R.I.P. Leon Redbone

Well, I kept postponing a post about Leon Redbone and now he’s passed away at the young age of 69.

Redbone was definitely one of the many messengers standing by the roadside during my ’70s kidhood pointing me down a backwards path. My high school girlfriend’s brother was a fan of his and had all his records (there were only about four of them up ’til then). And he was on the first season of Saturday Night Live in 1975.  I loved the honking sound of his voice, vibrating in the back of his throat and in his nose, crooning these Tin Pan Alley standards. I’m seeing people use the word vaudeville to describe him a lot this afternoon but he didn’t really stretch back that far. The white suit and Panama hat look feels like a late ’30s/ early ’40s thing, post-vaudeville. He seems very much of the radio era, when the jazz was interpreted by big crazy orchestras. The soul patch and shades are also ’40s borrowings, urban bluesman trappings.

A much more vaudevillian aspect to Redbone (much more than his repertoire or his style) is the RUSE, the subterfuge he projected, for the character he played was totally a work of his imagination. The guy sounds like he’s from Louisiana or Mississippi or someplace but he’s not even American. The word is that he’s a Cyprus-born Armenian who grew up in Canada. His real name was Nickran Gobalian — it’s easy to picture him pronouncing that in his mush-mouthed diction. But this guy Gobalian happened to be a musical genius, so he was able to play and interpret these old records and do it better than most Americans could. He gave out that he was much older than he was; he was born after most of the music he played was written. That type of magical illusion — it’s very vaudeville.

And many of his influences were very vaudeville. Several he acknowledged were artists I’ve written about: Ted Lewis, Blind Blake, W.C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy, Bing Crosby, Jimmie Rodgers, Moran and Mack, Gene Austin, etc etc etc. And obviously Nora Bayes and Jack Norworth, who wrote “Shine On, Harvest Moon” , one of his most popular covers.

In the ’80s his reach grew more mainstream. He wound up in TV commercials and Prairie Home Companion and so forth, and he sang the theme song on Mr. Belvedere (1985-90). The record of his I’ve played the most was Christmas Island, which came out in 1987. We probably played it about 20 times every December. His music was already a nostalgic trip. Now it’ll be nostalgia squared.