The celebrated Ragtime revivalist was 69. Or 127, depending on what story you believe
It’s always a strange feeling when you realize your heroes are humans – actual mortals as opposed to mythic beings. And with others — like Leon Redbone — it only intensifies the mystique.
Whether it’s watching Gregg Allman name the wrong song on stage, then dismiss it with a laugh and a nonplussed “Eh, everybody fucks up sometimes,” seeing goofy selfies by Paul and Linda McCartney in their bathroom mirror, or watching John Belushi and Gilda Radner break for the first time on Saturday Night Live, there’s an initial disconcertion as the idea that these people we admire are…well, people. Following the discomfort, though, is an ease that seems to draw us even closer to them. We love them not only for their ability to write a song, play a guitar or garner a laugh, but for the fact that they are more like us than we might have imagined. For some, though, it takes the finality of death for that idea to sink in.
My first encounter with Leon Redbone was while watching the first few seasons of Saturday Night Live. I don’t remember all of the songs he played, but “Shine On Harvest Moon” and “Walkin’ Stick” are forever burned in my memory. Dressed in a suit with a string tie, a Panama hat, and sunglasses in the darkened room, Redbone sat in a chair with his legs crossed, picking effortlessly on the guitar and murmuring in a voice that bore an eerie similarity to a trombone. He was deeply intriguing, unlike any musician I’d encountered in my twenty-something years, singing songs that seemed to have been pulled from some old-timey saloon like he had been playing them for the last century or so.
The eccentric musician, known for the air of mystery he wore as nonchalantly as his signature bushy mustache, found his start on Toronto’s folk circuit in the early 70s before a brief comment by Bob Dylan drew widespread attention to the singer. Performing American classics pulled from a backroom shelf and dusted off, Redbone’s repertoire was decidedly — but happily — out of time, ranging from Tin Pan Alley to blues and country to ragtime.
Little is known about the singer, despite decades-long interest. In 1974, Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone, “Leon interests me. I’ve heard he’s anything from 25 to 60. I’ve been [a foot and a half from him] and I can’t tell. But you gotta see him. He does old Jimmie Rodgers, then turns around and does a Robert Johnson.” Interest piqued by Dylan’s words, Rolling Stone profiled Redbone the same year, but Redbone remained characteristically enigmatic, joking that his father was the long-dead Italian violinist Niccolò Paganini and his mother was 19th-century Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind. When asked about his age, he responded, “Of course I don’t know. It’s just something I vaguely recall. I can’t say for sure.” When asked where he played publicly for the first time, Redbone teased, “In a pool hall, but I wasn’t playing guitar, you see. I was playing pool.”
Despite the witty misdirection, it is generally agreed upon that he was a Cypriot of Armenian descent named Dickran Gobalian who moved to Ontario in the ‘60s and changed his name. With little to nothing more known about the musician, Redbone remains a masked character from a Western tale, a shadow in the corner hidden behind a guitar. Yet, in spite of — or, perhaps, because of — his obscurantist ways, Redbone toed the line between a commercial success and a cult idol. Following a record deal with Warner Bros in 1975 and the release of his debut album, On The Track, Redbone peaked on the Billboard charts in 1977 with his album Double Time, thanks in part to two performances on Saturday Night Live. He went on to sing the theme songs for Mr. Belvedere and Harry and the Hendersons, then make an appearance as Leon the Snowman in Elf.
VIDEO: Mr. Belvedere Themesong, written by Leon Redbone
Redbone amassed an impressive sixteen full-length records between 1975 and 2016 before retiring from the road in 2015 due to poor health. His last album, Long Way Home, released in 2016 by Jack White’s Third Man Records, was comprised of his earliest recordings, introducing a whole new generation to the music, mystery and magic of Leon Redbone. Over the course of a four-decade career, the counterculture icon remained a fixture, effortlessly drawing listeners into a sepia-toned world where time moved a bit slower, to the easy swing of a jazz number.
With the news of his passing on Thursday, May 30th, his family released a heartfelt statement, the sweet humor and dry wit Leon Redbone was known for woven throughout the few lines as they shared his age — 127, allegedly — and plans for the afterlife. “He departed our world with his guitar, his trusty companion Rover and a simple tip of his hat,” his family said. “He’s interested to see what Blind Blake, Emmett and Jelly Roll have been up to in his absence, and has plans for a rousing singalong number with Sári Barabás. An eternity of pouring through texts in the Library of Ashurbanipal will be a welcome repose, perhaps followed by a shot or two of whiskey with Lee Morse, and some long overdue discussions with his favorite Uncle, Suppiluliuma I of the Hittites. To his fans, friends and loving family who have already been missing him so in this realm he says, ‘Oh behave yourselves. Thank you…and good evening, everybody.’”
VIDEO: Leon Redbone – Live in Concert NJ: 7/14/2001