The true International Man of Mystery – Leon Redbone – has no past. None that he’ll discuss, anyway. He prefers to deal in the present only. Which is to ignore the obvious irony that his 40 year career is wholly tied to his faithful renditions of early American Ragtime ditties.
From origins unknown (though most claims point to Cyprus, while some say Philadelphia) Redbone first mystically appeared on the scene in Toronto, Canada in the 1970’s. His character was already fully formed, with Panama hat, sunglasses and the mustache of an early century pugilist. One night, a performance of his was caught by Bob Dylan, who then recalled his admiration for him in several subsequent interviews, and in no time, Redbone had a record deal, a regular guest spot on SNL, and a spreading network of fans.
Part storyteller, part musician, part humorist, Redbone is quick to say that he is 100% entertainer. And entertaining, he is. First of all, he’s a fantastic, if unassuming, musician. He plucks his acoustic guitar in a cross between 1920s jazz and a swampy finger-style, similar to the old bluesmen of the 30s & 40s. The accompaniment is tailor-made for his famous versions of “Ain’t Misbehavin,” “My Blue Heaven,” and “My Walking Stick.”
There is little doubt that as recognizable as his hat, mustache, or nose might be, his voice is by far the most iconic thing about him. A rumbling baritone with a rich molasses drawl, Redbone’s voice has you almost believing he’s a born and bred southerner. For all we know, he Could be. Born of the Mississippi, and plucked from the water by a riverboat captain.
In spite of eleven studio albums and four live albums, the ’80s/’90s generation might mostly remember him as the voice behind the theme song to Mr. Belvedere, and the young folks of today will probably know him as the animated snowman in Elf. But if anything, that might just prove that every generation has a place for Leon Redbone. And they should.
The songs he plays might be old, but he makes them timeless. In fact, he himself seems timeless, as if he always was, and always will be. Ok, maybe that’s just the magic talkin’. But even if we don’t know where Leon Redbone came from, or how long he’ll be here, it’s nice to know that we were all here at the same time.Leon Redbone performs One Night Only at the Abrons Arts Center, Saturday June 23, 7:30pm. Tickets: $40 advance, $45 day of sale, $75 VIP reserved seating 466 Grand Street, at Pitt
Splitting his time between performing and producing, contributor Ken Beasley primarily plays with his own roots/rock band, Ken Beasley & Co., as well as the power punk outfit, Missy Sport, while also curating the Underground at the Abrons music series on the Lower East Side.