Who Is… Mose Allison?

THE LEGENDARY British organ player Georgie Fame once described his hero Mose Allison as “the jazz version of Bob Dylan.” When an interviewer asked Fame’s longtime employer Van Morrison about that description, Morrison said, “I wouldn’t put it that way. He’s more the jazz version of Lenny Bruce.”

Either way you put it, Mose Allison is a brilliant lyricist, in a league with such fellow blues poets as Willie Dixon, Percy Mayfield, Earl King and Chuck Berry. Just the titles alone of songs such as ‘Your Mind Is on Vacation (But Your Mouth Is Working Overtime)’ and ‘(I’m Not Downhearted But) I’m Getting There’ give a hint of the Dylanesque language and the Bruce-ish satire of his writing.

But if you focus just on Allison’s lyrics, you might miss what a splendid blues singer he was – his deadpan baritone made his lyrics much funnier than they were in the mouths of more overstated singers. But if you focus on him as a blues singer, you might miss what a gifted jazz pianist he was – good enough to be inducted as a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 2013.

When the 69-year-old Allison released his Gimcracks and Gewgaws album in 1997, for example, he was backed by an all-star jazz quartet led by drummer Paul Motian and guitarist Russell Malone. On the cover, the silver-bearded singer-songwriter-pianist wore a Panama hat and white running shoes as he sat on an antique chaise longue {cq} juxtaposed against a crumbling plaster wall.

The album’s final track was ‘Old Man Blues’, a biting satire about the status of the elderly. With his signature mixture of swinging jazz piano and tongue-in-cheek blues vocals, Allison complained, “The young man is the man of the hour/Thirty-five years of purchasing power/And an old man today/Ain’t nothing in the USA.”

If the lyrics and tune remind one of ‘Young Man Blues’, the youth-movement anthem recorded by the Who in 1970, it’s no coincidence, because Allison penned the earlier number, too. There’s no better measure of his enduring creativity than his ability to articulate both sides of the generation gap in songs written 42 years apart.

“Most young people feel left out at one time or another,” he told me in 1999, “So do most old people.” With his trademark chuckle he added, “Now I’ve got to write ‘Middle-Aged Blues’, and I’ll have it covered.”

But the power of those songs is rooted in a lot more than a clever point of view. The blues-shuffle rhythm suggests more of a grumble than a tantrum; the descending melody line tumbles out of blues conventions into an unexpected sidestep, and the piano part pushes at the listener and then pulls us back in. As for the voice, well, let the Who’s Pete Townshend describe it.

“The man’s voice was heaven,” Townshend wrote in his liner notes for the 1972 anthology Mose Allison. “So cool, so decisively hip, uncomplicated and spaced away from the mainstream of gravel-voiced Delta bluesmen… I was a fairly lame individual with a big nose and a Beatle fringe, but Mose was my man. I felt him to be the epitome of restrained screaming power.”

“I remember the first check I got from the Who’s recording,” Allison told The Onion in 2010. “I’d been getting checks for $10 and $15 and so forth, and this one was for a much larger amount than that. I thought it was a mistake.”

It’s symptomatic of Allison’s overlooked career that he’s made far more money from the covers of his songs by the Who, the Clash, Van Morrison, Elvis Costello, the Yardbirds, John Mayall, Buddy Guy, Maria Muldaur, Bobbie Gentry, Hot Tuna, Johnny Rivers and more than he ever got from his own recordings. But those albums constitute a body of work that can’t be denied.

Allison wrote ‘Young Man Blues’ in 1955 when he was 27. He had been struggling to make it as a jazz pianist, but he had learned just how competitive the New York scene was. The work had run out, and he had returned home to Tippo, Mississippi, to earn some money working on his daddy’s farm and to figure out his next move. He knew his singing ability gave him an edge over other pianists, and he knew his songwriting ability gave him an edge over other singers. But what kind of songs should he write?

“I was trying to decide what direction I wanted to take,” he recalled, “and I decided I wanted to pursue the stuff I’d been listening to all my life – the Mississippi Delta blues – and integrate it with the jazz stuff I was doing. While I was working on the farm, I started writing ‘The Back Country Suite’, a cycle of songs or sketches inspired by the sights and sounds of the Mississippi Delta.

“I was familiar with Duke Ellington’s suite, Black, Brown & Beige, and Bela Bartok’s ‘Hungarian Sketches’,” he added. “Ellington was drawing on the urban African-American experience and Bartok was drawing on Hungarian folk songs and integrating them into jazz or classical music. I felt I could do the same thing with the blues. I didn’t have to move an inch to find the sources.”

Allison’s debut album, Back Country Suite for Piano, Bass and Drums, was released by Prestige in 1957, and it featured a tune simply called ‘Blues’, which later became known as ‘Young Man Blues’. That song set the template for his entire career, and on the follow-up album, 1958’s Local Color, Allison wrote another perennial, ‘Parchman Farm’, which has been recorded by everyone from Cactus and John Mayall to Johnny Rivers and Hot Tuna.

“‘Parchman Farm’ has been done by so many people,” Allison told me, “that one group tried to claim it was in the public domain, which it wasn’t. It took me a long time to get anything done about it and by the time I did there wasn’t much money left to get. But it’s always nice when someone does your material.” He pauses and then adds with a chuckle, “And when they do it well, that’s a bonus.”

This droll sense of humour is typical not only of Allison’s conversation but also of his lyrics. When he writes about the hypocrisy and foolishness of the world around him, he does so not with righteous anger but with irreverent humour. When he satirized male lust and female seduction, for example, he couched his animal urges in scientific jargon. “Your molecular structure is really somethin’ fine,” he sang, “a first-rate example of functional design.”

There’s a school of music criticism that treats comic songs as less important than serious songs, but that school lost its accreditation long ago. If a writer wants to get past an audience’s defences to make a point, getting the listener to laugh is every bit as disarming as making the listener cry. When Allison despaired over the state of the world, he got the point across not by infecting us with gloom but with comic hyperbole: “Stop this world, let me off. There’s just too many pigs in the same trough. There’s too many buzzards sitting on the fence.”

“These people that think I’m cynical,” Allison told All About Jazz in 2004, “I wish they’d come to see my shows these days because I’ve turned into a comedian, practically. The songs they used to think were cynical, now they’re laughin’ at ’em, which is what was intended in the first place. The cynical thing was just a superficial appraisal. They didn’t really get it. There’s a few tunes of mine that don’t have jokes, but most of them have a joke and they have a humorous point of view somewhere. You got to laugh. What else can you do?”

This is evident on Allison’s best known song, ‘Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy’, which has been recorded by rockers such as Bonnie Raitt and Elvis Costello as well as by jazzers Ray Brown and Karin Allyson. With the help of an irresistible blues melody, Allison takes aim at those who profess Christian values but act very differently. “You don’t have to go to off-Broadway to see something plain absurd. Everybody’s crying mercy when they don’t know the meaning of the word.” They’re in favour of justice, but only after they complete this business deal, and they’re in favour of peace, but only after they win this war.

Allison didn’t learn about southern prisons and the blues from books or records; he grew up just 27 miles from Parchman Farm (aka the Mississippi State Penitentiary), just 49 miles from Muddy Waters’ childhood home in Stovall, and 62 miles from William Faulkner’s home in Oxford. Allison’s father – Mose Sr., a sometime ragtime pianist – had an 80-acre cotton farm on the Yazoo River at the eastern edge of the Mississippi Delta, and the youngster used to walk to the local filling station to hear the new records by Big Bill Broonzy and Lightnin’ Hopkins on the juke box there. But Allison also played trumpet in his high school band and became a big fan of Louis Armstrong.

“I wrote lyrics when I was in grade school,” he told me in an earlier, 1994 interview. “I wrote a tune called ‘The 14-day Palmolive Plan’, a spoof on a radio commercial. As a teenager at parties, I used to sing the blues, mostly naughty ones: ‘Let Me Pet Your Poodle’, ‘She Wants To Feel My Monkey’ and ‘Digging Your Potatoes’. I wrote some songs of my own in the Louis Jordan or Nat “King” Cole style. Then I stopped writing until years later when I went to LSU.

“There I studied English and got into aesthetics, which gave me a different way of evaluating music; it made me appreciate the blues I’d been hearing all my life. Instead of just regarding them just as entertainment and fun, I saw the blues as a survival music. I began to understand the satire and the coded messages. It allowed me to hear the blues as a philosophy that helped poor people living under adverse conditions – and because none of us are safe from external forces these days, we’re all living that way, so the blues apply to all of us. I saw that the blues was a way I could express myself. Plus I needed material.”

But while lyrics occupied one part of Allison’s brain, the piano dominated another. He turned 20 at the end of 1947, and he was enthralled by the keyboard innovations of Thelonious Monk, John Lewis and Lennie Tristano. Allison found the experience of improvising piano solos thrilling. But how could he combine the premeditated chiselling of lyrics down to their economical essence with the spontaneity of substituting chords and making up new melodies on the spur of the moment?

“There was a sardonic sense of humour in Thelonious Monk and Lightnin’ Hopkins that tied them together in my head,” Allison told me in 1994. “Monk’s compositions were really complex; it’s amazing to me how he sat in an apartment on the Upper West Side and wrote all those songs. They set up expectations and then go somewhere else, just like a good joke. And Hopkins was the most satirical of the blues singers; his lyrics always cracked me up.”

Allison eventually evolved the approach that worked for him. He would write songs like a blues artist and sing them the same way, but he would play the piano like a jazzman. It was as if he were writing his own standards that he would then interpret as an improviser. Just listen to his original 1968 version of ‘Your Molecular Structure’. He plays solid but fairly conventional blues piano under the vocal sections, but when the solo comes, he goes off on a tangent into hard-swinging, harmony-upending bop. By the time the PBS show Soundstage documented Allison in 1975, such solos had multiplied and expanded.

“My definition of jazz is music that’s felt, thought and performed simultaneously,” he told the NEA on the occasion of his 2013 Jazz Master Award, “and that’s what I’m looking for every night. Nobody plays jazz all night. The jazz part is when you get into something that you haven’t done before and you’re feeling it, thinking it and performing it right then.”

He was never coy about his influences. His albums have included such covers as Percy Mayfield’s ‘Lost Mind’, Lightnin’ Hopkins’ ‘Mad with You’, Willie Dixon’s ‘I Love the Life I Live’, Hank Williams’ ‘Hey, Good Lookin” and Duke Ellington’s ‘I’m Just a Lucky So and So’ – and his slippery rhythms and low-key charm gave those tunes a whole new personality. But his witty, catchy original songs are the reason he’s remembered today.

Prestige Records, which released his first six albums: Back Country Suite and Local Color in 1957; Young Man Mose, Ramblin’ with Mose and Creek Bank in 1958; and Autumn Song in 1959), didn’t get it.

They tried to market the thirtysomething Mississippian as a jazz instrumentalist, allowing him to sing only a handful of tunes on each album. After all, he was best known in New York as the pianist for saxophonists Al Cohn, Zoot Sims and Stan Getz.

Columbia made the same mistake on 1959’s Transfiguration of Hiram Brown, but Miles Davis producer Teo Macero let Allison sing five of the dozen songs on 1960’s I Love the Life I Live, though none of them were originals. It wasn’t until Allison’s ninth album, 1961’s Mose Allison Takes to the Hills, that a majority of the pianist’s tracks featured vocals.

Also known by its 1996 reissue title, V-8 Ford Blues, the recording features 12 vocal numbers – only two originals but revealing tributes to Mayfield, Hopkins, Williams and Dixon – and the leader’s best playing to date. Three tracks feature the avant-garde-jazz rhythm section of drummer Paul Motian and bassist Henry Grimes. This disc was the artistic breakthrough that Allison had been searching for.

It was left to Atlantic Records to take advantage of this leap forward. Working with such in-house producers and engineers as Nesuhi Ertegun, Joel Dorn, Tom Dowd and Arif Mardin, Allison emerged as a different kind of ’60s singer-songwriter: describing a culture in crisis not with a youth’s scorn and rock’n’roll guitars but with an adult’s wry irony and jazz piano. The first three cuts on his Atlantic debut, 1962’s I Don’t Worry About a Thing, were three of his smartest, most memorable originals.

The first song, the title track, offered carefree jauntiness with a twist: “I don’t worry about a thing,” Allison sang, “’cause I know nothing’s gonna be alright.” “When I was a school boy,” he sang on the second song, “my teacher said to me, ‘Work hard and do right, and you can be what you want to be.’ But it didn’t turn out that way.” “Your mind is on vacation,” he sang on the third, “but your mouth is working overtime.” The latter song, ‘Your Mind Is on Vacation’, summarizes a universal experience so well that it has been recorded by everyone from Van Morrison and Asleep at the Wheel to Vassar Clements and Buddy Guy.

“When you write a song,” he told me in 1999, “it has to be something you feel yourself. But if it’s something that’s also felt by a lot of other people, then you’ve got something.”

Allison added two horns (Charles Mingus trumpeter Jimmy Knepper and Gerry Mulligan saxophonist Jimmy Reider) to his usual piano-trio format on 1962’s Swingin’ MachineThe Word from Mose, from the following year, returned to the trio approach and introduced six new terrific songs as well as a rewrite of ‘Parchman Farm’. Among the new songs were the bracingly unsentimental break-up number, ‘Foolkiller’ and the finger-snapper, ‘Look Here’, the latter redone by the Clash for Sandinista!

Allison released eight studio albums and a live recording for Atlantic between 1962 and 1972, and each studio project unveiled several knockout songs. Dylan and John Lennon weren’t the only singer-songwriters who did their best work in the mid-’60s; in a more obscure corner of the music universe Allison was also seizing the zeitgeist. The finest of the Atlantic albums was 1968’s I’ve Been Doin’ Some Thinkin’, which introduced three of Allison’s very best songs: ‘Your Molecular Structure’, ‘Feels So Good’ and ‘Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy’. Backed by the jazz all-stars Red Mitchell on bass and Bill Goodwin on drums, his piano solos were more assertive than ever and so was his singing.

But after 1972’s Mose in Your Ear, only eight new Allison songs emerged over the next 15 years. There were several reasons for this dry period. Allison was resisting Atlantic’s pressure to record more commercial material in keeping with the Muscle Shoals funk or the New York City fusion of the era – and his resistance often took the form of never getting around to going into the studio. But he was also experiencing the same kind of writer’s block that Dylan and Lennon were suffering at the same time.

Half of those eight new tunes appeared on Your Mind Is on Vacation, released in 1976. The highlight was ‘What Do You Do After You Ruin Your Life’, a series of musical rhetorical questions funny enough to make one laugh and sharp enough to make one bleed. Most of the album, though, was devoted to updating his older compositions with new, better arrangements, often spiced by jazz-saxophone solos from David Sanborn, Joe Farrell and Al Cohn.

The other four songs appeared on 1982’s Middle Class White Boy, which found Allison playing an electric keyboard for the first time as he led a sextet featuring Farrell and R&B guitarist Phil Upchurch. The self-deprecating humour of the title track was matched by songs such as ‘How Does It Feel (To Be Good Looking)’ and ‘I Don’t Want Much’. Best of all was ‘Kiddin’ on the Square’, a song about the paradox of being the most serious when you’re joking around.

“I tell everybody the key to my writing is ‘kiddin’ on the square,'” he told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2005. “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 was all aphorisms, irony, hyperbole or understatement. If you don’t understand that, you don’t understand ‘kiddin’ on the square.'”

A more convincing comeback began with 1987’s Ever Since the World Ended, produced by Ben Sidran. Sidran had written the liner notes for Mose in Your Ear, and had subsequently befriended his idol. Sidran, a noted jazz pianist and vocalist in his own right, produced all six of Allison’s albums for the Blue Note label, from 1987’s Ever Since the World Ended through 2002’s The Mose Chronicles: Live in London. The songwriting was respectable even if it fell short of the peak years with Atlantic.

“A lot of producers want to bring their own ideas into a session,” Allison told me in 1998, “but Ben doesn’t bug me like that. He’s a friend; he knows what I’m trying to do and he goes along with that. And if something’s not working, he has good suggestions, because he’s such a good musician himself.”

Sidran’s biggest contribution was teaming Allison with some of the hottest jazz players of the day. Arthur Blythe, Bennie Wallace, Kenny Burrell, John Scofield, Randy Brecker and Joe Lovano all take impressive solos over the composer’s insinuating blues changes on the four studio projects: Ever Since the World Ended, 1989’s My Backyard, 1993’s The Earth Wants You and 1997’s Gimcracks and Geegaws.

Mixed into this Sidran Era was 1996’s Tell Me Something, which found Sidran, Van Morrison and Georgie Fame tackling 13 Allison compositions – not the obvious ones like ‘Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy’ and ‘Your Mind Is on Vacation’ but overlooked gems such as ‘If You Live’, ‘One of These Days’ and ‘City Home’, sung by Sidran, Morrison and Fame respectively. Allison himself shows up to play piano and sing duets with Morrison on ‘I Don’t Want Much’ and ‘Perfect Moment’.

“I heard Van’s Moondance in the ’70s,” Allison told me in 1998, “and I was impressed. I thought he was doing something similar to what I was doing. He lived in Marin County then, and we’d get together whenever I came to the Bay Area. Eventually he hired me to open some 20-30 shows for him. I’d get up to do my set, and these big arenas would be half-empty. I’d say to myself, ‘There’s no way he’s going to fill this place,’ but by the time I was finished, it’d be full.”

After 1997, Allison released one more studio album, 2010’s The Way of the World, and several live albums documenting his nightclub show. Though his health has hobbled the 88-year-old performer recently, Allison has spent much of his Medicare years writing new songs and performing them all over the world. You could do a lot worse.

“Interviewers were always asking me what I was going to do when I got older,” Allison told me in 1998, “so I started telling them, ‘I’m gonna get myself a Gray Panthers punk-rock band, raise hell in Arizona.’ That became the punch line for ‘Certified Senior Citizen’.

“It’s hard to get people to pay attention when you’re older. Movies and music all seemed to be aimed at young people today; I’ve heard record-company guys say they’re aiming at the 15-year-old listener. But it hasn’t affected my work schedule that much. My visibility has risen and fallen over the years, but I’ve always made a living in nightclubs.”

When I saw him at the 1991 Wolf Trap Blues & Jazz Festival in 1991, Allison was the only artist on the bill who could represent both halves of the event’s name. In the middle of a set dominated by his own songs, he sang a super-relaxed version of the 1920s jazz standard, ‘Trouble in Mind’, followed two songs later by an emphatic version of Muddy Waters’ ‘Rollin’ Stone’. Allison began the set with ‘City Home’, a Southerner’s romantic notion of the big Northern city he’s moving to. He followed that with ‘If You’re Going to the City’, a wised-up warning by the same Southerner to his friends back home about what to expect if they make a similar journey.

Backed by a local rhythm section, Allison gave every number a piano solo that started with the theme but soon slid out of such confines into the wide, open spaces of bop-informed improvisation. The melody, even the chords and rhythm, twisted into new shapes with each eight-bar chorus. Wearing a white jacket, a pink shirt and gold pants on a warm June afternoon, Allison would circle back from such a tangent and fall back into the blues groove of the vocals. When he did, his husky, laid-back vocals sounded as if nothing could surprise him and anything might amuse him.

© Geoffrey HimesMusic Aficionado, October 2016

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