A tribute to Leon Redbone, a musician from another time

Like many other music fans, I was saddened to hear last week that Leon Redbone had died at the age of 69 — which isn’t really that old, in the grand scheme of things (I find that as I get older, my definition of old continues to increase). According to friends of the family, he had suffered from dementia for some time, which could be why he stopped performing in 2015. I saw him play in Toronto just two years earlier, at Hugh’s Room in The Junction, a lovely little bar/restaurant that itself seemed like something from another time, with a handful of tables grouped around a low stage in the corner.

Leon came out and sat in a chair with a small lamp beside him and a stool, and a young man accompanied him on piano as he ran through some of his favorites, like Shine On Harvest Moon, Walking Stick, and Marie. In between, he indulged in some classic Redbone patter, making jokes about himself and his music, starting and stopping songs multiple times to offer asides about this or that. After the show, I stopped him in the lobby where he was signing CDs to tell him how much I enjoyed his music, and he growled “Thank you very much” in that classic Redbone way. I didn’t want to bother him, but I’m really glad now that I took the time — those were his last filmed performances, and they appear in a short documentary about him that came out this year entitled “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone.”

Every fan says this about their favorite musicians, but I’m pretty sure there was no one quite like Leon — he appeared seemingly out of nowhere in Toronto in the late 1960s, playing at various folk and jazz clubs. Word got around about this strange man with the unusual name, who played ancient blues and ragtime songs from the 1920s and 1930s, with the low growly voice and the amazing finger-picking style. I first saw him on Saturday Night Live, and he seemed like something from another time, with his riverboat-gambler style outfit, fedora and sunglasses, staring at the floor as he played the ancient hit “Champagne Charlie” (starts around 25:25 in the video below).

According to an article in the Oxford American — the most comprehensive piece I have ever read on a man who was pretty much a mystery, even to some of those who knew and played with him — Redbone’s mysterious style even drew the attention of Bob Dylan, who arrived unannounced at the Mariposa Folk Festival on the Toronto islands in 1972 because he wanted to meet Redbone. At the end of the day, Dylan and Redbone and Canadian folk superstar Gordon Lightfoot slipped away on a boat Dylan had rented. Folk star John Prine, who was also there, recounts the scene in the documentary that came out this year.

Even when he lived and played in Toronto, no one knew much about Redbone — whose real name was Dickran Gobalian (he was the son of Armenian parents who fled the genocide in that country). The Oxford American says one local musician remembers that whenever someone gave Redbone a lift home, he’d ask to be let out at an intersection in Forest Hill where there was a large apartment building, but the only time anyone saw him enter, he walked back out moments later and climbed into a cab. “Another time, recalls musician Michael Cooney, someone dropped Redbone at a hotel, and he went in the front door and came out the side door and went into the subway.”

In those days, the only way to reach Redbone was by phoning the pool hall by the subway stop at the corner of Bloor and Yonge Street and asking for Mr. Grunt, though the guys there also knew him as Sonny. Redbone was something of a shark, stalking the billiard table and sinking balls with graceful ferocity. A 1973 profile describes the way that, “Right foot back, pool cue resting emphatically on thumb and knuckle, he double-banks a red into the side pocket and prepares to make an eighty degree cut black.” Then he proclaims, “‘I don’t have a past. The past begins tomorrow.’”

No one — not even his wife and manager Beryl Handler, or his two daughters, Ashley (who runs a recording studio in New Haven, Conn.) and Blake — know how or when he taught himself to play guitar, or why he adopted the music of the 1920s and ’30s, or why he took the name Leon Redbone (Redbone was a term used to describe people of mixed race in the old South). He appears to have created this persona out of whole cloth and then stepped into it and embodied it for the rest of his life — even off-stage, behind the scenes, the persona was the same. “I spent an afternoon with him in a hotel room,” Bonnie Raitt told Rolling Stone, “and I was wondering when he was going to become normal. He never did.”

Redbone also deliberately resisted attempts to dig into his personal life or his history. All that mattered was the music. “Some people seem to believe that as soon as you perform on stage you lose your rights as a private citizen,” he complained. “They want to find out who I am, what I am, where I was born, how old I am—all this complete nonsense that belongs in a passport office.” When a radio interviewer mentioned that they had seen Redbone with his family in New York, he said that they “might’ve been a rental for the day.” In another interview, according to the Oxford American piece, he said: “I’ve never considered myself the proper focus of attention. “I’m just a vehicle.”

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