LONDON — MOSE ALLISON, Mississippi piano player now ending a two-week cabaret season at Annie’s Room in London, is not quite the figure you expect a Southern blues man to be.
To begin with, he looks rather like an English racing driver, though he doesn’t sound like one and his behaviour is somewhat more inhibited.
He is quiet, softly spoken and retiring in disposition — thoroughly gentlemanly you’d say, seeing his tweed-clad form taking tea in his Aldwych hotel. And gentlemanly he is, a gent seriously dedicated to music.
He enjoys his visits to Britain, would like to come back soon and play jazz clubs and really get to meet his audience.
“Every time I come here, I feel there’s a public for me somewhere. I just haven’t quite found it. When I was over last time, it was good in some places and not so good in others. But people keep telling me I have an audience.”
I confirmed that opinion, and asked if he knew how influential some of his songs and record performances had been here? “Yes,” he said. “I heard some of the young people were doing things of mine. Of course, it’s flattering.”
Did he know that his ‘Parchman Farm’, a particular favourite, was widely known as “Parchment Farm” and had appeared as that in print and on a record label? “Yes, that happens a lot. I get requests for ‘Parchment Farm’ all the time. And all sorts of other names. Nobody’s heard of Parchman in America either, unless they’re from the South. It’s a place in Mississippi.”
With so many people going about singing and recording Allison songs, hasn’t it all helped Mose to acquire a small fortune?
“I haven’t gotten a cent out of anything done outside the States, so far as I know. And even at home, they haven’t made me money. I still make my living playing in clubs.
“Of course, when people hear somebody doing ‘Seventh Son’, or one or two others I’ve recorded that are quite well known, they often think they’re my songs. In fact, that is Willie Dixon’s, and ‘Lost Mind’ is Percy Mayfield’s.
“Naturally, I don’t get a penny. But with the others, I haven’t made anything out of song rights practically at all. In the last albums, though, I’ve done more lyric writing and I have a lot more tunes. So something’s bound to happen, I guess.”
Some customers at Annie’s shouted for Mose’s most popular numbers, but while I was there he didn’t play ‘Parchman’, ‘Seventh Son’ or ‘If You Live’. Was this usual or unusual?
“Well, I take a set as it comes, and how it comes depends on how it starts and how it develops. I play what I feel like playing and alternate the tunes to suit myself. And I don’t feel obliged to sing any of these songs two or three times a night.
“I don’t work to a prepared programme because I think I can do a better job if I’m interested in what I’m doing. And if I had to keep repeating a set programme I’d lose interest.
“For that reason, I prefer playing the newer things. In a sense, I’m still trying to think what to do with them. I’ve collected a lot of material since ‘Parchman Farm’ that’s a little less local colour and a little more contemporary.”
Speaking of influences, did Allison hear these blues singers, such as Mayfield, Sonny Boy Williamson and Tampa Red, that are talked about on some of his record sleeves?
“Mostly I heard their records as a child. I heard all those people, and many more blues artists, on juke boxes and the radio. But I saw Percy Mayfield in the early Fifties in Jackson, Mississippi, and of course I knew Bukka White’s record of ‘Parchman Farm’.
“Muddy Waters, who I’ve seen several times, affected me greatly — the early Muddy Waters sound of ‘Louisiana Blues’. And the first Sonny Boy, I saw in Memphis. He made a real impression. But it’s a school. These are famous names, but at home I heard other artists doing much the same thing.”
Latin-American influences occur in Allison’s music but, he says, “that’s still implied eight-in-the-bar, and my whole style is based on implied eight. It underlines my playing, and it comes from boogie woogie which is how I started playing.
“That eight-to-the-bar is a circular motion as opposed to the up-and-down four-four like Basie’s rhythm. It’s a dance form really and more pleasing to me than a straight four. It’s the basis of the rock ‘n’ roll revolution, too.”
Does Allison share the current affection for Indian music?
“I like to hear it, but I don’t see it as too much of a jazz influence… especially when people just throw in a chunk of it in the middle of ‘I Got Rhythm’.
“It doesn’t have enough structure to suit me, and it reflects the Indian philosophy about time not existing. I’m too committed to time and form and unity and diversity, and I’m not impressed by amorphous virtuosity.”
Allison smiled reflectively and remembered something else he didn’t like about it. “Besides,” he said, “too many bass players these days try to sound like Ravi Shankar.”
© Max Jones, Melody Maker, 29 January 1966