For more than 25 years, Leon Redbone has been conjuring up the past with his Roaring Twenties show tunes and turn-of-the-century minstrel ditties. Wearing his trademark fedora and Groucho Marx moustache, he became a fixture on TV’s Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson during the 1970s and ‘80s, when he attracted legions of fans and supporters, from Bonnie Raitt and Maria Muldaur to Tom Waits and Dr. John.
Another admirer, Bob Dylan, once told Rolling Stone magazine that if he ever formed his own record label, Leon Redbone would be his first signing. Now Dylan has complimented him again: several songs on Dylan’s latest album, the fine, backward-glancing Love and Theft, pay homage to Redbone’s gentle, vaudevillian charms. So why, in these anxious times, isn’t the dapper crooner enjoying a major revival?
The answer likely lies with Redbone himself. Intensely private and deeply distrustful of the music business, he has been shrouded in mystery from the beginning. Little is known about him, apart from the fact that he began his career in Canada, before moving to the United States in the late 1970s. His Canadian acquaintances, musicians like Colin Linden and David Wilcox, say they’ve remained friends because they don’t ask personal questions. Meanwhile, Redbone tours infrequently, limiting his appearances to a few select U.S. concert halls. And he rarely grants interviews.
Despite this, Redbone is a cult phenomenon. His first album, 1975’s On the Track, sold more than 500,000 copies worldwide. His 1977 follow-up, Double Time, even reached the U.S. Top 40, largely on the strength of his Saturday Night Live appearances. While sales of his later albums dropped substantially, he has maintained a loyal following over the years. Now, Universal Music is looking to expand on Redbone’s niche market. Through its jazz imprint, Verve, the label has just released the singer’s 11th studio album, Any Time, and is reissuing five of his earlier recordings. Says Verve president Ron Goldstein: “Leon Redbone is a national treasure. We want more of the world to discover the richness of his timeless music.”
On a recent weekend, Redbone quietly slipped into Toronto to visit old friends and granted Maclean’s an exclusive interview. Over a leisurely two hours in the lounge of the stately King Edward Hotel, the gravel-voiced iconoclast sipped whiskey and spoke about his love of early 20th century music, his knack for mechanical inventions and even the prickly issue of his identity. His music is rooted in the blues and ragtime of composers like Jelly Roll Morton and Hoagy Carmichael. “It was the best time in music,” says Redbone. “It was a free-spirit era that defied correctness, and made up for it with enthusiasm, dedication and amazing virtuosity.” Listening to Redbone’s latest album, with heartwarming classics like “Sittin’ on Top of the World” and “In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree,” is like taking a trip back to those lively but simpler times. When asked his opinion of the music business, Redbone’s dry humor shines through. “Record companies like a regular stream of bagels coming off their assembly lines,” he says. “There used to be a few Jewish immigrants making these bagels, but the recipe disappeared. Now bagels are everywhere and they all taste the same.”
Conformity is one of his pet peeves. So, too, are wobbly tables, which prompted Redbone to invent an item he has now patented, called a “foot-leveling device”. “A coffeehouse owner challenged me to come up with something to solve the problem,” recalls Redbone, who adds that he has invented numerous toys and tools for industrial or commercial use. He has also become a proficient illustrator, painter and enjoys working with ceramic tiles. “I’m the unknown Leonardo da Vinci,” he quips. But the conversation becomes tense when it turns to questions about the real man behind the persona. The Toronto Star once published an account claiming that Leon Redbone was the pseudonym of a Cypriot who immigrated to Canada in the mid-1960s. “Some people seem to believe that as soon as you perform on stage you lose your rights as a private citizen,” he bristles. “I don’t understand the concept. I’m advocating privacy, but nobody’s listening to me. They want to find out who I am, what I am, where I was born, how old I am – all this complete nonsense that belongs in a passport office. I’m Leon Redbone, the performer. That’s who I am.”
Don’t even get him started on people who believe that total disclosure of information about individuals by corporations and governments will somehow serve the common good. “Misguided nincompoops,” he says succinctly. By the time the photographer leans in for another portrait shot, the normally motionless musician is practically squirming. “Do you have to get that close?” he asks. “I don’t like close ups.” For Leon Redbone, who prefers the anonymity of voice work on TV commercials, the limelight of the music world is an occupational hazard.
Maclean’s 5 November 2001