LISTEN: A Classic Leon Redbone Set from 1990
Although Leon Redbone’s 2018 documentary was satirically titled, “Please, Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone,” it’s impossible not to talk about- and savor- those special times in the presence of the truly original, and refreshingly odd, stage character.
“Leon Redbone was a man of mystery - a musical anachronism who seemed to have walked off a vaudeville stage and into the 21st Century,” said Mountain Stage founder, host and music director, Larry Groce. “Only after his passing last year, did we find out that he was of Armenian heritage, born in Cyprus and raised in Canada.”
Redbone (whose real name was Dickman Gobalian) passed away May 30, 2019 at the age of 69 - and even in his passing gave everyone one more smile - “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,” shared his long-time publicist Jim Della Croce.
Redbone, who appeared on “https://vimeo.com/155136776">Saturday Night Live” as the musical guest twice during SNL’s first season, stopped by Mountain Stage on May 20, 1990 for his first of six visits to the program. His final appearance was in 2007, and can be heard via NPR Music.
“One of his most important champions was Bob Dylan who heard him early on and said if he had a record company, that Leon Redbone would be one of the first artists he would sign,” Groce said of Redbone, who would go on to record nearly 20 studio and live releases. In recent years, White Stripes founder Jack White’s Third Man Records re-released his earliest records as well as a new record of old material, Long Way From Home.
With arguably one of the most unique singing voices in modern recorded music, and the ability to fingerpick a mess of jazz and blues like it was peeled straight off of a 78, Redbone went smooth rolling through his ’90 Mountain Stage set with long-time collaborators Dan Levinson on clarinet and Ralph Norton on cornet and baritone saxophone.
With his penchant for dynamics and song choice-he rarely used a set list- on full display, Redbone crept into character with his trademark Panama hat and dark sunglasses, setting the radio dial back to 1929 for Emmett Miller’s shadowy “Ghost of St. Louis Blues,” a nod to W.C. Handy’s 1914 song said to have birthed the blues.
“There’s a creepy melody/like a fiend it keeps haunting me, all night long it rambles on through my brain ‘til I am near insane/It’s the most peculiar tone....”
He and his mates shared nostalgic, vaudevillian comedy bits between sets. Norton bragged about being “the head man in the show with the Metropolitan Opera Company and able to play way ahead of everybody,” after purposefully starting a song before Redbone who then asked him to “Wait until I start playing. I will let you know when.” They then galloped straight into the frisky rhythm of the Dixieland Jazz number, “You Get Anything I Got,” with Norton’s baritone saxophone barking and Levinson’s spry and playful clarinet skipping along.
A highlight in a set full of fun banter occurs when Redbone pulls out an instant camera. “If you wouldn’t mind getting a little closer together,” Redbone almost whispers as the crowd roars in laughter and delight. “And all of you out in Radioland move closer to the radio, I would like to take a picture. Easy now. Thank you. You can sit down now. We’ll take a look at it a little later. I will be passing it around and I would appreciate you signing it.”
Redbone burrowed into the Depression era blues of the singing brakeman, Jimmie Rodgers for one of his favorites, the 1931-penned, “My Good Gal Gone Blues” with the baritone saxophone and clarinet moaning and crying sweet and lowdown.
Not one to leave anyone feeling down, Redbone picked up the mood and the pace for a three-song closing romp - a practical three-man Mardi Gras parade that included: “Polly Wolly Doodle,” (“a song that everyone knows. It’s been around for over 100 years so you’ve had plenty of time to learn it). “Big Time Woman From Way Out West” (done as Redbone joked “in the people’s key of B-flat”) and “Diddy Wah Diddy,” that Redbone said was a favorite song of Brother Bill. “He used to come into town, riding a wildcat with a rattlesnake for a whip and barbed wire for a necktie. He’d go into a drugstore and drink a dime’s worth of carbolic acid and wash it down with dynamite. He would holler I’m a bad man. He was so bad. There was only two bad men in that town, and he was both of them.”
As Groce aptly described the late, great Redbone in closing .... “to use a phrase that is overused, but absolutely accurate in this case, he was ‘one of a kind.’ ”
Yes, there was only one Leon Redbone and he was one of them.
Ghost of St Louis Blues
You Get Anything I Got
My Good Gal Gone
Polly Wolly Doodle
Big Time Woman from Way Out West
Diddy Wah Diddy