Leon Redbone, the quixotic, nasally singer known for idiosyncratically performing ragtime and Tin Pan Alley–style songs, has announced his retirement from both recording and making public performances. A rep explained that the singer’s health “has been a matter of concern for some time” and that “it has become too challenging for him to continue the full range of professional activities.”
Jack White’s Third Man Records will issue A Long Way Home, a double-album collection of Redbone’s live and studio solo recordings, “in the near future.” The selections included on the release will date back to 1972, three years before his debut album.
With his wide-brim hats and big sunglasses, Redbone was a man of mystery from the start. He rose to fame in the mid-Seventies after Bob Dylan spotted him at a folk festival and told Rolling Stone how curious Redbone was. “Leon interests me,” Dylan said in 1974. “I’ve heard he’s anywhere from 25 to 60, I’ve been [a foot and a half from him] and I can’t tell, but you gotta see him. He does old Jimmie Rodgers, then turns around and does a Robert Johnson.”
Rolling Stone profiled Redbone a couple of months after Dylan’s recommendation and found him to be just as intriguing. When the writer asked the singer if his parents were musicians, he said, “My father was Paganini and my mother was Jenny Lind. Wunnerful, wunnerful.” And he followed that up by saying — in a W.C. Fields voice — that the first place he ever played publicly was, “in a pool hall, but I wasn’t playing guitar, you see. I was playing pool.”
In 1975, Redbone released his debut album, On the Track, and became a frequent guest on Saturday Night Live, appearing twice in the show’s first season. “It’s much easier to present and shoot Leon Redbone than it is to do the Grateful Dead,” Lorne Michaels told Rolling Stone in 1979, acknowledging the sales bump his show gave the singer. “Because Leon is intimate, you can get in real close.”
He earned his sole Hot 100 hit, “Seduced,” in 1981, but despite a dearth of commercial success, the singer appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, provided the music for commercials ranging from Budweiser to All laundry detergent and sang the theme song for Mr. Belvedere.
As an actor, Redbone appeared on an episode of Life Goes On and voiced “Leon the Snowman” in Elf, as well as singing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with Zooey Deschanel over the film’s closing credits. His music has also influenced the music of Willis Earl Beal and the comedy of Patton Oswalt. Ever light-hearted, he also once made an appearance on a talk show hosted by Alf, featuring Ed McMahon and future Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston.
Redbone put out his most recent album, Flying By, last year. A Redbone documentary, Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone: The Search for Leon Redbone, is in the works. A five-minute promo for the film was released in 2012.