Geoff Gehman, November 2014


Flying By, Flying High

Leon Redbone, cool curator/caretaker of long-ago grooves,

stars in two developing documentaries

Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown and the author of the memoir The Kingdom of the Kid: Growing Up in the Long-Lost Hamptons (SUNY Press).

Leon Redbone and I are being photographed on New Hope’s main drag near a horse drawing a carriage carrying a man masquerading as a woman. The photo, which is being taken by Jim Della Croce, Redbone’s longtime publicist. is a sort of souvenir from my interview with his client, who lives nearby. Turning New Hope into New Orleans seems entirely appropriate after our fun, funky chat about jellyroll and opera, crooning and whistling, channeling forgotten songs and the forgotten feeling of sentimentality.

Redbone is pretty hot for a chronically cool cat. His new CD, Flying By, is a crisp, crackerjack collection of stardust shuffles (“I’ll See You in My Dreams”) and razzmatazz ringers (Blind Blake’s “Police Dog Blues”). Distinguished guests include jazz historian/impresario Vince Giordano, leader of the Nighthawks and music director for the TV series Boardwalk Empire. On the cover Redbone jauntily pilots a bi-plane in an illustration by Blake Redbone-Moyer, one of his two daughters with Beryl Handler, his wife, manager and producer.

Redbone stars in two documentaries in development. Out of Time is being prepared by Jim Shea, a renowned photographer of musicians. Among the interviewees is choreographer Eliot Feld, who created two dances around Redbone renditions of old-time tunes. Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone: The Search for Leon Redbone is being prepared by Jason Charters and Liam Romalis, filmmakers in Toronto, where Redbone first made his bones. Among the interviewees is Ringo Starr, who dueted with Redbone on the Hawaiian ditty “My Little Grass Shack.” A YouTube trailer for the movie features a delightful story about Redbone announcing a tomato as his accompanist.

All this attention is aimed at a lazy, hazy, sometimes slightly crazy singer of antique numbers: cakewalks, rags, ukulele blues, Tin Pan Alley-cat creepers. A mysteriously hip entertainer iconic enough to lend his voice and visage to an animated snowman/wise man in the film Elf. A fiercely private gentleman who has dodged fiercely prying journalists by declaring that (a) he was born in 1670; (b) his parents were violinist Niccolo Paganini and singer Jenny Lind, both 19th-century celebrities, and (c) “I’m not a kind of prize where people are meant to grab a hold of me.” 

I met Redbone—born Dickran Gobalian in 1949 on Cyprus—in Havana, a New Hope restaurant/club where his other daughter, Ashley, once worked. He resembled a riverboat minstrel in his sunglasses, banded hat and ribbon tie. He turned our talk into a sly performance—delivering Groucho Marxian sleight-of-mouth quips, sprinkling conundrums like crumbs. He exuded studied nonchalance, a quality the Italians call sprezzatura.

You know, Leon, I first tuned into you on Feb. 28, 1976, when you performed during the debut season of Saturday Night Live. Many viewers that night couldn’t make heads or tails of you; smart-asses thought you were comic Andy Kaufman disguised in sunglasses, a Panama hat and a spiffy suit. I grew up with songs like “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Big Time Woman,” so I had a feeling that all you were doing was playing an authentic role, serving honest music honestly.

I don’t mind if people scratch their heads over me. This music is what I like; it’s basically an indulgence. I like to perform an ancient song with which I’m familiar. A song appeals to me if it holds out, if it has some weight, if it can express some sentiment. I like to put across a song without showing my technique; if you show your technique, you might as well stop. I like to come across as genuine. If you can’t see through that, chances are you’re not going to like me.

Actually, I don’t think of myself as too eccentric when it comes to clothing. The jacket, the hat, the tie—they’re pretty straightforward. Now, I’ve never worn jeans; they never appealed to me. I guess I’m stubborn. I mean, jeans could come in handy for cleaning the bottom of cars.

What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that absolutely laid you flat?

My first favorite songs were arias. I listened to them on 78s I borrowed from the library across the street from our home; they didn’t mind me taking out records. Caruso had an amazing voice; he could really belt it out. He didn’t go for any subtleties, but what he put across made it subtle. Unfortunately, he missed out on the great singers of an earlier area—the great castrati. There’s so little left of the voice of Alessandro Moreschi [1858-1922], the last of the unfortunates. Believe it or not, I was younger in those days.

My first favorite singer was this young operatic tenor from Greece. I must have been three or four when I first heard him; Costa Milona was his name. He was put under the wings of this individual who evidently found him working in the fields, singing while he was cutting grass. Singing is always legitimate when it’s by someone who can sing. [Sings, then whistles]

I envy your whistling; I can’t whistle for crap. You sound almost, well, operatic.

I figure if you have lungs, you should be able to whistle. But it doesn’t always turn out that way, I hear. I didn’t take any whistling lessons. I learned by listening to a lot of incredible whistlers, not paying attention to who they were. There’s no reason why anyone can’t whistle, or whistle properly.

On your new record, Flying By, you sing two tunes recorded by Lee Morse (1897-1954), who hit paydirt in the ‘20s and ‘30s with her almost masculine voice, her yodeling, her large repertoire, her vaudevillian spirit and her snappy bluegrass band with such up-and-comers as Benny Goodman. Why do you like her? Why was she such a Big Woman on Campus?

I don’t hear the masculine quality, but she did have a wide [vocal] range. She had almost a theatrical presentation, with very tricky vocal cords. She was very confident, a natural. She could really put across a song; her version of “Just You and I” [covered by Redbone on Flying By] is as good as it gets. She was also very stubborn and very tough and some people just didn’t get her. She was asking people to put the world on hold. There’s nothing wrong with that—unless the tables and chairs start to float.

You dig so much happy music minted by so many sad people who died young: Morse, Jelly Roll Morton, Blind Blake, Sophie Tucker, Billie Holiday. What’s the attraction?

Well, Sophie Tucker came from a totally different era; her way of delivery was a totally different way of belting it out and making it work. Billie Holiday could get inside a song because the song was inside her. Jelly Roll was a most unfortunate gentleman; he’s also one of my favorite musicians. And Blind Blake is definitely one of my guitar heroes. He had an advantage over people: his nails. My nails will snap. Blake couldn’t possibly break his nails because he had claws. It must have been his diet.

Do you consider yourself a curator of time-lost songs?

Oh, I don’t know about that. Maybe it’s my appreciation for the past; it depends on where the past was. I do believe very strongly in putting across an honest sentiment. Sentimentality is practically non-existent; it’s pretty much evaporated. I swear that 99.9 percent of the population is looking for noise, not music. They’re addicted to maximum volume and then some: the louder, the better.

That’s a real puzzle, a mind-boggling phenomenon. But, then, what isn’t? If someone who likes having their eardrums blown out by lunatics hears a person like me, playing some ditty or dirge on an acoustic guitar, they’ll probably think: What the hell is this? It’s not music. And then they may start throwing things.

What would you do if you weren’t playing music?

If the opportunity arose, let’s see. I could do caricatures. Or I could be a voice-over whistler. It could work out; it could also be a pain in the neck.

So, Leon, tell me: What was the deal with you and that onstage tomato?

Sometimes tomatoes are the best accompanists.