Saturday Matinee – Leon Redbone (1892-2019)

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“Why don’t they play pretty music any more?”

Leon Redbone was an iconic performer who reinvigorated the music of the late 19th to early 20th century, including blues, ragtime, dixieland jazz and country. That he pulled it off in the mid 1970s is an interesting commentary of the state of music of the time (mainstream rock was sucking donkeys). You couldn’t get more retro than Leon Redbone at that time, and he stepped right into the mix.

Rolling Stone described his repertoire as “so authentic you can hear the surface noise of an old 78 rpm.” During a 1974 interview (prior to release of any album) they asked where he first played in public. Redbone responded, “In a pool hall, but I wasn’t playing guitar, you see. I was playing pool.” Apparently he was pretty good at it.

I learned of the song “Ain’t Misbehavin” via some sheet music my late grampa had, and I liked the tune. I’d never heard of Fats Waller before I heard Leon Redbone’s version.

Then I heard Redbone’s over-the-top absurd version of The Sheik of Araby, a cover of this (1937) which was a cover of this (1922). I became a fan.

In the early ’80s I saw Mr. Redbone perform at The Golden Bear (a small but famous venue with no bad seats). His props were a rattan chair, a side table with a lamp, and his guitar. He was in the middle of a song when he saw the flash of a Kodak Instamatic camera. With lightning speed, he stopped, grabbed a Polaroid Swinger and took a photo of the photographer, then sat quietly humming until the image appeared. He held it up to view.

“Ahhh. Not a bad likeness.”

Then he resumed the song exactly where he left off.

I wasn’t aware of this until today, but there is a documentary on Leon Redbone. Here’s the trailer:

“He was always mysterious, he was always coming and going. It was almost like he was there one second and he’d be gone the next… and you never knew where he’d gone or why or how he’d even left, but suddenly he wasn’t there anymore.” – Jane Harbury, Publicist.

Here’s a link to the full documentary if you’re interested. It’s only 16 minutes, but it’s worth it.

Leon Redbone, you were a breath of fresh air into the stagnant late 70s music scene. May You Rest In Peace.

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