Having a conversation with Leon Redbone, the laconically loquacious performer with the guitar, Panama hat, mustache and goatee, white linen suits, and shades, is both fun and a bit maddening.
Redbone, whose musical tastes and repertoire span the decades before the turn of the last century, is quite the raconteur, but his stories are much like a Miles Davis solo — brief, pithy, and spacious, leaving much to the listener’s imagination. The man has been a fixture on the American music scene since the mid-1970s, but while Redbone will talk with you about most any subject, he’ll never tell you anything about himself. He said in one notorious interview that he was born July 9, 1670 and that his father was the great Italian violinist Nicolo Paganini (1782-1840), and that his mother was Swedish soprano Jenny Lind (1820-1887). There have been many other flights of fantasy sent up by Redbone, and all of this serves to preserve an air of mystery that surrounds the artist.
He will perform on Thursday, May 26, at the Trenton War Memorial, but in what configuration? Possibly solo, possibly with his musical wingman, pianist Paul Asaro, an expert at stride and ragtime piano. Who knows?
“I have no idea. I may have one person, two people, three people, or nobody,” says Redbone, who produces an array of sounds that ranges from crooning to scatting to some uncanny vocal trombone/trumpet combinations. “I like to keep it loose. The only thing people usually expect to see is me. When I have others with me, it’s for my own amusement.” It is prudent to note, however, that pianist Asaro’s own website says that he will be appearing with Redbone in Trenton.
This much is possibly or probably known about Leon Redbone. According to a published report in the Toronto Star, he was born Dickran Gobalian, of Armenian ancestry, in Cyprus on August 26, 1949, and moved to the Toronto area in the 1960s, where he legally changed his name to Leon Redbone. In Toronto during the late ’60s and early ’70s, he was a well-known performer at Toronto folk music clubs. Playing solo, singing old-time jazz, blues, rag, and folk in a distinct old-man voice both sweet and raspy, picking a guitar like nobody before him, and living a mysterious life even then, the Redbone buzz began in earnest.
In 1971 he played the Mariposa Folk Festival in Canada, and he attracted the interest of, among others, Bob Dylan and Bonnie Raitt. Moving to New Orleans later that decade to soak up the musical heritage and ambiance, he impressed the locals there as well, and in 1975 he was signed to Warner Bros. Records, for whom he recorded his first album, “On the Track.” Though the record didn’t sell well at all — 15,000 copies in its first year — after Redbone appeared on Saturday Night Live in February, 1976, his record had sold 200,000 copies by the end of that year. More SNL appearances followed, more albums were recorded, and Redbone gained fame as a novelty act — the man sang “Polly Wolly Doodle,” for God’s sake — but a novelty act with huge respect from lots of musicians who know the difference between a poseur and a real musician, albeit an eccentric one.
This notoriety led to stints as the jingle singer for Budweiser beer (Redbone also appeared in the commercial) and as the singer/composer of the theme music for the 1980s TV show “Mr. Belvedere.” In 2003, for the movie “Elf,” Redbone voiced a snowman character and performed the closing credits theme song, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” as a duet with actress Zooey Deschanel. Also in that year, the duet of Redbone and Asaro were the featured performers at the wedding of movie star Adam Sandler at Dick Clark’s Malibu estate.
Redbone has recorded 15 records, the last in 2005, and while he says he is interested in recording another, he is not sure it’s in the cards for him. “I’ve been trying to get around to it, but it hasn’t yet happened,” he says.
Redbone, who spoke from his manager/publicist’s office in New Hope, PA, is thought to be a resident of rural Bucks County, though he has never disclosed exactly where. “I’m one of the homeless,” he says. After his gigs, Redbone is known to be a congenial personality, always taking time to speak with fans.
He is a true historian of the vaudeville/blues performers whose ambiance he recreates: their music, their lives, and their belongings in some cases — he is a collector of vintage instruments — all have meaning to him. But he doesn’t really explicitly acknowledge direct influences.
“Who are my major influences? I’ve basically stolen everything I can get my hands on when it comes to performing onstage,” he said with a laugh.
His distinct picked guitar style, says Redbone, contains lots of technique he copied and learned from Portuguese musicians, most likely those he encountered as a younger man in Toronto, which has a substantial Portuguese population.
“It’s the fado that I love,” says Redbone. “There are some wonderful musicians in Portugal, and in the old days, it was definitely an inspirational country. Now it’s off the radar screen, but the music has always been exciting for me because it’s so expressive. Beautiful music. It’s a rich musical European heritage.”
For the past 40 years or so, Redbone has been wandering the cities and towns of North America, and to a lesser extent, the world, reproducing, at least for him, the itinerant lifestyle of the traveling musician — free, with no encumbrances other than the ones he himself may or may not choose. In February, 1979, Redbone survived the crash of a small plane near Clarksburg, West Virginia, and since then he has traveled by car to as many gigs as he can. He has said that he doesn’t even listen to the radio when he drives the back roads of America, that he enjoys filling the silence by concentrating on his own music.
In addition to the fear of flying the 1979 accident instilled in him, the overwhelmingly tense atmosphere of airports in general has also served to dissuade Redbone from wanting to fly. Knowing the fierceness with which Redbone protects details about himself, the overall paranoia and decline in civility of post-9/11, Patriot Act America has really turned him off.
And that, he says, indicates that Americans in general have lost many of their basic human and civil rights in this century, and that they are continuing to be taken away, little by little, every day. “We’re in something of a Nazi nightmare,” he says. “We keep living with the impression that everything is happy and free, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. I think we all know what is happening, and it’s not a pretty sight. It’s done is such a passive way. One drop after another, slowly, and you don’t even notice that you’re drowning.”
Leon Redbone, Patriots Theater at the War Memorial, Memorial Drive, Trenton. Thursday, May 26, 7 p.m. Redbone has more than 15 albums and numerous collaborations. $39. 609-984-8400 or www.thewarmemorial.com.