Leon Redbone, who has died at the age of 69, was an enigmatic and eccentric figure on the music scene best remembered in this country for providing the wistful songs which played a key part in the success of a series of much-loved British Rail InterCity adverts which ran from 1988 into the early 1990s.
In the United States, he was regarded as a national treasure, having made regular appearances on TV since the first series of Saturday Night Live in 1976 when his debut album, On the Track, was attracting attention. He became such an icon that he was immortalised in both the 2003 Will Ferrell movie Elf (he voiced Leon the Snowman) and one of Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons. He was also a regular on Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion live radio show.
Usually dressed in a suit and tie, and panama hat and always wearing shades, Redbone cut a distinctive dash. His throwback look and the air of mystery around him were almost as intriguing and appealing as his unique musical sound – a simple, folksy melange of jazz and Delta blues with a hint of western swing. He sang in a laconic Louisiana accent, and played acoustic guitar. Sometimes he broke into a bit of yodelling, and he often whistled melodies or played harmonica along with his guitar.
The songs he chose were invariably little-remembered Tin Pan Alley gems from the 1910s and 1920s, though he also wrote some numbers – including So Relax, the song featured in the InterCity adverts. Many of his 16 albums featured top jazz musicians who were no strangers to jazz audiences in Scotland – Ken Peplowski, Jon-Erik Kellso and Dan Barrett.
His rise to fame in the mid-1970s coincided with the sudden popular interest in ragtime – thanks to the use of Scott Joplin’s rags on the soundtrack of The Sting – and he enjoyed early endorsement from Bob Dylan, who was impressed and intrigued by this Groucho Marx lookalike whose age, he said, could be “anywhere from 25 to 60”.
Throughout his career – which came to an end in 2015, when he retired for health reasons – Redbone’s disinclination to talk seriously about himself or engage in routine publicity simply added to his mystique.
During his four-night run at the 1991 Edinburgh Jazz Festival, Radio Tay broadcaster (and festival compere) Alan Steadman’s delight at managing to persuade Redbone to be interviewed turned to slightly frustrated bemusement when every question was answered with just “yes” or “no”. (Steadman also recalls that one of Redbone’s quirks was to take a photo of the audience before every show.) All he did reveal, beyond his gentle and whimsical style of music, was a wry sense of humour. Quick wit quietly delivered in a slow southern drawl was in evidence both onstage and off.
That same festival, American tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton was appearing on a BBC radio show featuring an all-star line-up. He remembers: “I was desperate for a drink and there were only minutes to go before the start, so I ran downstairs and bumped into Leon, whom I’d never met before. ‘Is there a bar or a restaurant down here anywhere?’ I asked, out of breath. He looked at me funny and said: ‘A bar or a restroom? Buddy, you better make up your mind ..’ !”
At the 2002 Edinburgh Jazz Festival, it was difficult to tell whether the stage persona was his natural personality or a cultivated one (indeed, there had been speculation that Redbone was an alter ego for another performer). Redbone – wearing his signature sunglasses – complained about the lights being too strong but was admirably unruffled, and characteristically droll, when dealing with the other issues of what turned out to be a pretty tense evening for those of us who wanted to listen to him.
First there were the problems with the microphone – “Was I singing the same song I was playing?” asked the deadpan musician – then there was the one-man campaign for audience participation which went on for most of the concert.
Redbone ended up playing referee as his attentive audience turned on the heckler, and demanded his removal (after he had sung along through a staggering seven numbers and even been given a personal warning from the jazz festival director himself). “Some enchanted evening …” sang Redbone, by way of commenting on the incident.
Asked, late in his career, about his reluctance to chat or to talk about himself, Redbone said: “I don’t do anything mysterious on purpose. I’m less than forthcoming, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m mysterious. It just means I’m not inclined to go there.” He claimed that he preferred the emphasis to be on his songs, and that he was simply a vehicle for the music. Even the announcement of his death last week – in a notice posted on his official website – referred to his age as 127.
What is known is that Redbone – who is believed to have been born Dickran Gobalian in Cyrpus to Armenian parents – moved to Toronto in the 1960s where he developed a cult following thanks to his performances in coffee houses and folk clubs. But it was in the mid-1970s that he came to the attention of a larger audience when he was name-checked in a Rolling Stone article by Bob Dylan, who had heard him at the Mariposa Folk Festival in Ontario and talked about producing his first album. Other notable admirers have included Loudon Wainwright III, Jack White and Bonnie Raitt.
He is survived by his wife (and manager) Beryl Handler, his two daughters and three grandchildren.
*Leon Redbone, singer and guitarist, born August 26, 1949; died May 30, 2019.
First published in The Herald, June 6, 2019