Mose's Better Blues

A trip to Long Island reveals an Allison wonderland

I first approached Mose Allison after a 1997 show at Poor David's Pub in Dallas. Some mook from the audience cut ahead, tugged Allison's shirt, and patted him on the back with deadpan sincerity: "Hey, you got an interesting way with lyrics. Very original."

I cringed, but Allison cordially nodded his head, though his eyes stared out a million miles away. (Imagine tugging Sinatra's raincoat to tell him he had an interesting way with phrasing.) Then I made the mistake of asking Allison if he had any CDs for sale. Allison looked at me as though I had asked for his wife's phone number. Humiliation is a part of the game, Allison has said, something that motivates him to endure. An artist selling his own records from the stage was once beneath dignity, and Allison is of that old school; he'd sooner sell you one of his kidneys. Only during the past decade has it become de rigueur. Musicians rely on the extra bread, and their fans enjoy the satisfaction of handing cash directly to the source, skipping all the middle men.

Although Mose Allison won't sell his own CDs any more than Sinatra would have, he did something more unusual that night. According to Poor David's manager Jim Hicks, Allison returned part of his advance--even though the box office exceeded Allison's guarantee.

"It was the first time in 12 years I ever had an act return money," said Hicks, who was stunned. The great American sage of blues-jazz, Mose Allison, felt he should have had a larger crowd.

Since he first recorded in the '50s, each decade in Mose Allison's career of 25 original albums only gets better. There is no reason he shouldn't be ranked alongside Johnny Mercer, Hoagy Carmichael, Thelonious Monk, or Willie Dixon. His sense of irony and rhyme is utterly unique and sharp as ever, and his last four CDs--all on Blue Note Jazz--are so good they'll make you wanna kiss your mama (the sublime My Backyard, in particular). Among his most covered anthems are "Your Mind Is on Vacation (But Your Mouth Is Workin' Overtime)," "Parchman Farm," "I Don't Worry About a Thing," "Young Man Blues" (featured on the Who's Live at Leeds), and "Everybody Cryin' Mercy," recently covered by Elvis Costello and Bonnie Raitt.

Judging from these songs, one assumes Mose Allison must be Mississippi's hardest-livin' streetwise hipster. But don't be fooled. "I could answer almost any question you wanna ask me by quoting one of my lyrics," he claims, huddled upon the couch in his Smithtown, Long Island, study. Allison does all his business from the desk phone in this study. Like Chuck Berry, another stoic independent, he books his own tours. His energy goes into the music--not into being charming, not into being recognized, not into hanging out or late nights on the wrong side of town. He is a loner.

Amazingly, there is no acoustic piano in the house, no practice room anywhere. The study looks like the lair of some Ivy League professor emeritus, a Mr. Chips. The shelves are lined with American lit hardcovers and science volumes. Peterson's Field Guide to the Birds sits on the table. But there are no music books or LPs.

The science boils down into songs, such as "Your Molecular Structure," or "Hello There, Universe." Allison sifts through some weighty titles piled on the table, stopping at Equations of Eternity: Speculation on Consciousness, Meaning and the Mathematical Rules That Orchestrate the Cosmos. "That one is really far out," he says.

Mose Allison is not a loud man. He is accomplished at being a non-celebrity. "For the first 20 years, nobody here had any idea what I did," says Allison, who moved to Smithtown with his wife Audre, now a retired 11th-grade English teacher, in 1963. "But I like it that way. I hardly ever get recognized around here in the grocery stores. Don't mind that at all."

Allison's neighbors didn't recognize him until he appeared on a PBS program, opening for Bonnie Raitt at Wolf Trap. Even Long Island's esteemed paper, Newsday, failed to write him up until the 1990s. Allison's bravado manifests only in his songs, not his personality. He is not the first great American artist whose work is more literary than literal. Yet no one can presume to guess what insanity he witnesses along the road. Allison's secrets are private; only his songs are public.

In a recent composition, "This Ain't Me," Allison--a fit 70, who jogs two miles and bicycles--sings of pictures on his wall: "That's me on the high school team just another second stringer, lost in the dream/Th' gray haired geezer that you think you see, this ain't me, this ain't me." In another, "Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde," he asks, "Do I worry about the ozone layer, about terrestrial suicide?/Or do I love my new hair sprayer?/Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde."

If Mose Allison had ever hit the pop charts, most likely he would not have survived so long. He'd have been stopped in his tracks, like hundreds of careers that expire after a few quick hits. Allison has stuck to his guns for decades, making albums his own way. His most prolific output came from 1961 to 1976 on Atlantic Records, under the late jazz chief Nesuhi Ertegun. Allison declined Atlantic superproducer Jerry Wexler's offers to make a pop record. Hypothetically, what would have been so bad about going down to Muscle Shoals just once, to let the great Wexler demonstrate his magic touch?

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