We’ll never get used to death, it’s always a shock, it always hurts.
2016 will be remembered as one of the gloomiest year in music, just in the last few days Leonard Cohen, Leon Russell…and three days ago the imaginative pianist, singer and songwriter, and iconic figure for generations of rockers and mods, Mose Allison passed way aged 89.
In the mid 80’s I read a Van Morrison interview, in which he talked about a jazz pianist/singer as one of his main inspirations, I was intrigued by his words, I immediately bought a reissue of ‘Mose Alive!’, those emotional and inventive songs stoked my imagination…
Mississipi-born in 1927, he soon took up piano lessons at school, where was also influenced by the Hungarian folklore of Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály (“It’s like the blues in the feeling”) , and was naturally informed since early stage by the blues of the Delta, bluesmen like Tampa Red, Willie Dixon and Sonny Boy Williamson.
Allison with his quick quirky boogie-woogie piano-playing, his slightly nasal semi-colloquial voice and his sharp and witty social-political lyrics, was able to masterly mix blues, jazz and country into some kind of beautifully cool that ecompassed and trascended any easy classification.
He moved to New York in 1956 and took part of studio sessions with Stan Getz, Jerry Mulligan and Zoot Sims. He signed a record deal with the young Prestige label and surprisingly his version of Willie Dixon‘s ‘Seventh Son’ became a pop hit in 1959, the starting point of his incredible career as a solo artist.
Allison’s explosive musical and lyrical recipe was so true and natural to break all the racial and geographical prejudices, so much that the Afro-American magazine Jet asked him for an interview arguing he was a black man.
Because of his anti-capitalistic and anti-war attitude, his British-like sharp irony and humor, his genre-defying music, he was dubbed ‘the William Faulkner of Jazz‘.
Many musicians were influenced and covered his music, high-profile artists such as The Who, The Clash, Johnny Winter, Bonnie Raitt, Van Morrison, John Mayall, Elvis Costello, Eric Clapton, Georgie Fame, Jimi Hendrix, Blue Cheer, Pixies, Dead Moon to name a few.
Let’s try to pay tribute with a brief, partial and subjective journey through his incredible productions.
1. ‘Seventh Son’ the cover of the Willie Dixon classic, his first pop chart hit in 1959.
2. ‘Parchman Farm’ from his 1958 album ‘Local Color’.
Maybe his most representative song, a 60’s classic around the Mod circles and covered by the likes of John Mayall, Johnny Winter, Georgie Fame, Hot Tuna.
Inspired by the bluesman Bukka White’s song ‘Parchfarm Farm Blues’, it’s a classic ‘murder ballad”, named after the Mississipi State Penintentiary, a ‘nightmare destination’ as the writer William Faulkner used to say and where the same Bukka, imprisoned, . Allison sings about ‘cotton sack’ and a lifer ‘Gonna be down here for the rest of my life / All I did was shoot my wife’.
3. ‘Your Mind Is On Vacation’ title track from the 1976 album.
This is The Mose Allison Trio live version at a Chicago TV show in 1975.
A vivid example of his irony and mordant wit ‘Because your mind is on vacation and your mouth is working overtime’.
4. ‘Young Man Blues’, The Who live at the Isle of Wight in 1970.The Who made their cover version on the album ‘Live At Leeds’ and Allison appeared also in their Jeff Stein’s 1979 rock documentary “The Kids Are Alright”. Townshend also wrote that The Who’s anthem ‘My Generation‘ was very much inspired by ‘Young Man Blues’. “I made more money out of that,” Allison told “than anything else I’ve done”.
5. ‘Look Here’ originally from the 1965 LP ‘The Word From Mose’. English punk legends The Clash recorded a jazzy version on their 1980 double album ‘Sandinista!’.
6. ‘Gettin’ There’ live at an Italian RAI TV Show in 1989.
He sings he sings, “I am not downhearted. But I’m getting there.” with his typical humor, where his inner optimism is strained by the harsh reality.
7. A beautiful Van Morrison live version, a fan recording at the Brighton Dome on February 2014, of the Mose Allison song ‘Benediction (Thank God for Self Love)’originally on 1996 Van Morrison’s album ‘Tell Me Something – The Songs Of Mose Allison’. As Van says at the introduction of the song , Mose Allison was a friend and a mentor, “one of the great songwriters of the century.”
8. ‘I’m Not Talking’ a Mose original, was recorded by The Yardbirds on 1965 the album ‘For Your Love’ and by The Misunderstood on the 1966 album ‘Before The Dream Faded’. Also the Californian all-female band The Bangles used to cover it, with guitarist Michael Steele on vocals’ duty, during their live shows since 1983, this is a later live version at the LA’s House of Blues in 2000.
9. Boston’s alternative rock heroes Pixies titled their song ‘Allison’, a affectionate tribute to our Man, on the 1990 album ‘Bossanova’.
They also used to play ‘Old Man Blues’ during their shows.
“Allison / Allison / Keeps a smile around a while / He took no fright and jettisoned / We’ll go tonight to hear him tell, “Oh well”
10. Mose Allison performs ‘Everybody Cryin’ Mercy‘ on Later… with Jools Holland, BBC Two (20 May 2005), has just surfaced today.
11. ‘Ever Since The World Ended’ title track from the 1987 album on Blue Note.
In these dumb times we’re living, let’s end this this is fine example of his unique, cut with optimism, ‘bad attitude’ “Ever since the world ended, I don’t go out as much. / People that I once befriended just don’t bother to stay in touch. / Things that used to seem so splendid don’t really matter today. It’s just as well the world ended, it wasn’t working anyway“.
A great songwriter and musician, a beloved inspiration for many of us.
“You always want to write the perfect song,” he said. “But no one will ever write the perfect song, I guess,” he said. “I would just like to write one that has all the elements of what I’m trying to do. And I’m working on it. I’m always working on it”. Cool.