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In 1963 the Who's Pete Townshend made a shocking musical discovery. A fellow art-school student played an album by American jazz-blues pianist Mose Allison. My American friend," recalls Townshend in the liner notes of an old Mose Allison reissue, grins like his eyeballs are on fire and produces the cover of Mose Allison Sings. `He's fucking white,' I screamed."
The Townshend scenario is no surprise to Allison, who's spent nearly 40 years living with misconceptions about himself and his music. Allison is one of a kind: a white blues pianist with a distinct jazz touch. For the 64-year-old musician, his originality and his race have been both sources of frustration and career builders. Chief among the stereotypes he's had to face is the age-old notion that to be a real bluesman, you have to be black. While artists like Eric Clapton have gained some measure of respect, most white bluesmen are still considered something less than the real thing.
Allison, however, is another animal. He was born in 1927 in Tippo, Mississippi, a small town smack in the middle of the Delta-blues country. From within a 100-mile radius of Tippo came such blues luminaries as Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Robert Johnson, B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf, Albert King and John Lee Hooker. Growing up in an area where there are more blacks than whites, you get familiar with black culture at an early age," Allison said during a telephone interview from a Florida hotel. I heard blues singing from the field workers and from neighbors sitting on front porches with their guitars."
In spite of Aliison's solid blues roots, some blues fans continue to insist that he is a cultural raider. Several years ago, an English interviewer made a passing reference to the pianist stealing the blues" from blacks. Allison responded by penning Ever Since I Stole the Blues," the tune that opens his most recent Blue Note album, 1990's My Backyard. There are a lot of ways that racism shows itself," Allison said. But I've had it both ways. I've gotten these criticisms, but I've also had testimonials from some of the great black blues players. Being complimented by some of the blues greats I respect carries me through. I don't worry about the rest."
While Allison will always have to fend off questions about skin color, many musicians like Pete Townshend have found his music to be important because he is white.
There are some people," the pianist said, who say I was the bridge between the American black country-blues style and some of the English rock 'n' rollers. I don't know about that. But I've heard it a lot."
Aside from skin color, the other issue blues purists use to dismiss Allison is that he sleeps with the blues' next of kin: jazz. But Allison learned about jazz the way he learned about the blues, while still in knee pants.
His introduction to jazz came via a Mississippi cousin with a wind-up Victrola and a stack of 78s by pianists Fats Waller and Earl Hines and trumpeter Louis Armstrong. Allison developed his jazz chops so well he moved to New York in the mid-Fifties to play with such jazz greats as sax men Stan Getz and Zoot Sims.
A lot of the jazz playing I've done over the past 30 years gets ignored because people want to see me as just a blues piano player," Allison said. A radio figure once did a tribute to my career and spent most of the airtime just playing all these old records, skipping all my jazz records because they didn't fit in with her definition of me. Things like that get kind of depressing sometimes."
But depression doesn't show in Allison's lyrics. He is famous for his wickedly sarcastic lyrics. In the history of blues writing, Allison ranks with the best in coloring his music with literate, philosophical jabs at the human condition. Predictably, some feel the humor means Allison is not a dyed-in-the-wool bluesman. I got the humor of the blues from the people I started out listening to," Allison said, laughing. Players like Lightnin' Hopkins put humor into everything they played. Most of the great ones used it. That's how the players got by. They used humor as a survival technique. The blues as a dirge relates more to the urban blues; the country blues always used a lot of ironic humor."
Allison's dry wit runs contrary to the greatest of all blues cliches, that you have to suffer to sing the blues. You have to suffer a little to do anything well," the pianist said. It doesn't necessarily have anything to do with singing the blues. If blues had to do with suffering, believe me, we'd have a lot more blues singers."
One place Allison hasn't suffered is in the rock history of the British Invasion. After that first taste back in art school, Pete Townshend became a diehard Allison fan. The Who later recorded Allison's Young Man Blues" on its Live at Leeds album. That album sold a lot of records and they used the song in a lot of their shows," Allison said with pride. That was the song that did the most for me financially."