By “Huckabee” writer Pat Reeder (http://www.facebook.com/hollywoodhifibook)
As the resident pop culture guru at “Huckabee,” it falls to me to write the obituaries of showbiz figures. Some sad ones have come along recently, like Doris Day and Tim Conway, but no loss has felt as painful and personal as the news that Leon Redbone has passed away after a long illness that forced him to retire from performing in 2015.
My wife, fellow “Huckabee” writer Laura Ainsworth, is also a retro jazz singer known for reinventing forgotten old songs that we unearth from the dustbin of history. That was largely inspired by our mutual lifelong love of Leon Redbone. For us, gift unwrapping on Christmas morning can’t begin until his album “Christmas Island” is on the stereo. One of the greatest thrills of Laura’s life was getting to meet him after a fantastic show in Dallas that sadly turned out to be one of his last (see photo.)
There are few performers so distinctive and iconic that everything about them – their look, sound, material, persona – is utterly unique. Leon Redbone was so universally known and beloved that he could appear in a Budweiser ad or in cartoon snowman form in the movie “Elf,” and be instantly recognized with delight by multiple generations. His voice, described by one critic as sounding like a scratchy 78 rpm record somehow come to life, was unlike any other voice of the modern era. He was also an under-rated blues/ragtime guitarist and a heck of a whistler. Leon Redbone was that rarest of performers: a one-man musical genre all unto himself.
Whenever he performed -- slouching behind his guitar, his face hidden by his trademark dark glasses, mustache and Panama hat, his trusty walking stick leaning on his chair – it was as if he had mysteriously materialized out of the early 20th century, only to disappear back into the mists of time when the lights came back on. He maintained that air of mystery throughout his life. While it was reported that he was born in Cyprus in 1949, nobody could say for certain what his real name was or where or when he was born (the statement from his family claimed he was 127, and you could believe it.) Bob Dylan once said Leon could be 25 or 60, and even from a foot and a half away, he couldn’t tell. When he first emerged from the Canadian folk circuit to national attention on “SNL,” rumors circulated that he was Frank Zappa in disguise.
He was as ageless and outside his own time as the songs he sang. Those songs might be long-forgotten tunes that nobody else would ever have thought to record (“At the Chocolate Bonbon Ball,” “When Dixie Stars Are Playing Peek-a-boo”) or well-worn standards that he reinvented indelibly as his own (“Shine On Harvest Moon” has been around since 1908 and performed by everyone from Ruth Etting to Britney Spears, but just try thinking of it without hearing Leon’s honey-and-whiskey rumble in your head: “Well, the night was maughty dahk so yew could haaaahdly see…”)
With today’s music in the woeful and unromantic state it’s in, do your kids a favor and introduce them to Leon Redbone. And if you haven’t played him in a while, pour a drink, settle in to a comfy chair and reacquaint yourself. You probably know his earlier albums like “On the Track,” “Double Time” and “Champagne Charlie.” But over the years, he continued releasing a number of great lesser-known albums, like “Any Time,” “Red to Blue” and “Up a Lazy River.” Stream some and discover many hidden gems.
Finally, some video links to get you started. Here’s Leon as most remember first seeing him, performing his iconic rendition of “Shine On Harvest Moon”…
And here’s a great 15-minute documentary on him, named after one of his greatest covers: “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone.” Sorry, Leon, but like your inspirations such as Jelly Roll Morton, Jimmie Rodgers and Robert Johnson, you are fated to be talked about for many years to come.