An unusual one from the archives. Among my strangest encounters during the years I spent in New York on Melody Maker’s behalf occurred 43 years ago this week. It was my brush with Leon Redbone, an eccentric singer of American songs from the twenties and thirties whose identity was as mysterious as his demeanour. Warners had sent me his debut album On The Track and I was intrigued, not least because although he was largely unknown he didn’t seem interested in having me write about him. I persisted, however, and here’s what appeared in Melody Maker, dated 7 February, 1976:
Leon Redbone: Ragtime Cowboy
As Agatha Christie discovered to her considerable advantage, everybody loves a mystery. The subject of this mystery is Leon Redbone, a musician whom we can safely assume is North American both from his accent and his musical influences.
Apart from the fact that he performs with unusual brilliance, little else is known, because Mr Redbone refuses to reveal the slightest shred of biographical information about himself.
He has many admirers, not the least of whom is Bob Dylan, but his presence on the American music scene has only been apparent during the past three years. In that time he’s released one album for Warner Brothers (reviewed recently in the MM) and appeared both at folk festivals and in clubs, especially in Canada.
Redbone plays ragtime guitar and sings material from the turn of the century, blues, ragtime, melodies of America, with such authenticity that it’s been said that if you listen carefully enough you can hear the surface noise. He also looks the part. Thus the combination produces something much more authentic than mere nostalgia: Redbone actually belongs to another age.
Redbone’s repertoire, or at least the repertoire he has so far revealed, consists of songs like ‘The Sheik Of Araby’, ‘Any Old Time’, ‘Big Time Woman’, ‘Champagne Charley’ and ‘Polly-Wolly-Doodle’, all vaudeville-type tunes, as well as some black blues from Chicago and the South. He sings in an extraordinarily deep voice, mumbling the words rather than singing, rolling the phrases out at an alarming rate and often segueing songs together, sometimes linking them with lightning-fast guitar picking that is as accurate as it is precise.
Redbone shows a total lack of emotion regardless of how his audience accepts the facade. He has been known to perform a conjuring trick on stage and never acknowledges applause beyond a formal bow of the head. His lack of communication commands respect and the authenticity of his image tends to overshadow the simple fact that much of his charisma is a carefully calculated ruse, which it obviously is.
Or so I thought.
I’ve seen Leon Redbone perform twice, both times at the Bottom Line in New York. After the first show I was quite stunned – stunned enough to want to see him second time. The first time he was opening for Loudon Wainwright III who drew a large crowd, all of whom appreciated Leon immensely.
On the second occasion he was opening for Tracy Nelson who drew a smaller crowd that was not quite so in tune with what Redbone was putting across. This time he was accompanied by a solitary tuba player, an ungainly fellow who contributed some pertinent bass lines to Leon’s guitar and vocals.
I approached a writer friend with whom I knew he was on speaking terms and, with his introduction, crept backstage to Redbone’s tiny dressing room. He was sat on a chair in the corner, idly picking on his Martin and drinking a Heineken beer. Also present was the tuba player and a lady called Beryl Handler, Leon’s manager and, apparently, his girlfriend.
Conversation was stunted, to say the least, but the upshot of the meeting resulted in a vague promise to do an interview in the near future. Leon actually smiled once or twice, twinkling his eyes like Groucho Marx and expressing an interest in Melody Maker’s history which, of course, goes back to the period of his own particular interest.
Three weeks later we met again. Leon and his girlfriend were coming into New York – he lives somewhere between NY and Boston – to listen to a performance by Joe Turner, the great stride piano player, who was appearing for a three-month season at the Cookery, a Greenwich Village restaurant. The same writer friend arranged for me to join their party.
First we took in a pool hall where, perhaps unsurprisingly, Redbone demonstrated a keen mastery of the cue, and then we moved on to the Cookery, and a table where a good view of Joe Turner’s keyboard technique was available. There was a good half hour to wait, so, with Leon’s defences at their lowest, I attempted an interview, beginning with a question about how long he had been performing.
“Seriously I can’t er... offhand... ha ha ha, and furthermore... how can I answer that? Not long... what I consider long.”
But nobody heard of you until three years ago?
“Quite possibly. It could be longer, too. I guess it depends on how long it was doesn’t it?”
Have you always performed the repertoire you are performing now..?
“The same type of music? Yes.”
Can you tell me how long you’ve been interested in this type of music?
“Well, in order to answer that you have to define the kind of music. You see, I don’t look at it as being any different than something by Chopin, for instance. To me it’s the same feeling. My interest in music lies within a period of 1830 or so to 1930.”
But how did your interest hit on this type of material? It’s not something you hear every day on the radio, it’s unusual material.
“Well you have to hear, you have to understand it and like it, and I just happen to... but that includes all kinds of music, Spanish, Portuguese, all kinds. Somehow they all relate to me. Romantic would be the word.”
Do you have a huge collection of this type of recorded music to research from?
“Not really. I go to record stores. If I come across an interesting record I’ll listen to it. I’m not a collector. Never have been.”
Have you always been a musician?
“Yes and no. I’ve always played a bit, yes.”
Do you find audiences responsive to your material?
“Audiences are an interesting subject. You could probably write a book about audiences. It doesn’t really make any difference what kind of music you subject any kind of audience to, it’s the surroundings and the atmosphere that the house presents that they will react to... not necessarily the performer. But yes, usually they respond well to me.”
Do you think people treat you as a kind of novelty?
“Novelty... in what I do? Possibly the entertaining aspect, yes. You see, the music that I do is not exactly ideal the way I do it, with just guitar and singing. I feel I have to put something a little more into it because my basic reason for being there is to be entertaining. I could do the same songs in the straightest possible manner and it might not be entertaining.”
You look as if you stepped out of a history book.
“Ahhh... I do?”
Is this for effect?
“Yes and no. That’s a most difficult question to answer, but it could be taken that way, yes.”
How do you go about finding material, researching it? Records of many of your songs surely aren’t around anymore.
“Well, they’re basically all standard songs. There are recordings, you know.”
Do you have any criterion for choosing material?
“Hopefully, it’s a song that interests me and that I can do without forcing myself. Something I can some way relate to, the rhythms, and something that can be done in a free form style... that you can bend a lot. Its entertainment quality is important.”
Are there any writers that you look out for?
“No, not really. The main bulk of them would be performers themselves as opposed to writers. I do like a lot of Berlin’s melodies, but there are some I don’t like. Caruso is probably my favourite singer.”
And black musicians, blues artists?
“Oh, there’s a whole bulk of them. Lonnie Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson. As far as piano players go, Jelly Roll Morton would be number one I think. I’m interested in the interpreters, the performers, more than the people who actually wrote down the music.”
Have you written yourself?
“Mmmmm, more or less. Melodies, I guess. I’m interested in melodies. I haven’t written too many words, not having very much to say.”
Why do you retain this air of mystery?
“Mystery. Mmm... probably because I rarely have much to say and people misunderstand me.”
But you’ve claimed to be several hundred years old.
“In many ways that’s true.”
Can you remember your first public performance?
“I try to forget all the performances that I do. I’m rarely satisfied with any of them. The sooner I can forget them the better.”
Were you happy with your first album?
“Oh, yes. I was satisfied with it, but I wouldn’t say it was any indication of what there might be or is to come. I’d consider it an adequate introductory record to what I do. But I have different interests in music so it is not a pointer.”
Have you thought about your next record?
“Yes, but I wouldn’t commit myself to saying anything before I did it. My main interests are colour variety of sound, so I would say the next record will be instrumentation.”
I’ve heard that Dylan is a fan of yours.
“Yes, We’ve met. We didn’t talk about very much. We had a scattered conversation, but I can’t recall the specifics. We talked about a number of things.”
Redbone with Dylan
Redbone’s interest was waning dramatically at this point, so much so that he appeared to be falling asleep between answers, delaying his replies and becoming more and more reluctant to talk about anything other than the quality of the food or the lacklustre service we received at our table.
We left after the Turner’s set, a disappointed Redbone falling in with my suggestion that we have a beer elsewhere. The conversation returned to pool, and half an hour later he caught a cab to Penn Central station to catch a train home.
According to his website Leon Redbone retired from music in 2015 due to health problems. Both pictures were downloaded from the same website.