Mose's Better Blues

A trip to Long Island reveals an Allison wonderland

"There are two things," Allison explains, with almost too much logic. "If it had become a hit record and made money, the only thing they'd want from me would be another. On the other hand, if it had flopped, that would have been bad. It would take me a long time to recover and get people back listening to what I do."

Former Atlantic Records producer Joel Dorn, who produced several of Allison's 1960s albums, describes him as "the most interesting abstraction of the blues I've ever heard. The blues is a language where most people speak the same dialect. But he has another way of sayin' the same things. The Delta meets the Village. He was a fixture in Greenwich Village when people who were diggin' anything hip were diggin' Mose."

Allison's Prestige album covers of the 1950s depicted rural scenes. One had an old weathered door on the cover. His second album, Local Color, pictured a Southern landscape, though the picture was actually of Staten Island. But there were no photos of Allison on the albums. Allison says "they didn't want to let the news out" that he was white.

When Dorn first saw Allison live, around 1960 in Washington, D.C., "This fuckin' English teacher walked out. The difference between who he is and who you think he is is gigantic. The first thing with Mose is everybody thinks he's black. When they find out he's white, it's the same thing as Charley Pride--he's like the reverse. But he's a regular guy who comes up with this world-class introspection. A master of instant, dispassionate irony."

If Allison is hard to categorize between jazz and blues--what bin is he in?--there were even people who classified him as a "folk artist." Phil Elwood, long ago with the San Francisco Examiner, described Allison's piano style as "chromatic funk." On Retrospective, an early '70s Columbia LP, Morgan Ames' liner notes follow: "To Mose Allison's dentist (presuming he has one), he might be Cavity in Lower Right Molar. To his laundry man, Mose might be No Starch . . . [but to his booking agent] Mose Allison is a man with a reputation for showing up on time for the gig, for paying his union dues, his agent's fees, and his sidemen. . . . He arrives with two neatly copied books of his arrangements, one for the bass player and one for the drummer."

"Nobody's been able to characterize me in a capsule comment," Allison says of this enigma. "Any one thing you say is gonna be wrong. You say I'm a blues person, that's wrong, because I'm not strictly blues. I'm influenced by the blues and learned from the blues players. You say I'm a jazz man, you're gonna miss a great portion of what I do."

Allison was born on the edge of the Delta, 15 miles from the hills in Tippo. He attended high school in Charlston, Mississippi, where his dad was a merchant and a planter and, ultimately, a store owner. "I came from a stable family background," Allison insists, and you tend to believe him. Allison's brother still has farmland in Tippo.

Renowned as the spawning ground of blues guitar, the Delta produced but a handful of renowned barrelhouse pianists: Sunnyland Slim, Pinetop Perkins, Memphis Slim and Roosevelt Sykes, the latter two from Helena, Arkansas. Allison doesn't recall seeing any of the aforementioned live during his youth, or any famous guitarists, for that matter. Just local guitar players around Tippo whose names he can't recall.

Allison worked weekends at his dad's general store, across the street from the gas station. The Tippo Service Station was the town hangout, and actually featured a country-blues nickelodeon. "I used to go over there three or four times a day," Allison recalls. "They sold beer. It was sorta integrated, there was an area up front where the white guys shot craps. Then there was a back room where the black guys shot craps. But anybody could go in and listen to the records."

It was at this gas station in the 1930s where Allison heard 78s by Tampa Red, Big Bill Broonzy, Memphis Minnie and Roosevelt Sykes. A bit later he became entranced with the Buddy Johnson Band, which had great vocalists, including Allison's favorite, Arthur Prysock. Blues balladeer Percy Mayfield was another unique influence. Mayfield's band had four saxophones for whom he wrote a lot of 32-bar blues, a sophisticated lyrical departure from standard Mississippi stuff. Allison recorded three Mayfield songs, which he still performs--"Life Is Suicide," "Stranger in My Own Hometown" and "Lost Mind." Allison tried unsuccessfully to get into a Percy Mayfield show at a black club in Jackson, Mississippi. Whites couldn't get into black clubs down South.

Like the great R&B songwriter Doc Pomus, Allison was one of a handful of white blues musicians in the early 1950s. They couldn't play the chitlin circuit, though: During that period, the term "Crow Jim" would have had meaning only to the few white blues musicians--it was the reverse of Jim Crow. In the South, whites legally couldn't go to black clubs or play with black musicians, except on the sly. So black friends would sneak Allison into the Blue Moon R&B club in Baton Rouge, where he sat in. Allison was tight with Bill Harvey, B.B. King's first musical director, who'd sneak him into the horn section where Allison could play trumpet. B.B.'s first bass player, Sheeny Walker, had Allison over to his house for jam sessions, and snuck him into other joints on Beale Street, especially the Mitchell Hotel in Memphis, for gigs.

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