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

me in."

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

children.

"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

recalls.

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

Mississippi."

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.


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