Corrections or additions?
This article by Richard J. Skelly was prepared for the April 14,
2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Mose Allison, 54 Years of Blues
He has a solid – if small – base of loyal fans. But because of his
natural eclecticism, pianist, singer, and songwriter Mose Allison has
always had a category problem. Being both a blues and a jazz singer
and pianist has never helped record companies in their quest to market
his wealth of talent, most notably as a songwriter.
Allison’s songs have been covered by a bevy of classic rock and
blues-rock musicians, including Bonnie Raitt, John Mayall, John
Hammond, Georgie Fame, Van Morrison, and the Who. Allison’s latest
release is a well-recorded live album from England, "The Mose
Chronicles: Live in London, Volume 1." The recording does justice to
capturing the raw energy this 76-year-old man still exudes on stage,
as the audience at the War Memorial in Trenton will discover on
Thursday, April 15.. His piano stylings are dexterous, and his
performances are marked by an artful blend of great, percussive piano
playing and his humor-filled, sarcastic songs.
In a phone interview last week, Allison relates that he had just spent
the previous evening opening for singer Van Morrison at Madison Square
Garden’s Paramount Theater. Given that the theater there is nearly
3,000 seats, was that a high for him?
Not really, he says from his home in Smithtown, N.Y., where he raised
four children and his wife recently retired from 20 years of public
school teaching. "I’ve played plenty of venues that big before, but
the high for me is playing a 135-seat nightclub," he says, "so that
you can hear yourself."
Allison was born November 11, 1927, in Tippo, Mississippi, the son
of a stride piano playing father and school teaching mother. His
father owned a general store in Tippo, but at a young age Allison
became fascinated with the jukebox in the nearby gas service station.
He began taking piano lessons as a five year old, and never learned to
sight read music, but stuck with formal lessons for five years before
he stopped. He cites as influences great singers like Nat "King" Cole,
but also good blues people like Rice Miller, the second Sonny Boy
Williamson, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, and B.B. King.
"I used to sit in with B.B. in the late 1940s at different places
where they were playing around Memphis," Allison recalls, "because I
had a friend who was B.B.’s first musical director, and he used to get
Unlike 98 percent of the other singer-songwriters out there today – in
any genre, not just jazz and blues – Allison’s songs often have
serious philosophical underpinnings. He attributes this to his study
of English and philosophy at the University of Mississippi and later,
after a stint in the Army, at Louisiana State University in Baton
Rouge, from which he graduated in 1952. Allison compositions that have
been covered by far more famous rock musicians like the Who, Morrison,
Raitt, and others include "Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy [When They Don’t
Know the Meaning of the Word]" "Young Man Blues," "Your Mind Is On
Vacation," and "Ever Since the World Ended."
His first awareness of blues, Allison says, came from the jukebox at
the filling station not far from his father’s store.
"There were people like Tampa Red, Big Bill Broonzy, Memphis Minnie,
and Roosevelt Sykes, this was all before Muddy Waters came along," he
recalls, "and I don’t know how often they changed things on that
jukebox, but I listened to a lot of different things, all the country
blues stuff but also a lot of old Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller."
As far as his own piano lessons, "I didn’t get very far with it, but
I got to know the keyboard and at that time found out I could play
things by ear."
"I always like to tell people my piano style is the result of playing
for 54 years in nightclubs with no technique," he says, chuckling,
adding some clubs started adding P.A. systems shortly after he made
his professional debut in Lake Charles, Louisiana, in 1950.
"That club was like a cocktail lounge, they had cocktails in
Louisiana, you see, but Mississippi was dry," he explains.
"One thing thing led to another and we ended up spending about six
weeks there. One of the nice things was there was a furnished
apartment upstairs. You could eat dinner for $1.25, and our pay was
$30 a week."
When did Allison realize he might be able to make a living, writing
and singing his own songs and playing with a simple bass and drums
trio? It wasn’t until 1956, when he and his wife, Audre, made a leap
of faith and moved to New York City. Allison was fortunate to find a
wife at 23, he recalls, and she had a college education, so could
always find some work.
"I started reading about the jazz and blues scene in New York, so we
went to New York in 1956," he recalls. He and his wife lived on the
Upper West Side in a fourth floor walkup before he bought a house near
Smithtown in 1963.
"I actually came to New York to find out if I could make a living or
not! I hoped I’d be able to, but I wasn’t sure about it." Shortly
after he arrived, executives at Prestige Records took an interest in
what Allison was doing and he recorded for that label in 1957 and
1958. Later, he began a long association with Atlantic Records, whose
jazz division was in the hands of Neshui Ertegun, brother of the
legendary Atlantic co-founder Ahmet Ertegun. He found work right away
with Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, as well as with Stan Getz.
"Fortunately I started recording right away and getting some
publicity, and I saw that I could have something of a career," he
says. Later, his wife would stop working while they had small
"I had to make it work, we had a house with a mortgage, and it was
touch-and-go for a few years."
Allison and his wife have four children: John and Jeanine, twins,
both out in Arizona, the eldest, Melissa, a lawyer in New Orleans, and
Amy, an up-and-coming country singer who is based in New York but
finding a following in Scotland and England.
Asked about his earliest attempts at songwriting, he recalls he wrote
a song as a 13-year-old that was a parody of the Palmolive radio
commercials. Pressed about where songs like "No Trouble Livin’ [It’s
Just Dyin’ that Bothers Me]" come from, Allison says that "I’m sure
the philosophy courses I had in college played a role in the kinds of
things I write, but I’ve always felt my stuff comes partly from the
Mississippi Delta idiom, like aphorisms and understatements, and
exaggerations that I heard growing up. Some of it comes from being a
jazz musician, and some of it comes from being an English major!"
Allison’s discography includes more than 40 albums, but one of his
absolute best studio recordings is "The Earth Wants You," a 1994
release for BlueNote, on which he’s backed by some studio veterans,
including guitarist John Scofield, trumpeter Randy Brecker, and
saxophonist Joe Lovano.
Interestingly, Allison says the publishing income he has enjoyed from
having prominent rock ‘n’ roll bands like the Who cover his "Young Man
Blues" has resulted in more income than from the sales of all of his
own albums put together. In 1998 Van Morrison recorded an album in
tribute to Allison, "Tell Me Somethin’: The Songs of Mose Allison,"
that got more attention for Allison, the songwriter. Allison first got
to know the Irishman Morrison on a tour Allison was making in England.
"He did one of my songs way back, ‘If You Only Knew.’ And I remember
one time I did that song myself on a gig, and somebody came up to me
afterwards and said, ‘Oh you did one of Van Morrison’s tunes!’" he
While some people will think some of Allison’s material is too
sarcastic or cynical, Allison insists he puts humor into the mix.
"People call me a cynic, but really, my songs are almost always jokes.
The idea of ironic couplet appeals to me. That’s from my childhood in
At the War Memorial on Thursday night, Allison will be accompanied by
Tony Marino on bass and Tom Whaley on drums, "guys I’ve played with
for 20 years, off and on."
"I’ve been very lucky I’ve been able to do what I want to do for more
than 50 years. I’ve had a couple of champions in the record industry
who’ve kept me recording even though I wasn’t selling very many
records," he explains, crediting Ertegun at Atlantic’s old jazz
division and more recently, Bruce Lundvall of BlueNote Records.
"It’s hard to find those kind of people nowadays," he acknowledges.
"And other other musicians have done a lot for me, the Who, Bonnie
Raitt and the just various guys that I’ve played with," he says,
noting to save money, he often uses different musicians in different
cities when on tour around the U.S.
"Really my peers have had a lot to do with my continued success."
Allison says he’s looking forward to playing the War Memorial and
having members of the audience seated on stage with himself and the
band, to lend a more intimate cafe setting to the show. "There’s
something in the contract about people sitting on the stage," he says,
"and that suits me fine. I’m not a stadium player!"
Mose Allison Trio, Trenton War Memorial, 609-984-8400 $40. Thursday,
April 15, 7 p.m. Also at the Iridium Jazz Club, 1650 Broadway, New
York, April 27-May 2. 212-582-2121.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.