Your Sister’s (Record) Rack: Leon Redbone
We are giving our sister’s record collection a rest for the time being, and playing some of our own favorite records. Today let’s dust off On The Track, the 1975 debut from mysterious singer/guitarist Leon Redbone. He’s mysterious because nobody knows for certain where he comes from, or who he is for that matter. He did gain some notoriety playing in Toronto in the early 1970s but Leon made his national impression with this album, followed by a 1976 appearance on “Saturday Night Live.”
Whomever he may be, Redbone is a tremendous musician and singer – with On The Track he put his great talents to work interpreting songs of the old Tin Pan Alley, some dating back to the turn of the (20th) century. The album’s 11 tunes have sparse instrumentation, and nothing here sounds “modern” in the strict sense – you get a sense you are listening to a gramophone record of the 1920s. Actually most of the album was played by some serious studio heavyweights including percussionists Ralph McDonald (castanets) and Steven Gadd (drums) as well as legendary jazz cats Milt Hinton (bass), Garnett Brown (trombone), Seldon Powell (sax) and Jonathan Dorn (tuba).
So you have Leon on guitar, starting the proceedings with “Sweet Mama Hurry Home Or I’ll Be Gone,” which puts the listener square in the pre-World War II era. Then there’s the Fats Waller classic “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” which sets up as a duet between Redbone on guitar and a cool violin. Irving Berlin’s “My Walking Stick” adds horns and a tuba to the mix, and it’s a good showcase for Redbone’s voice and nimble guitar picking. “Lazy Bones” is a sultry piece of Dixieland blues, written by Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer. Then Irving Berlin’s “Marie” swirls like an island breeze, with nifty clarinet work by Billy Slapin.
On “Desert Blues (Big Chief Buffalo Nickel)” Leon unveils his unique “throat tromnet,” a type of singing that sounds like a trumpet crossed with a trombone. His scat singing and yodeling at the end is pretty good, too – the Singing Brakeman Jimmie Rodgers could never have envisioned this throwaway becoming the highlight of an album four decades after his death.
“Lulu’s Back In Town” opens with the sounds of a pool hall, where Redbone is said to have started his singing career, and the album closes with the 19th century “Polly Wolly Doodle,” which was often performed around the turn of the century by blackface minstrel Dan Emmett. Clearly, the vaudeville performers and blackface minstrels are among Leon Redbone’s heroes – he even said so when we met him backstage before one of his shows.
Another of Leon’s heroes – and mine too – is the obnoxious show-biz amphibian Michigan J. Frog, who appears on the album cover. Created by Warner Bros. cartoon animator Chuck Jones, Mr. Frog made his one and only big-screen appearance in “One Froggy Evening,” a 1955 cartoon short (they used to put cartoons on at the movies back then). Michigan J. Frog made a number of cameos on other TV cartoons, and was most famously the official mascot of the WB television network from 1995 until 2005, when the frog was unceremoniously “killed” by network brass.
On The Track was an auspicious debut but it wasn’t a big hit. A lot of people “discovered” Leon Redbone with his appearances on “Saturday Night Live” and later on “The Tonight Show.” He put out a follow-up, Double Time, in 1977 and has cut about 12 or so albums since. Redbone appeared on a number of TV commercials and duetted with Zooey Deschanel on “Baby It’s Cold Outside” for the movie Elf. Leon Redbone still performs today, with pretty much the same schtick he had back in 1975. Nice to know some things never change.
YouTube: Leon Redbone medley
BONUS: “One Froggy Evening” from YouTube