Miller”. http://www.allmusic.com/artist/leon-redbone-mn0000240503/biography
His website reveals nothing.
What we do know is that he emerged in the 1970s singing American music from the 1920s and 1930s
Redbone’s first exposure came with the 1974 Mariposa Folk Festival in Ontario. Several months later, Dylan spoke about him in a Rolling Stone interview, "Leon interests me," Dylan said. "I've heard he's anywhere from 25 to 60, I've been [a foot and a half from him] and I can't tell, but you gotta see him. He does old Jimmie Rodgers, then turns around and does a Robert Johnson." http://www.allmusic.com/artist/leon-redbone-mn0000240503/biography
He subsequently appeared on Saturday Night Live (in 1976) and became a favourite of Johnny Carson (1987-1992).
The beauty is in eras defined by of arena rock, hard rock, punk, indie alternative, underground, synth, and new wave, Redbone has decided to play music from a time past, a long time past.
He has (from what I’ve heard) obstinately refused to update. His music varies between various levels of sheen and gloss but the music makes little concessions to modernity.
I found his album “ No Regrets” in an op shop in the early 90s and I was hooked … the version of “Are Your Lonesome Tonight” hooked me, straddling Elvis’ well known version and the Al Jolson original from 1928.
Redbone has been doing this all along … bringing songs from the past and offering up them to us as new but without new instrumentation.
There is nothing new here, unless, and this is a big unless, you have never heard it before.
Then, it is all new.
(like I have always say) … if you haven’t heard the music before it is new music, right?
I don’t know how Redbone was exposed to this music and how it became his cause but, like everything, he wasn’t created in a vacuum.
The 1970s was prone to revivals, from the 50s revival at the start of the decade (bands like Sha Na Na, Flash Cadillac & the Continental Kids, Showaddywaddy (in the UK), the chart re-entry of Ricky Nelson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and Elvis (though Elvis had never really left), films like “American Graffiti” and TV shows like “Happy Days) to the 60s revival at the end of the decade (the re-discovery of the Doors, The Velvet Underground and the popularity of power pop skinny tie bands).
In between there was a revival of 1920s and 1930s music.
This was promoted through film primarily, on soundtracks, using sound-alikes, songs in the style of, or original recordings … The Sting (1973) was a box office smash in 1973–74 (as was the Marvin Hamlisch version of Scott Joplin's, 1903 tune "The Entertainer", from the film reached #3 US 1974), Bugsy Malone (1976), The Godfather (1972), Paper Moon (1973), Lucky Lady (1975), Nickelodeon (1976), Bound for Glory (1976), At long last Love (1975) song and dance documentaries That's Entertainment! (1974), That's Entertainment, Part II (1976)
This “nostalgia” was combined, I suspect, with the knowledge that the original singing stars were getting older, retiring or dying off. Some were still performing so it was the last chance to see the originals artists. Concurrently, a new group of entertainers (with varying degrees of success and compromises to contemporary sounds) emerged …
American a cappella, jazz fusion/pop music group The Manhattan Transfer were founded in 1969 in New York City and increased in popularity throughout the 1970s, Joshua Rifkin released the "Scott Joplin: Piano Rags" album in 1970 which sold 100,000 copies in its first year and went to #5 (in 1974) and the follow-up "Volume 2" went to #4 (1974), Marvin Hamlisch version of Scott Joplin's 1903 tune "The Entertainer", for the film, The Sting, reached #3 US 1974, and (then) contemporary artists like Jim Kweskin, Merle Haggard, Ringo Starr, Willie Nelson, John Hartford, Harry Nilsson dug into the era and released individual albums (or numerous albums) of long forgotten or old songs.
How much of this is pure nostalgia and how much is a reaction to the (then) present music I don’t know and don’t want to think about it here but I suspect there is probably a bit of both.
The tradition has continued through to today (in varying degrees) with Pokey LaFarge, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, The Cactus Blossoms, The Hackensaw Boys, The Old Crow Medicine Show and others.
This is Leon Redbone’s first album and sets the template for his music … anything from pre-World War 2. He doesn’t just stick to the Tin Pan Alley and the Great American Songbook … he tackles old blues, old jazz, old country, old folk …
And, they are all done in an intimate, low-key way surrounded with instrumentation deliberately recorded to reflect the original era … not so much “lo-fi” as “old-fi”.
Regardless of production, the music is the important thing. A good song is a good song and in the days when songwriters reigned supreme, the quality of the songs was substantial. That’s not to say they didn’t have hacks and cash-ins then but the music was built to stand out. Also, the lyrics took a back seat to the music … the melody sold the song and the lyrics had to ride off and accentuate that. A vocalist (and the vocalists that emerged) had to be able to add their own style or persona to a song (after the songwriter has already dictated how the song will appear), and this is not an easy thing to do.
Redbone, makes it even harder (arguably) for himself when he is covering well known tunes … he has to impart himself and be heard as something separate to the well known original. In the more obscure tracks that is, of course, less of an issue.
Leon Redbone on guitar, harmonica and with a drowsy, lazy, matter of fact vocal gets it right more often than not. And, just like the original vocalists, he, the music and the arrangements should, together, create a mood across the aural time and space connecting different generations.
He also plays the "throat tromnet" which I assume is his voice made to sound like instruments. Much like scat singing in vocal jazz, where they use wordless vocables to sing improvised melodies and rhythms using the voice as an instrument rather than a speaking medium.
This music was the perfect tonic for the hustle and bustle of 1975 and I don't think the hustle and bustle of 2017 is any different … so bring it on.
Tracks (best in italics)
- Sweet Mama Hurry Home or I'll Be Gone – (Jack Neville, Jimmie Rodgers) – First release by Jimmie Rodgers (1933). A joy of a start
- Ain't Misbehavin' – (Harry Brooks, Andy Razaf, Fats Waller) – a Fats Waller song from 1929. Burt Reynolds sang the song in the 1975 comedy film “Lucky Lady” and the following year, Leon Redbone performed the song on Saturday Night Live. A magnificent song which needs to be sung a little ragged as if someone is sitting next to you in a bar. Leon nails it. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ain%27t_Misbehavin%27_(song)
- My Walking Stick – (Irving Berlin) – First performance by Ethel Merman & Chorus (1938) or by Ray Noble and His Orchestra (1938). Another good one … I'm sure there is a double meaning in there somewhere.
- Lazybones – (Hoagy Carmichael, Johnny Mercer) – This tin pan alley pop song was written by the great Johnny Mercer and the equally great Hoagy Carmichael and was first recorded by Paul Robeson in 1933 (or perhaps by Glen Gray and The Casa Loma Orchestra with vocals by Walter Hunt also in 1933) but the Jonathan King version from 1971 was a big hit (#34 US Pop, #23 UK). It has been done by everyone. There are few better, if any, lie back and watch the world roll by songs. Wonderful. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lazybones_(song)
- Marie – (Irving Berlin) – First recording by The Troubadours (1928). It has been done by everyone including Jim Reeves (1958), Bill Haley & His Comets (1959), and Ray Charles (1961). Another winner featuring the "throat tromnet"
- Desert Blues (Big Chief Buffalo Nickel) – (Jimmie Rodgers) – First recording by Jimmie Rodgers (1929). Nice, very nice.
- Lulu's Back in Town – (Al Dubin, Harry Warren) – First recording by Ted FioRito & His Orchestra or Dick Powell or Fats Waller (all 1935). Leon sounds older than his age here, err, whatever age that may be. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lulu's_Back_In_Town
- Some of These Days – (Shelton Brooks) – First release by Sophie Tucker (1911). Its been done by everyone including The Mills Brothers (1934), Bobby Darin (1959), Brenda Lee (1959), Rosemary Clooney (1960), Bobby Vinton (1963), Elkie Brooks (1984), Helen Merrill (1992), Dave van Ronk (2001). A zippy with some fine violin, by Joe Venuti I assume. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Some_of_These_Days
- Big Time Woman – (Wilton Crawley) – First release by Wilton Crawley and His Orchestra (1931) with Jelly Roll Morton on piano. This is a jazz, in the tin pan alley tradition.
- Haunted House – (Lonnie Johnson) – a recent song! Written and recorded by Lonnie Johnson for his 1960 blues album "Blues & Ballads". Nice and suitably growl-ie.
- Polly Wolly Doodle – (Traditional) – Dating back to the 1880s the first release was by Gid Tanner and His Skillet-Lickers with Riley Puckett and Clayton McMichen (1927). The children’s song has been done (or variations on it have been done) by The Carter Family (1939), Alvin and the Chipmunks (1962), and Burl Ives (1964) though Shirley Temple's version from 1935 film "The Littlest Rebel" may be the most well known version. Fun. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polly_Wolly_Doodle
What a joy … I'm keeping it.
Are you kidding
Sweet Mama Hurry Home or I'll Be Gone
My Walking Stick
Desert Blues (Big Chief Buffalo Nickel)
Lulu's Back in Town
Some of These Days
Big Time Woman
Polly Wolly Doodle
with Dr John
The original versions can be heard here:
- Jazz producer Joel Dorn produces with session musicians, jazz heavies and guests assisting. Here, Redbone is aided by fine session men including legendary “old-timers” Milt Hinton (bass), Seldon Powell (sax), and Joe Venuti (violin). Singer Songwriter Don McLean (“American Pie”) also appears on banjo.
- Full musician list: Leon Redbone – vocals, guitar, harmonica / Phil Bodner – saxophone / Patti Bown – piano / Garnett Brown – trombone / Jonathan Dorn – tuba / Steve Gadd – drums / Emanuel Green – violin / Milt Hinton – bass guitar / Leo Kahn – violin / Ralph MacDonald – percussion, castanets / Charles Macey – guitar / Don McLean – banjo / Gene Orloff – violin / Seldon Powell – saxophone / Billy Slapin – clarinet / Joe Venuti – violin / Joe Wilder – trumpet, cornet
- The back sleeve indicates, "A very special thanks to the late Jelly Roll Morton and the late Jimmie Rodgers for their music".
- It also notes "Leon Redbone is not to be confused or associated with the Epic recording artists "Redbone"" …. which is the Native American rock band. Of course audiences today wouldn't know either let alone getting them "confused". Shame on them.