Mose Allison: Mose And His Muse

MOSE ALLISON can be summed up in two words – Mose Allison.

He’s one of American music’s most singular talents, a musician that’s carved out his own unique niche. You could call him a bluesman, jazz piano player, song stylist, singer/songwriter, composer, bandleader or traveling philosopher without missing the mark, but Allison encompasses and transcends any easy classification. He also refuses to classify himself.

“I don’t know what I’ve got going,” Allison said from his Long Island home, his soothing Mississippi drawl still in evidence. “I used to tell a joke. Mose the singer and Mose the songwriter got together and said if we could just get rid of this piano player we can make some serious money. The fact is that I try to play jazz piano, and I keep at it, but nobody knows what my classification is. They ask me if I’m a blues person or a jazz person, but I don’t consider myself anything. That’s up to other people. I’ve never seen me, you know?”

Allison took piano lessons while he was still in grammar school, as many kids did back in the days before the birth of rock’n’roll. “My dad was a semi-professional stride piano player. He used to do gigs when he was young, but quit to become a farmer and storeowner. I started before the guitar was the symbol of the younger generation. The house I was born in had a piano; just about any house you’d go into back then had a piano. My folks sent me to lessons in the rural hamlet I grew up in near Tippo, Mississippi. There was a good piano teacher there; she had degrees and everything. I took lessons long enough to get the feel of the keyboard and quit as soon as I could pick things out by ear. I never learned how to read music.”

Allison moved to New York in 1956 and landed studio sessions with people like Stan Getz and Gerry Mulligan. He signed a record deal with the then tiny Prestige label and was as surprised as anyone when his version of Willie Dixon’s ‘The Seventh Son’ became a pop hit in 1959. His early albums were mostly instrumental: jazzy country blues piano with a touch of classical music. In the 60s and 70s, Allison blossomed as a songwriter, turning out standards like ‘Your Mind Is on Vacation’, ‘Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy’ and ‘Hello There Universe’.

Critics have long praised Allison’s winning combination of social commentary, humor and cynicism, but Allison’s no cynic. “Cynics don’t have a sense of humor and most of my songs have a joke involved. I tell everybody the key to my writing is ‘kiddin’ on the square.’ I even wrote a song about it. You’re joking on the surface, but you’re saying something serious underneath it. In the area I spent my childhood in, nobody said anything straight out it – it was all aphorisms, irony, hyperbole or understatement. If you don’t understand that, you don’t understand kiddin’ on the square.

“I started writing songs when I was 13, inspired by Nat ‘King’ Cole and Louis Jordan. Later on, when I got serious about writing in the 60s, I knew what kind of songs I wanted to write. I used to say they came in categories: personal crises, social commentary or slapstick. Some of the most recent ones have all those qualities.”

Allison’s not writing at the moment, despite requests from fans that he comment on today’s dire social situation. “I’ve been writing about the current situation for 35 years. When I play some of the older songs people think I just wrote ’em.”

Despite his talent, Allison’s currently without a record contract, but making more albums isn’t high on his list of things to do. “I made a lot of records and they’ve never made any money according to the people who sell ’em. The royalties never amounted to enough to pay for studio time and all those weird sounding expenses the companies say I owe. I make money when someone who sells a lot of records does one of my songs and they pay me, which isn’t always the case. These days I have a lawyer and a collection agency to track ’em down.

“I’m at the stage [in my life] where the [record companies] want me to start summing up my life, which I’ve done over the past few years on several different live CDs of my stuff. [Mose ChroniclesLive in London Vol. I and II on Blue Note.] I never had a conscious career plan,” Allison concluded. “The night I graduated from Louisiana State University (with a degree in English and Philosophy) I missed the graduation ceremony ’cause I had a gig in a honky tonk. I thought as long as I could make a living doing this, I’ll do it. And I did it for 54 years and mostly made a living at it. There were times I wished I had reliable 9 to 5er, but I’m a fortunate person who’s been able to exist doing what I like to do, with a lot of help from my family. My wife always worked when I traveled around and played. That’s one thing I always tell people who want to be musicians. If you want to succeed, you need a wife that can get a job.”

© j. poetSan Francisco Chronicle, 23 October 2005

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