×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Singer Leon Redbone Dies at 69

In a nod to how Redbone sought to exist outside of time, much less current musical styles, his death announcement gave his age as 127.

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.”

Popular on Variety

More Music

  • Schoolboy Q

    ScHoolboy Q Reveals ‘CrasH’ Tour Dates

    Top Dawg Entertainment recording artist ScHoolboy Q today announced dates for his next jaunt across the country, the CrasH Tour 2019. Special guest NAV will join on select dates; dates appear in full below Produced by Live Nation, the 19-city tour will kick off November 4 in Houston and make stops in Atlanta, Brooklyn, Toronto, Chicago, and more [...]

  • United Talent Agency Reveals New Logo

    UTA Unveils New Logo, Corporate Image

    UTA raised the curtain Monday on a new corporate logo. The three-dimensional image is meant to emphasize the talent agency’s focus on uniting ideas, opportunities and talent. Building signage with the new logo will go up next month at UTA’s headquarters in Beverly Hills. “Our new identity captures the multiple facets and intersections of our [...]

  • Taylor SwiftMTV Video Music Awards, Arrivals,

    Taylor Swift Joins 'The Voice' Season 17 as a Mentor

    Taylor Swift is returning to “The Voice” as a mega mentor in the upcoming 17th season of the NBC singing competition series. The “Blank Space” singer will offer advice to each team of artists as they prepare for the knockout rounds in the show. Coaches John Legend and Blake Shelton took to Instagram to share [...]

  • Ric Ocasek and Alice Cooper 1989Ric

    Seven Times Ric Ocasek Surprised Us, From 'Hairspray' to Bad Brains

    In a universe of strong and eccentric personalities, Cars frontman Ric Ocasek, who died Sunday at the age of 75, was certainly – and happily – an odd bird. By most accounts he was quite friendly in person, yet Ocasek, 75, always seemed distant and aloof, as if he was as hermetically sealed off from [...]

  • Lime Cordiale

    Post Malone, Manager Dre London Sign Australia's Lime Cordiale

    London Cowboys, the newly formed venture by Post Malone and manager Dre London, has teamed with Australia’s Chugg Music to sign the Sidney-based duo Lime Cordiale. The group, comprised of brothers Louis and Oli Leimbach, first released music in 2012, and by 2017 had  yielded the breakout hits “Temper Temper” and “Naturally,” followed by radio [...]

  • How Timothy Hutton Came to Direct

    How Timothy Hutton Came to Direct the Cars' 'Drive' Music Video

    It’s common knowledge — among people in the industry, at least — that Timothy Hutton is the youngest ever winner of the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for “Ordinary People,” which was Robert Redford’s 1980 directorial debut. A lesser known fact is that four years later at the age of 24, Hutton made his own debut [...]

  • Lionel Richie will headline a three-night

    Lionel Richie Reveals 2020 Las Vegas Engagement

    Lionel Richie’s sold-out appearance at Wynn Las Vegas last month has led to an encore appearance at the Encore theater but with a new stage show, “Lionel Richie – Las Vegas.” Richie will headline a three-night engagement in March 2020 that will feature stories from throughout his career as well as his greatest hits. Richie’s [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content