A third giant has left us in just under a week. First, Leonard Cohen departed. Then went Leon Russell. This afternoon came word that Mose Allison has died, four days after his 89th birthday.
Allison’s visibility to the pop mainstream was modest compared to the legacies of Cohen and Russell. That’s largely because he wasn’t a pop artist, but rather a jazz and blues pianist who sang like an unassuming hipster elder, squeezing wry social commentary and pure acerbic whimsy into songs far too clever to be considered sarcastic but too worldly to be brushed off some kind of pseudo-pop novelty.
But make no mistake. Rock ‘n’ roll was plenty hip to what Allison was up to over the years. Among his most vocal champions was Van Morrison, who spearheaded an Allison tribute album, “Tell Me Something,” in 1996. Then there was The Who, who turned Allison’s shuck-and-jive meditation “Young Man Blues” into an atomic anthem on its landmark 1970 concert album “Live at Leeds.” A newer generation chimed in when Americana journeyman and noted song stylist Joe Henry served as producer for Allison’s final studio album, 2010’s “The Way of the World.”
But the beauty of Allison’s music sat in its simplicity. He was as basic, at least on the surface, as someone like John Prine was (and still is) to singer-songwriter based folk music. Like Prine, there was a tremendous narrative depth to Allison’s songs. But since the latter’s whispery, conversational singing was so summery, the potency of his music could often be disarming. There was an unforgiving nature to his lyrics, though, with song titles regularly serving as set ups for savage punch lines.
A few examples:
+ “Everybody’s Crying Mercy” (… “when they don’t know the meaning of the word.”)
+ “Your Mind is on Vacation” (… “and your mouth is working overtime.”)
+ “Ever Since the World Ended” (… “I don’t get out much anymore.”)
Allison would regularly mix jazz and blues standards in with his own songs during concerts – gems both familiar (the Willie Dixon staples “Seventh Son” and “I Live the Life I Love”) and comparatively obscure (the 1947 Nat King Cole hit “Meet Me at No Special Place”). It all became part of the Mose lexicon – a light, bluesy and imminently soulful sound that was immovably cool.
Allison played Lexington regularly during the ‘80s – at the now-demolished Breeding’s on Main and at the University of Kentucky’s Memorial Hall. Though nearing 60 at the time, his style was essentially unchanged since his first albums on the Prestige label were issued in the late ‘50s. When in town, Allison usually played with pickup bands of local musicians that quickly fell in sync with the swift, blues-savvy swing of his songs.
On record, there was a tendency, at times, for producers to gussy Allison’s music up with additional instrumentation, especially on his late ’60s and early ‘70s albums for Atlantic. His most recommended and enduring work was displayed on records built around unobtrusive piano trios. As such, the two volumes of “The Mose Chronicles: Live in London” (released in 2001 and 2002) are ideal for novice fans. But are trio sets and serve essentially as primers on Allison’s sardonic and soulful songs, all of which are sung with a casual performance ease that nonetheless packed a substantial emotive wallop.
In the end, Allison was perhaps the best judge of his own artistic dichotomy. In one of his most clever late career compositions, 1987’s “What’s Your Movie,” he seeks a means of defining a hapless profile. Maybe his motives were likely rooted elsewhere, but I’m guessing this enduring musical original was singing, with cool and elegance to spare, about himself.
“What’s your movie? Are you the artist who’s misunderstood? The bad guy trying to do good? The nicest damn fella in the neighborhood?”