Singer-songwriter Leon Redbone, who specialized in old-school vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley-style music, died Thursday, his family confirmed. No cause of death was given for the notoriously private performer. He was 69, although, in characteristically deadpan fashion, the official statement announcing his death gave his age as 127.
Although Redbone’s pop-defying predilection for seemingly antiquated musical styles of the ’20s and ’30s made him the unlikeliest of stars, he became one anyway, appearing several times as the musical guest on “Saturday Night Live” — including two spots in the inaugural 1975-76 season alone — and landing frequent appearances with Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show” into the 1980s. Later popular successes had him singing the themes for TV’s “Mr. Beledevere” and “Harry and the Hendersons,” along with contributing a duet of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with Zooey Deschanel to the soundtrack of “Elf,” for which he also voiced the animated character of Leon the Snowman.
Redbone had officially retired in 2015, with a representative then citing unspecified health concerns that had “been a matter of concern for some time” as the reason for his being unable to continue performing or recording.
A post on Redbone’s website confirming his death contained enough whimsical humor and obvious fiction that it was almost certainly prepared in advance by the singer himself. “It is with heavy hearts we announce that early this morning, May 30th, 2019, Leon Redbone crossed the delta for that beautiful shore at the age of 127,” it read. “He departed our world with his guitar, his trusty companion Rover, and a simple tip of his hat. He’s interested to see what Blind Blake, Emmett, and Jelly Roll have been up to in his absence, and has plans for a rousing sing along number with Sári Barabás. An eternity of pouring through texts in the Library of Ashurbanipal will be a welcome repose, perhaps followed by a shot or two of whiskey with Lee Morse, and some long overdue discussions with his favorite Uncle, Suppiluliuma I of the Hittites. To his fans, friends, and loving family who have already been missing him so in this realm he says, ‘Oh behave yourselves. Thank you…. and good evening everybody.'”
Ironically, one of Redbone’s most popular concert pieces was “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone” — a number that incorporated whistling solos that further ensured Redbone would be talked about in his absence. That song title, which dates back to 1930, was adapted as the name of a documentary about Redbone that premiered at festivals in 2018 but has not yet been widely released.
Redbone’s improbable career saw the release of 16 full-length albums beginning with “On the Track,” his 1975 debut on Warner Bros. He went on to put out albums on his own August imprint through Blue Thumb, Private Music and Rounder, with his final new release, 2014’s “Flying By,” issued through his August Records imprint (distributed by Rounder), as were all of his recordings dating back to the mid-1980s.
Jack White was a fan, as became clear with Third Man Records’ 2016 re-release of Redbone’s Warner Bros debut as well as “Long Way from Home,” a new collection of recordings unearthed from the early ’70s, before he was ever signed.
White was only the latest in a long line of celebrity acolytes, starting with Bob Dylan, who first turned Rolling Stone on to Redbone in 1974 when he told the magazine, “Leon interests me. 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.”
Bonnie Raitt was another huge supporter, saying, “He’s probably the best combination of singer-guitarist I’ve ever heard.”
The fabulism in the statement of Redbone’s passing on his website was nothing new for the singer. When he was first profiled by Rolling Stone prior to his debut album coming out, the autobiographical details he gave out included: “My father was Paganini and my mother was Jenny Lind. Wunnerful, wunnerful.”
In later speaking about his preference for remaining enigmatic, Redbone said, “I don’t do anything mysterious on purpose. I’m less than forthcoming, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m mysterious. It just means I’m not inclined to go there.”
As writer Andrew Dansby of the Houston Chronicle once put it: “To get caught up in biographical detail is to miss the point of the creation of Leon Redbone. The 1960s folk revival restored awareness about influential American blues players. But other worlds of old music and performance were left in mothballs: ragtime and old-time jazz and the sounds of vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley. By projecting a persona without a detail-filled biography — essentially a caricature — Redbone deflected attention from himself (though stylishly so) and back to his songs.”
Biographical details did emerge, possibly against his best wishes, even if they stood little competition against the enduring enigma his fans enjoyed. The Toronto Star revealed that he was born Dickran Gobalian and “reinvented himself under the guidelines of Ontario’s Change of Name Act” when he moved from Cyprus to Canada in the mid-1960s. He got his start playing Toronto folk clubs in the early ’70s, the newspaper said, pointing out that he later settled in Pennsylvania.
“Very little of my life goes into my music,” Redbone told the Star, explaining the disconnect between his public and private personas. “I’ve never considered myself the proper focus of attention. I’m just a vehicle … not so much for the particular kind of music I prefer, music from an earlier time, as for a mood that music conveys.”
It may be urban legend, but the story goes that when music industry legend John Hammond asked Redbone for his phone contact, it turned out to be the number for Dial-a-Joke.
His persona oddly lent itself to numerous commercial syncs, from Budweiser to Purina’s Burger ‘n’ Bones dog food.
That Redbone showed up in animated form so often, from the dog food spot to his vocal work as the snowman in “Elf,” may have been prefigured by the artwork for his Warner Bros. debut. That album cover featured not a photo of Redbone, but rather a Chuck Jones drawing of the character Michigan J. Frog. That was a possible gag on Redbone’s singing voice but mostly on how the star of the Warner Bros. cartoon “One Froggy Evening” was brought back from an earlier time in formal, anachronistic garb to sing music from another era — in other words, a character that could loosely have been the amusingly anthropomorphic model for Redbone’s own.
At a 1990 concert at L.A.’s Roxy, the power went out but, naturally, Redbone continued to perform acoustically by candlelight. At that show, Redbone summed up how the appeal of the earliest pop music seemed obvious to him, when he encouraged the audience to sing along with “Polly Wolly Doodle”: “This song’s more than 100 years old,” he said, “so you’ve had plenty of time to learn it.”