See if you can figure this out. It was early 1976: the height of disco, the glory days of punk; rap was already nipping at the heels of mainstream culture.
And here, on the hippest late-night TV show in America, live from New York, was this dapper fellow in a white suit, sitting alone in a chair and playing acoustic guitar and growling, “I don’t stay out late, don’t care to go/I’m home about eight, just me and my radio.” (Long before the debut of the Fats Waller revue named for that song from 1929, few raised on rock knew the next line to “Ain’t Misbehavin.’”) Between songs the singer ad-libbed in a Southern accent so old-fashioned it reminded you of your dead great uncle from Georgia.
Leon Redbone loped into the American consciousness as a flabbergasting, is-he-pulling-our-legs act on the first season of Saturday Night, before it was called Saturday Night Live.
It was so bizarre it convinced some it was one of Andy Kaufman’s stunts; one credible rumor circulated that Leon Redbone actually was Kaufman himself, with a phony nose. According to another, he was really Frank Zappa, whom Redbone resembled physically. Eventually, Kaufman and Zappa both died. But Redbone was still there, unaccountably doing exactly the same thing, like the vaudeville frog in the Warner Bros. cartoon, the one that hops out of the cornerstone of a demolished 1890s building singing old ragtime songs. That frog appeared on the cover of Redbone’s first album, doing the Michigan Rag on railroad tracks in front of a locomotive.
One of the least-likely rumors was that Leon Redbone was really Bob Dylan, who was an early champion of his act, on one of his eccentric jags. (Dylan has, come to think of it, seemed increasingly Redbonian on recent albums.) To this day, though, no one knows who the hell Leon Redbone is. Some Internet sources claim to have outed him as a Cypriot immigrant, perhaps of Armenian ancestry, who grew up in Canada. It seems about as plausible as the notion that he might really be named Leon Redbone. He has claimed to have been born in Bombay. He also once claimed to have been the driver of blues legend Blind Blake, the influential ragtime guitarist who died in 1933. Blake, a finger-picking bluesman usually associated with the Carolina Piedmont Blues school, is one of the relatively few recording artists of the 20th century about whom less is known.
Don’t think of it as nostalgia. Most of the songs Redbone favors were hits only for generations now deceased. Still, his records went gold; there seemed to be some urgent need for it. He was an alternative for music fans who couldn’t stomach anything else on the radio in 1976.
Punk rock’s often described as a reaction to the overemphasis on glitz and production in those days of disco and heavy metal and gushy pop. Punk famously stripped popular music down to its basics. Leon Redbone is rarely mentioned in that regard, but maybe he went a little further. He disdained percussion, emotive inflection, electricity, standing up. Everything was in the old songs themselves. Redbone’s deadpan delivery was often comical in intent, and it may not have required much obvious effort, but it brought out nuances in lyrics that may not have been noticed much even when these songs were new, some of them sung by vaudeville comics and blackface minstrels in the context of a noisy production before a hooting crowd. A song like “Marie” had shadows perhaps missed by those who knew it from singalongs or the big-band versions of 30 or 40 years earlier. Sometimes he brings something to the songs that wasn’t necessarily obvious in the original. Jelly Roll Morton’s “Winin’ Boy Blues” was allegedly written as a sexual boast, perhaps a ragtime version of gangsta rap. Redbone recorded it as a melancholy lament, as if it were a reflection on lives that don’t last.
Thirty-three years after Leon Redbone surprised the audience of the hippest TV show of the ’70s, he’s still wearing the same suit, singing the same songs. He’s put out a total of 11 full-length albums. Any of them could have followed the first, though a couple of Hank Williams songs here and there stand out as uncustomarily modern.
Over the years he’s made a few guest appearances on prime-time TV shows and commercials, albeit never dropping character. Along the way he may have lost some of the bohemian cache he had when he was still playing clubs in Toronto and startling disco-era hipsters. But after 33 years in the national public eye, no one knows who the hell he is or what he’s up to. He looks exactly the same. He may finally be about as old as he seemed back in 1976.
He’s played here before, more than once. An appearance at the 1982 World’s Fair was well attended. He’d spent the day touring the fair in his suit and hat and shades. He was spotted poring over ancient statuary at the Egyptian pavilion, unharrassed by tourists in shorts and garish T-shirts who flowed around him. He looked almost as out of place at the Tennessee Amphitheatre that night.
The century-old Bijou Theatre, where some of his heroes, like shadowy vaudevillian Emmett Miller, may have performed at least once in the revues that used to skip through town, is his milieu. It’s a return visit.
Maybe we don’t know why we’re here or what’s going on, but it’s okay. Leon Redbone, whoever he is, remains behind his shades and guttural drawl, inside his suit. He’s just the stage manager, and lets the sweet old songs take the spotlight.