Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music

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REDBONE, Leon

Guitarist, songwriter, arranger and singer, Leon Redbone is a laid-back, gruff-voiced folkie, specializing in old pop songs that have entered the collective consciousness. He looks for a timeless quality, for songs that are effectively becoming folk songs. Always described as mysterious because he gives no interviews, with his mustache he looks a bit like Groucho Marx; if impelled, he will impersonate a tuba. He emerged in Toronto c.1970. Bonnie Raitt and Maria Muldaur were early fans, and Bob Dylan said that Redbone would be the first signing to his new Ashes & Sand label (but the label didn't happen).

Redbone's first album On The Track '76 included his staples 'Polly Wolly Doodle' (a minstrel song from 1883), Fats Waller's 'Ain't Misbehavin',' and Hoagy Carmichael's 'Lazybones'. Double Time '77 included 'Winin' Boy Blues' by Jelly Roll Morton, 'Nobody's Sweetheart' etc; Champagne Charlie '78 was more of the same. He changed labels from WB to Atco/Emerald City for From Branch To Branch '81, which included Hank Williams's 'Your Cheatin' Heart' and Jiminy Cricket's 'When You Wish Upon A Star.'

Some critics liked the first LP, then decided it was all a joke; there is something about the concept of repertory music that confuses pop/rock critics, who want all new songs each time, but the first four albums all charted in Billboard, the second reaching the top 40. Red To Blue '86, later on Sugar Hill, included guests the Roches, Mac Rebennack, Hank Williams Jr, and Jazz reedman Ken Peplowski; No Regrets '88 came out on Sugar Hill.

A British advertising agency hired Redbone around 1990 to compose and sing TV commercials for British Rail: 'So Relax,' 'Sleepy Time,' and 'Untwist Again' traded on nostalgia for railways. Asked if he ever travelled on British Rail, Redbone said, 'I took a train from London to Dorking. I had to go and see what a town called Dorking would look like...' Redbone's album Sugar '90 on Private Music included 'So Relax,' as well as his original 'Laughin' Blues,' and other songs in tribute to Emmett Miller. (Miller was the last of the blackface minstrels, described as one of the great lost figures in American entertainment, who influenced a lot of people from Jimmie Rodgers to both Hank Williams senior and junior.) Up A Lazy River '92 and Whistling In The Wind '94 were also on Private Music, the latter with guests Ringo Starr and Merle Haggard. After a gap of nearly seven years, Any Time came out on Blue Thumb, with second guitarist Frank Vignola playing a Gibson that once belonged to Bing Crosby's great accompanist Eddie Lang. Several earlier Redbone albums were reissued on Blue thumb, and he also made a Christmas album, Christmas Island.

Redbone usually works as a quartet with muted cornet, piano, and second guitar; the little group gets up a swinging two-beat good-time feeling, and seeing him live is a delightful experience. Live & Kickin' on Master Classics has tracks recorded around 1979-81 at the Lone Star Café in New York City; Leon Redbone Live was a 1991 concert at the Olympia in Paris, France, released on Rounder in 2006. He appeared in the soundtrack of the Christmas family comedy film elf in 2003 (the voice of the snowman), and has also contributed to PBS programs for children.