When word came out last week that Leon Redbone, if that was really his name, had died at age 69, my first thought was, how do they know he was 69?
That was instantly followed by: and come to think of it, how do they know he's dead?
Most of us first heard of Leon Redbone when he appeared as the musical guest in the early years of “Saturday Night Live,” back when it was both funny and clever, the era when Steve Martin and Andy Kaufman began their careers there.
About that time, Rolling Stone did a piece about the peculiar musician – or as much as could be ascertained about him, which wasn't much at all, not that the intervening four decades have appreciably broadened the available details.
Another story described how he sat in a chair on the stage with his guitar. Next to him was a small table with a lamp and as the writer put it “a glass of something.” He was impeccably dressed, in perfect style, in a fashion last seen before World War II or whenever the last steamboat left St. Louis, whichever came first. Fashion is fickle, but style is steadfast.
As with his choice of musical selections, his aura was mysterious and arcane. That never changed. We never learned whether Leon Redbone was a person or a role being played by someone otherwise unknown. Bonnie Raitt talked in the Rolling Stone story of spending an afternoon with him. “I was wondering when he was going to become normal,” she said. “He never did.”
Did he encourage the mystery, or fail to discourage it? Both. “I don’t do mystery,” he said. “The only thing I do, which may have created some cliché of a mystery person, is the fact that I’m non-compliant. . . . I like what I like, and that’s the way it is.”
There’s some evidence that he was born Dickran Gobalian in Cyprus in 1949. “Some evidence” is as close to fact as it gets when you’re talking about Leon Redbone. In several interviews David Wilcox, a fellow musician, said Redbone was an excellent billiards player, but at the billiards parlors he was known as “Sonny” or “Mr. Charles.” Those who knew him best admitted that they didn’t know him much at all. “There was no understanding Leon Redbone,” said his publicist, Jane Harbury. Added musician Honey Novick, “He was impenetrable.”
A Canadian production company, Riddle Films, did an excellent short documentary, “Leon Redbone – Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone,” that crystallizes the questions about him, but if you’re looking for answers you won’t find them there. It appeared on YouTube the day his death was announced, and it is not to be missed.
It describes his career, to the extent that it can be described, beginning with a 1972 appearance at the Mariposa Folk Festival, then held on an island in Ontario, Canada. In the program for the festival, Redbone is quoted: “I was born in Shreveport, La., in 1910, and my real name is James Hokum. I wear dark glasses to remind me of the time I spent leading Blind Blake throughout the south, and I now live in Canada as a result of the incident in Philadelphia.”
Despite the mystery, there is no denying that Leon Redbone, whoever he was, was from the early days a consummate musician and entertainer. His guitar playing was unsurpassed, his voice was unique – perfect for his repertoire, which was, um, eclectic. Other musicians were fans.
Said John Hammond (himself known to local audiences from his appearances at Fur Peace Ranch), “I thought he was amazing.” Bob Dylan took a private launch to Mariposa specifically to listen to Leon. “So you see Bob Dylan, his wife behind him, and the children all trailing, and they’re following Leon around this island,” remembers John Prine.
“Close your eyes and think of this time traveler,” said Owen McBride, the Irish-born Canadian folksinger, “and what your interpretation of such a person would be. He’s come from the past to entertain us, and when we’re not looking, he steps back again. So there’s no way he has an opportunity to describe who he is or where he’s from or what he’s doing.” That’s as good an explanation as I’ve found, and I’ve looked.
Leon Redbone performed the old songs, perfectly. He would do the old blues numbers, some Jimmie Rodgers, Irving Berlin’s “My Walking Stick,” all of it selected with great care and executed with more appropriate ambiance than anyone else did or could. My favorite is his version of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Lazy Bones.” It’s one of those performances that sticks in your brain and you’re glad to have it there.
You can say some things about his music, but any attempt to convert what he played and sang to descriptive words is and always has been doomed to failure. We should rejoice every day that the inventions of the late 19th and the 20th centuries made it possible to record voices and other sounds, and to see what the people making those sounds looked like.
(I have spent many unsuccessful hours, for instance, trying to find a recording of Mark Twain's voice. It is difficult to imagine that no recording of him was ever made, as fascinated as he was with new inventions – he was even bankrupted by one, a wondrous typesetting machine – he surely would have leapt at the opportunity of making a recording of himself. Edison invented the phonograph in1877, and Twain lived until 1910. There have to be, or at least to have been, recordings of him. Oh, to put a voice to those words!)
But we need not mourn our inability to hear Leon Redbone. His music survives in a multitude of recordings (my favorite being “On The Track,” his 1975 Warner Bros. debut album). A good expenditure of an afternoon – and evening; you won’t be able to stop – is looking at all of the recordings of and about him on YouTube. The best ones, in my estimation, are live performances where he interacts with his audience.
He announced a few years ago that he would no longer be performing, and last week the story was that he had died early last Thursday from the effects of dementia. His website announced that “[h]e departed our world with his guitar, his trusty companion Rover, and a simple tip of his hat.” His age, the announcement noted, was 127.
Maybe it’s true. Part of it probably is. But with Leon Redbone, if that was really his name, nothing was ever quite certain.
Editor's note: Dennis E. Powell’s column appears on Mondays. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.