MIDDLE-CLASS WHITE BOY, the title of a 1982 Elektra album, aptly summed up the paradoxical quality of blues singer and idiosyncratic pianist Allison. A white Southerner, he grew up on a mixture of rhythm and blues and modern and big-band jazz. The result was an unusual style of blues music delivered in a laconic, breathy vocal mode.
In the ’50s Allison, then deeply influenced by Bud Powell, accompanied a wide range of jazz performers including Stan Getz (1956–57 and 1959–60), with whom he recorded Soft Swing (Verve, 1957), Gerry Mulligan and Al Cohn. His piano style and occasional trumpet playing were very much in the bebop mainstream.
His first album for Prestige was the remarkable Back Country Suite (1957). Inspired by the approach of Bela Bartók’s Hungarian Sketches, it mixed Allison originals with standards like ‘Blueberry Hill’. It was followed by Local Color, which included ‘Parchman Farm’, Allison’s song about the notorious Mississippi penal institution. The range of his work was quite extraordinary.
In addition to his own notable compositions (‘Young Man’s Blues’, ‘Moon & Cypress’) his early recordings included Willie Dixon’s ‘Seventh Son’, Duke Ellington’s ‘Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me’, Ray Noble’s ‘I Hadn’t Anyone Till You’ and Charlie Parker’s ‘Yardbird Suite’. A selection of these is available on the CD Mose Allison Sings & Plays (1992). When Allison left Prestige in 1959 he recorded several albums for Columbia, including I Love the Life I Live (1960), before signing to Atlantic in 1962. The best of his ten albums for the label were Mose Alive! (1966) and Mose in Your Ear (1972).
After a six-year gap between recording contracts, he signed to Elektra, for whom he cut the 1983 album Lessons in Living, which included a remake of one of his earliest successes, ‘Seventh Son’. That song and others like ‘Parchman Farm’ and ‘I Love the Life I Live’ made Allison an important influence on jazz-orientated British singers of the ’60s such as Georgie Fame, who recorded Allison’s version of ‘Parchman Farm’ on his first album. His ‘Young Man’s Blues’ was a cult favourite among the mods of that time and was recorded by The Who. ‘Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy’ was covered by Bonnie Raitt. In 1988 Allison guested on Pete Townshend’s solo album The Iron Man and recorded new songs on Ever Since the World Ended. In 1990 he released the laconic In My Back Yard (Blue Note). He followed this with the even better The Earth Wants You (1994).
© Phil Hardy, Dave Laing, Faber Companion to 20th Century Popular Music, 2001