This feature was originally published in March 2010.
“My son was trying to get tributes from certain people and he called one person who said, ‘Mose is gone but not forgotten’!” – Mose Allison
The great Mose Allison – the coolest senior citizen on the planet – has just released his first album in ten years!
By Brian Wise
It has been twelve years since Mose Allison’s last new studio recording Gimcracks and Gewgaws and if he had stuck to his plan that would have been his final album.
“I wasn’t writing too many songs and I just decided that there are so many out there and none of them are selling so why should I make another one?” he replies when I ask why he had decided to retire form recording a decade ago.
Allison is on the phone from his home in Long Island in the unfamiliar role of talking about a new studio album.
It took the persistence of acclaimed producer Joe Henry to persuade Allison to change his mind and return to recording. First, Henry booked him for a festival he was curating in Germany, then he pursued the idea of a recording with Allison’s wife Audre and, finally, he managed to convince the great songwriter himself. Kudos to Henry for his persistence.
On the resultant album, The Way Of the World, you can hear an icon of American music running through a batch of songs that reflect his distinctive personality. There is the humour of old, the deft turn of phrase, the fluid piano and the character-filled voice of an 82-year-old who still has lessons to impart.
It was exciting to get the news last year from Henry himself that he had lured Allison back into the studio.
“He is a great character,” said Henry of Allison. “I’d been a fan of his since I was a teenager and I remember sitting by the side of the stage, His songs aren’t long and he blew through 17 or 18 – just this fantastic thing after another.”
Henry was also keen to record Allison because so many of his songs, even those written back at the height of the Cold War in the ‘50s, still resonate.
“Before the elections,” recalled Henry, “I sat with a pile of songs that he wrote in the ‘60s that were so timely and I said, If nothing else you could re-record those songs because they need to be heard again – and heard in a new way because they are speaking with such clarity now.”
As it turns out, they didn’t need to re-record much of Allison’s old material for the new album. He sang a few older songs including ‘Ask me Nice,’ wrote a batch of new songs, recorded one written by his daughter Amy who is also a singer (‘Everybody Thinks You’re An Angel’) and found a few tasteful covers, including one that he sings with Amy (‘This New Situation’) and one by Loudon Wainwright (“I’m Alright’). He also co-wrote the title track with Henry.
“I didn’t take him seriously but he kept at it,” says Allison of Henry’s suggestion to make an album. “I finally said well why not; I’ll see what he can do.”
“I’ve made so many records and according to the statements I get none of them are selling,” he continues. “So I figured why not go with that producer and see what he can do. He asked me, he called me and emailed my wife because she handles the email and he kept at it. So I finally decided why not, I’ll try it and see what happens.”
“He has a great reputation as a producer,” says Allison of Henry, “and he did Harry Belafonte recently. On all the records he’s made he’s made money. So, I finally decided I’d see what he could do with me.”
“I got along with him fine,” he continues. “I decided to let him take over the recording, so he hired the musicians and had it in his studio. So I pretty much placed myself in his hands.”
Helping out on the album are long-time Henry sessions players: bassist David Piltch, drummer Jay Bellerose and guitarist Greg Leisz. Walter Smith III is on tenor sax and Anthony Wilson on electric guitar. Henry has adopted the ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it approach’ to Allison’s sound, tweaking it marginally but keeping the classic feel.
The Way Of The World arrives just four months after Allison’s 82nd birthday. Born in Tippo in Tallahatchie County on the Mississippi Delta he started playing piano at the age of five. In high school he listened to the music of Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Louis Jordan and Nat ‘King’ Cole. He played piano and trumpet and started writing his own songs.
He went to college at the University of Mississippi and Louisiana State University and even had a stint in the army. The fact that he graduated in English, with a minor in Philosophy, seemed to have informed his later songwriting. His unique view of the world was always expressed concisely.
“I was always considered a cynic and I never thought I was cynical. I was always thought they were funny. I’m still doing the same tunes but now I’m a comedian.” – Mose Allison
In the late Forties he began working in nightclubs throughout the South and moved to New York in 1956 to pursue a music career in earnest. In 1957 he signed with Prestige Records and recorded Back Country Suite. He went on to play and record with jazz greats Stan Getz, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims and Gerry Mulligan as well as with his own Trio.
But Allison has always straddled the line between jazz and blues. Musicians such as Charlie Musselwhite and John Hammond have admitted that when they first heard Allison’s recordings they thought he was black.
In 1958 Allison recorded Willie Dixon’s ‘Seventh Son’ for the album Creek Bank. The song was to become synonymous with Allison and it led to a firm friendship with the blues legend. Later, he also recorded Dixon’s ‘I Love The Life I Live’ (which he also used as an album title).
“Everybody thinks I wrote those but I announce his name every night,” he laughs.
On the new album Allison performs the song ‘My Brain,’ the melody of which is shared with Dixon’s ‘My Babe.’
“What I found out is that was based on a gospel tune ‘This Train’,” says Allison, “so they were based on the gospel tune and it’s an old gospel tune. It’s like ‘this train is bound for glory,’ I think.”
“I played in Willie Dixon’s Dream Band,” he continues. “We had a couple concerts, one in L.A and one in Atlanta, Georgia. It was fun for me because it was like all these guys had played blues all their lives and they took everything really slow tempo. I did ‘I Love The Life I Live’ and also I did one other tune ‘I Just Want To Make Love To You’ and it was so slow. I enjoyed it, so it was a different thing for me.”
“Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon and Lightnin’ Hopkins and Percy Mayfield,” replies Allison when I ask about his songwriting influences. “Those are some of the people that I listened to. Charles Brown – I liked him a lot and I met him one time in Seattle. He said ‘I’m Charles Brown’ and I said, ‘Snuff Dippin’ Mama’ and he said, ‘What makes your lip hang so low?’ That’s the song that he did years ago and was a sort of hit in the South. I sprung that on him and he sang the next line!”
“I heard every type of music in Tippo, Mississippi, which is a crossroads,” he adds, “and I was born a farm on my grandfather’s farm and he just happened to have a jukebox in the service station that had all sorts of music on it – Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller – but it was mostly country blues like Roosevelt Sykes [whose song ‘Some Right, Some Wrong’ is on the new album]. I heard all the blues singers at an early age. A cousin of mine had a wind up Victrola and she had jazz club jazz records. So I got everything at an early age.”
Allison says his piano playing was informed by jazz musicians. “In my teenage years I was taken with the King Cole trio and later I started listening to Erroll Garner, Thelonious Monk, John Lewis and Al Haig.” Haig played with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker and played with Miles Davis on The Birth Of The Cool.
“I met Al Haig when I first went to New York,” he recalls, “and one time I had a long discussion with him about how long your fingernails should be.”
By the mid-60s Allison had released 15 albums (now it’s more than 40) and his songs were starting to be covered by an array of British musicians: Georgie Fame, John Mayall, The Who (they recorded ‘Young Man’s Blues’ on Live At Leeds), The Clash (‘Look Here’), Eric Clapton, The Yardbirds (‘I’m Not Talkin’) and Elvis Costello (‘Your Mind Is On Vacation’).
Van Morrison recorded the tribute album, Tell Me Something:The Songs of Mose Allison, on Verve Records. Bonnie Raitt performed ‘Everybody Cryin’ Mercy’ at Jazz Fest in 2003 to protest the US invasion of Iraq. ‘Parchman Farm’ has been recorded numerous times by musicians as diverse as Johnny Rivers and Blue Cheer. Even Frank Black of The Pixies wrote ‘Allison’ about Mose. Greg Brown wrote and performs the song ‘Mose Allison Played Here’ on his 1997 album, Slant 6 Mind.
Allison was been enlisted to play ‘Young Man’s Blues’ at a Carnegie Hall tribute to The Who last month. Other acts included Bettye Lavette, Living Colour, Bobby McFerrin, Bob Mould and The Smithereens (who have recorded their own version of the Tommy album).
“I was surprised when I got the [royalty]cheque,” he says of the Who’s inclusion of his song on Live At Leeds, “because I had been getting cheques for ten dollars and fifteen dollars and I thought that cheque was a mistake. And they still do it, they give me plugs on their concerts sometimes.”
“Van is a good friend of mine,” says Allison when I ask about Morrison’s tribute. “I’ve known him for a long time and I saw him the last time I was in Belfast, last year. I see him now and again. He said years ago that he was going to do that and make an album of all my songs and Ben Sidran helped him get it together.”
“He was the first English rocker to do my songs,” he adds of Georgie Fame, who was also on Tell Me Something and had been recording Allison’s songs as early as 1964. “Now he’s not a rocker but he’s a jazz player. He’s a good friend of mine and I see him all the time in London and so he’s done a couple of my things and he’s always been a supporter of mine and I like him a lot.”
“That’s helped me a lot with a younger audience,” he says of the numerous covers of his work, “and so I figured they’ve saved my life.”
One of the features of Allison’s songs is the wry sense of humour that always seems to shine through. In the past he has recorded songs such as ‘You Call It Jogging (But I Call It Running Around),’ ‘Your Mind Is On Vacation,’ ‘Meet Me At No Special Place,’ ‘Monsters Of The Id’ and ‘Ever Since I Stole The Blues.’
The same sense of fun is evident on The Way Of The World on songs such as ‘My Brain,’ ‘I Know You Didn’t Mean It’ and ‘Modest Proposal’ (with the line ‘let’s give God a vacation’).
“Well, I don’t like to talk about my songs,” says Allison when I start to quiz him on some of the lyrics. “I figure they’re complete and it’s just what you think of them. I’d like to know what you think of it?”
I tell him that almost every song you write has a point to it and that he is the perfect example of the iron fist in the velvet glove.
“Yeah, it took a long time for audiences to pick up on what I’m saying,” he says. “It took thirty years in this country and people picked up on it in other countries earlier than they did here and they just recently picked up on my lyrics.
“I was always considered a cynic and I never thought I was cynical. I always thought they were funny. I’m still doing the same tunes but now I’m a comedian.”
On the song ‘Ask Me Nice,’ he sings ‘I’m no pacesetter, I’m just trying to swing my way through life.’
“Yeah,” he laughs. “That’s been one of my constant wishes and I think I’m still trying to swing every night.”
Loudon Wainwright’s ‘I’m Alright,’ sounds as though it was written specifically for Allison.
“Well, I’ve always liked Loudon and we’re friends and I see him now and then and he did one of my songs and I figured I’d do one of his,” says Allison, agreeing that they share the same sense of humour.
Despite his age, Allison is still performing about 150 gigs a year and says that he is still in great shape.
“Well, it was a lot of traveling involved and that’s the bit drag,” he says, “but once I get to the piano I’m alright. I exercise. I run a couple of days a week and bike and so forth. I do a lot of exercise almost everyday.”
One of my favourite quotes from Allison is when he was reported to have said that the greatest impediment to his career was the fact that most people thought he had passed away.
“Oh yeah,” he laughs. “My son was trying to get tributes from certain people and he called one person and he said, ‘Mose is gone but not forgotten.’”
With more than 150 songs to his name and a new album (on the hip Anti- label) that is set to be his biggest selling ever, Mose Allison is unlikely to ever be forgotten.
Note: The Way Of The World was released via Shock.