leon redbone, 1949-2019

Leon Redbone. Photo by Patricia De Gorostarzu.

To appreciate the sensibility of a performer like Leon Redbone, you need only read the obituary posted currently on his website. For all the shades of vintage folk, blues, jazz and antique pop that colored his music and the similarly vintage parlor airs he maintained during his performances, the singer possessed a wicked sense of humor. With notices in the press around the globe announcing his death on Thursday came the revelation of his age – something the mercurial Redbone never revealed during his life. He was 69. But the website obit tossed fact and reason to the wind, stating he had “crossed the Delta for that beautiful shore at the age of 127.”

My first reaction to reading this, aside from immediate laughter, was that Redbone had undoubtedly penned the tribute himself long the hour came to bid adieu.

All this enforces as unlikely a profile as you will find in a pop artist – one that bowed not only to the songs and sentiments of a seemingly ancient stylistic age but to the entertainment traditions that superseded them. He may have serenaded us with the songs of Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, Johnny Mercer and other classicists in a vocal style best described as a mumbling croon. But Redbone was pure vaudeville in most other performance respects, whether it was through the playful gasps, shouts and train wreck scatting that adorned his version of “The Sheik of Araby” (from perhaps his best known album, 1977’s “Double Time”) or the instance when he played the long-defunct Breeding’s on New Circle Road during the early ‘80s and snapped a photograph of the crowd in front of him. “I’m doing this so I can remember each and every face.”

What made Redbone’s pop celebrity status especially odd was, what else, timing. The fact his artistic mindset seemed rooted in the ‘20s and ‘30s was one thing. But he became a performance regular on the early seasons of “Saturday Night Live” and turned archaic masterworks like “Shine on Harvest Moon” into a rock radio staples at a time when the punk revolution was at its peak. In fact, Redbone’s commercial apex – from 1975 to 1979 – mirrored the heyday of punk’s zenith almost completely.

Mainstream fascination with Redbone faded somewhat from the ‘80s onward, although he remained a prolific recording artist and performer until failing health brought on retirement in 2015. During the latter half of his career, he would play Lexington numerous times, especially the Kentucky Theatre. Redbone’s manner was always elegantly reserved with an artistic stance that paid full reverence to the vintage songs he was interpreting. But he also remained open enough for plenty of kitschy fun.

“Basically, I just try to capture a sentimental, melancholy moment,” Redbone told me in an interview prior to a 1999 concert at the Kentucky. “Most of the tunes I do are pretty much steered to that. Early Jimmie Rodgers recordings, for example, which also capture that mood, have inspired me in that regard. But the sense of timelessness has ultimately become unnecessary in modern music. That sort of subtle and genteel moment is nearly disappearing. So, consequently, music doesn’t really have that kind of sentiment anymore.”



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