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Leon Redbone: Trying (and Failing) to Untangle a Mysterious Hero

His father was Paganini, his mother Jenny Lind. He’s not real old, just 304, and he wishes he knew where he was born

Leon Redbone during Leon Redbone in Concert at Symphony Hall in Atlanta - August 20, 1977 at Symphony Hall in Atlanta, Georgia, United States. (Photo by Tom Hill/WireImage)

Leon Redbone in concert, 1977.

Tom Hill/WireImage)

Leon Redbone interests me. I’ve heard he’s anywhere from 25 to 60. I’ve been this close to him [about a foot away] and I can’t tell. If I had a label I’d want him. He does old Jimmie Rodgers, then turns around and does a Robert Johnson.”
Bob Dylan, January 12th, 1974, in Montreal
ROLLING STONE, February 14th, 1974

His every action is a painstaking deliberation. He executes a walk reminiscent of a senior citizen who’s just stepped out from a body cast and wants to test his healed limbs; it’s one of the most careful walks on the planet. His three-piece suits are from the Twenties, his funky old tie looks more like a typewriter ribbon, omnipresent sun-glasses mask his eyes and a perpetually sly smile — the kind you were always taught to beware — hints at a secret from within.

It’s almost inconceivable, but none of Leon Redbone’s friends, fellow musicians or business associates know where he’s from, how old he is or what his real name is. And of those who do know Leon today, four or five years appears to be absolutely the longest term of familiarity with him. In 1969 or ’70 Leon descended (or appeared out of nowhere, as many claim) upon the city of Toronto to become a peculiar addition to its folk and poolroom scenes. Before that, it’s pure conjecture.

There inevitably will be those who will now claim that he was actually born in Toronto and that they attended high school at Forest Hill Collegiate with him, but oddly enough, I came across a very convincing elderly man in Toronto who swears that Leon played violin at his bar mitzvah. In 1912. And he said Leon doesn’t look a day older some 62 years later.

Leon’s repertoire consists mainly of early ragtime and jazz with an occasional ballad or blues piece slipped in, all of which date back to the Twenties or Thirties — periods of musical history which, due to the scarcity of recordings, make his job of researching an especially difficult one.

But the remarkable thing about Leon Redbone is that he’s so accurate in every aspect of his presentation — from his scat singing to his yodeling to his authentic, nasally slurred vocals to the unerring accuracy of his Blind Blake-styled, ragtime-piano type of guitar playing. It’s been said that when Leon plays, you can almost hear the surface noise. He’s that convincing.

Several weeks ago, he completed a three-night engagement at Passim, a tiny folk purist club in Boston; even though he’s spent the last year or so in the Boston area, it was only the second time he’d appeared there. He shuffled down the aisle for his only show of the evening, carrying in one hand his guitar and an enormous cigar, and in the other hand a beer and a baseball bat. A contented hum, the magnitude of an outboard motor, emanated from his vocal chords.

He meticulously placed his beer and his baseball bat on one of the two stools set up for him, got comfortable on the other, and looking like the missing link between Frank Zappa and Bob Dylan (with strong flashes of Groucho Marx), nodded his head. “Good evening,” he purred in a rollicking, husky W.C. Fields-type delivery.

He began with the Blind Blake version of “Champagne Charley,” an obscure song from the Thirties. Sailing through “Lulu’s Back in Town,” masterfully picking Fats Waller-style on the guitar, he began to exhibit the only signs of emotion other than his between-songs sneaky grin. Occasionally when he’d come to a comical line in the tune his eyebrows would peek out over the top rim of his sunglasses, only to disappear a split second later. “Sheik of Arabic,” “Diddy Wah Diddy,” “Any Old Time,” “Big Time Woman” . . . the tunes were coming out as if from a magical vaudevillian jukebox.

At the conclusion of his set, Leon picked up his guitar, what was left of his cigar, and his baseball bat, and shuffled back to his dressing room through a half-stunned, half-screaming audience. Unusual entrance. Mysterious exit.

Mystery is something his friends have come to expect from Leon. Many of them have been instrumental in bringing him into contact with larger audiences (the only way in fact, since he has no recordings out and is in no particular hurry to do any).

John Hammond, Bonnie Raitt, Maria Muldaur and John Prine have done the most in that respect for Leon, using him as an opening act in various theaters across the country. (And of course, he can do it on his own in the summers appearing at folk festivals like the Mariposa in Toronto and at the Philadelphia folk-fest.) The musician admirers Leon has acquired are a mighty vocal lot, and they include Dylan, Jack Elliott, David Bromberg, Steve Goodman and Loudon Wainwright.

And Dick Flohil, editor of Canadian Composer magazine and an organizer of the Mariposa Folk Festival. In 1972 he asked Leon for some biographical information for the festival magazine. Redbone sent in a sheet of paper saying, “My name is Blind James Hocum. I come from New Orleans and the reason I wear dark glasses all the time is because I used to lead Blind Blake through the South.” Flohil said Leon sent him a crumpled-up old photo of Dylan to run as his photo in the festival book. (Leon did the same thing at last year’s festival in Philly.)

“I’ve known Leon for four or five years,” said Flohil, “and I still don’t even know his real name.”

Neither does John Hammond, who along with everybody else is in the dark concerning where Leon’s from or how old he is. And John considers Leon to be “my pal.” Doesn’t that seem weird?

“Yeah,” Hammond said in a what-can-you-do voice, “it does seem weird. But I don’t mind at all,” he added quickly, “I mean, the first time I saw him, I was in awe! I just couldn’t believe how good he was! And if he doesn’t want to talk about his past, that’s OK with me.” Sentiments which were echoed by nearly everyone else.

“He did tell me one interesting thing about his past,” Hammond noted. “He told me that he lived in a pool hall in Toronto for four years.” That pool hall in Toronto was in the Bloor Street subway station. And the only way anyone could get ahold of him during those four years was by calling the poolroom on Friday afternoons and asking for Mr. Grunt.

“Don’t play him in pool,” John warned, “unless you’re prepared to run two or three racks every time you shoot.”

Leon’s musical talents began to get noticed almost immediately upon his arrival in Toronto. At the Mariposa Festival four years ago, Bromberg, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and a few other people were playing pass-the-guitar-around and when it came to Leon, he did an old Dylan song which never got recorded, called “Livin’ with the Blues.” It has a four-bar instrumental ending, and every time he would get to it he’d go three and three-quarter bars through it — and then do a different ending than before. He wound up resolving the ending 29 different ways before he was finished and Bromberg almost went out of his mind.

According to Flohil, Bromberg went racing down to New York and told everyone he could find about this crazy guy in Toronto who nobody knows anything about, who plays an incredible guitar, who does old songs like nobody else, etc., etc.

One of the people he probably told was Dylan, because when Dylan went up to Mariposa the summer of ’72, the first thing he was reported to have said was, “Where’s Redbone?”

Flohil said Dylan heard Leon play that weekend. The crowd got so excited about Dylan’s presence at the festival that he had to fly out in a police launch. On the way out, Dylan grabbed Leon and the two of them left together, carrying matching black umbrellas, wearing matching black suits and sporting identical black hats. Quite a few people became convinced, from that day on, that Bob and Leon were brothers.

Also according to Flohil, they supposedly went to Atlantic Records, cut a demo and took it to Jerry Wexler, but Flohil was uncertain as to how it was received. Beryl Handler, Leon’s manager, said that no demo was ever made.

Wexler vaguely remembered hearing the demo tape two years ago but mentioned that it wasn’t cut at Atlantic and he doesn’t really remember anything else about it. He’s pretty sure he still has it and thought that it might turn up in the next month or two when they clean out their files. Despite Redbone’s hesitancy to record at all, John Hammond still feels that Leon would like to cut a record. “But only for Dylan,” he added. “He doesn’t want to be exploited in any way.”

Bonnie Raitt remembered first seeing Leon at the same ’72 Mariposa Festival where Dylan, Prine and Jackson Browne first heard him. “He was in a workshop,” she said, breaking into a little laugh, “called ‘Songs that are so bad they’re good,’ run by Michael Cooney, and there’s, like, Bromberg and all these people lined up, you know, on a typical Mariposa workshop afternoon. In 150-degree heat, Leon is sitting there in his suit and it gets to be his turn and, you know, there are people singing songs about their neighbor’s goat — really terrible old folk songs. Real cheesy. And it got to Leon and completely straight-faced, he played ‘Melodic D’Arnour’ [she start-ed singing] and blew everybody away.

“He’s just amazing,” Bonnie continued, “He’s probably the best combination singer-guitarist I’ve heard in years. I’d like to know where he gets his stuff. I’d also like to find out how old he is. But I’ll tell you one thing — he couldn’t be that hip and be under 30.”

Bonnie also had trouble getting beyond Leon’s defenses. “I spent an afternoon with him,” she recalled, “in a hotel room while Beryl was out shopping and I was wondering when he was going to become normal. He never did.”

Tam Kearney, who manages a quaint Toronto club called Fiddler’s Green, remembered the running that Leon chose to do in the four years or so that he frequented the club. “We used to give him lifts home after the gigs and he’d have us drop him off in a different part of the city every night. After we’d drive away we could see him come back out of the apartment building he’d just entered and start walking down the street. And if he took the subway home and people would follow him to try and find out where he lived, he would have to lose them in the subway. But he always did.”

Kearney says when he first saw Leon six years ago (in a little Toronto coffee-house which no longer exists, called Pornographic Onion), Leon called himself Sonny; later he introduced himself as Leon Redburn. Beryl Handler, Redbone’s friend and manager (through Folklore in Boston, which also handles Doc Watson, Mimi Farina, Joan Baez and others), protects Leon’s mysterious shell.

She refused to reveal either Redbone’s real name or actual age. “You’d have to ask Leon Redbone,” she said. “To him, it’s irrelevant.”

But by keeping such basic information to himself, I argued, Redbone had caused other artists to dwell on his age and name. And Dylan, I added, had brought up the mystery of Redbone’s age and appearance. Was Dylan’s guess of his age range — 25 to 60 — anywhere near accurate?

“Sixty’?” she said. “No. He’s not real old. That’s all I’ll tell you.”

Following Leon’s performance at Passim several weeks ago, I walked back to his dressing room and mentioned our prearranged interview, asking him if he still felt like doing it. When he said, “Yes,” I looked around his dressing room and noticing that it measured roughly four by six, suggested to him, “Why don’t we do it at your place. It’s probably much more comfortable.”

Remaining silent, his smile grew wider as he looked through my obvious motive.

We went instead to a different apartment in Boston, a flat occupied by a third party who was not present, and we were accompanied by three other people.

Knowing that Jelly Roll Morton was one of Leon’s all-round favorite musicians, I brought along a recent jazz piano anthology album, featuring the 29 most important players of all time, to show him that Jelly Roll Morton had been omitted.

During our conversation in the flat, which stretched over two hours, Leon was open, engaging and humorous when talking about the old-time music which he loved but, when the subject of conversation became Leon Redbone, the openness quickly closed. He ignored the first attempt at a personal question and chose to decry Jelly Roll’s being left off the anthology album.

“Terrible,” he said. Leon’s not known as an excitable man, but now he seemed worked up, leaning back and placing both hands on the table, like a chairman of the board with a bad report on his hands. “That is really terrible that they wouldn’t have him in there. In fact it’s quite amazing. He himself said he was the originator of jazz, right? But from the way he played, I’d be inclined to agree with him. As far as I’m concerned, he was number one. Tremendous.”

“What things of his do you do?”

“I just do whatever I can,” he laughed (in staccato-like little bursts as he did, for reason or not, throughout much of our conversation), “which isn’t very much. You see, it’s a shame to play Jelly Roll on the guitar. On the breaks of his stuff, he would elaborate it and go into all kinds of manipulating that you can’t do on the guitar.”

“Then why not play the piano?”

“I love the piano. I just really haven’t gotten around to it yet. I intend to one of these days. What I really want to do is change all of what I do. … I really want to play piano because everything that I do, basically I would want to play on the piano — and listening to Jelly Roll talk about all the great piano players around 1910…”

“1910!” I thought to myself. I couldn’t hold back after hearing that. “Leon,” said, “there’s a rumor going around that you’re really 400 years old. Is that true?”

“No, no,” he said breaking into a modest grin. “Three hundred and four… You know it really is a shame they don’t have Jelly Roll on here,” he added, laughing contentedly at his ability to change the subject of our conversation at will.

But he had baited me by telling me he was 304, so I persisted: “Where were you born, Leon?”

“That’s a very interesting question,” he laughed. “I wish I knew. Doesn’t matter anyway. Makes no difference. It’s what you make of it that really matters,” he said in an almost fatherly manner.

Seeing that he was enjoying this little interlude, I questioned him again. “When were you born exactly?” “Sixteen seventy was the year as I recall. July the tenth.”

Doing some quick mental computing I figured that that would make him 303, not 304 . . . “Of course I don’t know,” he added. “It’s just something that I vaguely recall. I can’t say for sure.”

I attempted to steer the conversation around to recording and asked him if he was interested. He grew even more vague than before.

“Am I interested in recording?” he repeated my question. Pause. “Well, it would all depend on how I went about it, I guess. That involves a lot of questions.” Longer pause.

“Which are?” I broke the silence.

“Basically I would imagine it would involve doing it right . . . something that sounds good to me…” Fadeout.

At this point, he almost seemed like he was about to fall asleep in the middle of our interview. His head started nodding back and forth. I figured the time was ripe for Bob Dylan to enter the picture. “Did you read the Dylan interview in Rolling Stone a couple of months ago where he said he’d like to record you?”

Silence.

“Did you read it?”

Starting to smile again, Leon said ever soooo slowly, “Uh . . yeah.”

“Has he heard you play before?” I asked.

Leon’s laughter almost got out of control. “Well, naturally he would have heard me at Mariposa. I guess … I know he heard me then.”

“Was that the first time you’d met him?”

He laughed some more. Then silence.

“Are these tough questions?” I offered.

“Uh … possibly…”

“Wanna move on to something else?”

Then completely deadpan he said, “You know, it really is amazing that they would not include Jelly Roll Morton on this record. It certainly is.”

“Leon, were your parents musicians?” I queried.

He came right back. “My father was Paganini,” he said proudly, “and my mother was Jenny Lind. Wunnerful, wunnerful.”

“Got one more question for ya: Where was the first place you ever played publicly?”

“The first place I ever played publicly,” he said, going into his W.C. Fields voice, “was in a pool hall. But I wasn’t playing guitar, you see. I was playing pool.”

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