Friday, May 31, 2019

The Late Great Leon Redbone

Leon Redbone, the legendary singer and songwriter who specialised in songs from vaudeville and Tin Pan Valley, died yesterday at the age of 127. No cause of death was given.

Very little is known about Leon Redbone's early life. According to an article in The Toronto Star from the Eighties, he was born Dickran Gobalian in Nicosia, Cyprus on August 26 1949. His family moved to London in 1961 and then to Toronto in 1965. He changed his name under Ontario’s Change of Name Act.

Leon Redbone began performing in Toronto clubs in the early Seventies.  It was in 1972 at the Mariposa Folk Festival that Mr. Redbone met Bob Dylan. Mr. Dylan had been so impressed by Leon Redbone that he referenced him in a 1974 interview with Rolling Stone. This led to Rolling Stone later doing a profile on Mr. Redbone. It was in 1975 that his first album, On the Track, was released by Warner Bros. In 1976 he made the first of several appearances on Saturday Night Live.

Ultimately Leon Redbone would release 12 studio albums and three live albums. Long Way from Home: Early Recordings, released in 2016, collected many of his early recordings. In addition to appearing multiple times on Saturday Night Live, Leon Redbone also appeared multiple times on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and would later appear on The Tonight Show Starring Jay Leno and Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. He composed the theme song to the Eighties sitcom Mr. Belevedere and the theme song to the Nineties sitcom Harry and the Hendersons. He had a role in the movie Candy Mountain and provided the voice of Leon the Snowman in the movie Elf. He also appeared on television, making guest appearances on Life Goes On, Promised Land, and Sesame Street. His songs would appear in the soundtracks of movies from The Big Fix (1978) to The Film at Lot 15 (2018). He retired on May 19 2015, citing health concerns.

Because of his reticence to talk about his life, Leon Redbone was often described as "mysterious." In fact, very little is known about his early life or his private life. At the same time Leon Redbone used comedy a good deal in his performances. It was not unusual for him to claim to have written songs that existed well before he was born. Jokes about drunkenness were frequent in his performances. It is because of his tendency not to talk about his life and his flare for humour that in the official announcement of his death (of which there can be no doubt that it was written by Leon Redbone beforehand) that his age was given as "127."

That Leon Redbone incorporated comedy into his act should come as no surprise. In many respects he would been perfectly at home on the vaudeville stage over 100 years ago. He was in many ways a man who existed outside of time. At a time when blues and folk music were being revived, Mr. Redbone looked to music forms that had long been neglected: ragtime, early jazz, and songs from both vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley. His first album featured everything from Andy Razaf, Fats Waller, and Harry Brooks's "Ain't Misbehavin'" to Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer's "Lazybones" to the 19th Century song "Polly Wolly Doodle." Years before the music, fads, and fashions of the past became trendy, Leon Redbone was performing songs that were often 100 years old or older. A very good argument can be made that Leon Redbone single-handedly revived ragtime and vaudeville music.

That Leon Redbone was able to re-popularise older song styles was due to a combination of both talent and marketing savvy. If he revealed very little about himself, it was perhaps to ensure that the focus always remained on the songs and not on him. If Leon Redbone incorporated humour into his act, it was perhaps not simply a continuation of vaudeville tradition, but a means of ensuring his performances were always entertaining. Making everything work was the fact that Leon Redbone was a very talented musician and singer. Few performers have ever been as unique as Leon Redbone.

1 comment:

Caftan Woman said...

My late dad was a great fan and Redbone's recordings were very familiar around the house.