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?

"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.

Allison can remember no ill will directed his way at any of the all-black establishments. He was a musician; he came in connected. Only whites gave him a hard time, such as the time a couple of detectives in Chicago ran him out of a black club, warning he'd get his throat cut in there. Since he couldn't read music well, he didn't get hired for Southern variety shows, featuring comedians and dancers with their own music. But the R&B bands on Beale Street rarely used horn charts or written arrangements; everything was done by ear.

Allison took eight years to get through college, beginning at Ole Miss, with an 18-month interruption for the Army at the end of World War II. He played trumpet with the 179th Army Ground Forces Band in the States. Finishing with an English major at Louisiana State, Allison wrote a few short stories in college. He recalls a literary magazine's rejection letter from the late 1940s. It said his story showed promise but didn't flow. "It was a bunch of vignettes about Tippo, Mississippi," he says. "It wasn't supposed to flow." This single rejection stopped him in his tracks; he never tried his hand at fiction again.

He first came to New York in 1951, the only destination for an aspiring jazz player. "I played with Brew Moore, a real good tenor player from Mississippi, one of my favorites of all time," he recalls. "He knew everybody in New York. There were lofts where you'd go around for jam sessions. Hardly anybody was working during the summer of '51. All these people I'd been readin' about were standing around scufflin'. Miles Davis was workin' only an occasional Monday night at Birdland. Gerry Mulligan was workin' only an occasional night out in Queens someplace."

Allison's point man in New York was legendary jazz player Al Cohn, who set him up in Manhattan. "When I came back to live there in '56, it had perked up a lot. I'd met Al's wife, a singer named Marilyn Moore, when playing down in Galveston. She sat in singing, and she liked what I was doing, and told me if I ever came to New York to call Al, and gave me his number. Al picked me right up, had me and my wife out to dinner and the whole number. He referred me to people. He was writing arrangements for everybody at the time. Then he and Zoot Sims started playing a lot, and Al got me on my first record date."

The 1960s were golden years when labels like Atlantic could afford to have prestige artists, who brought respect to the company without necessarily toting in bags of loot. Respect alone, and all its abstract benefits, was actually worth something. In the early '60s, Atlantic might sign a man like Solomon Burke or Mose Allison within minutes of him merely walking through the office door, on Columbus Circle in New York.

"I lost contact with Nesuhi [Ertegun] in the last few years, but he was a friend during those Atlantic years," Allison says. "I just walked in, and he signed me to Atlantic. I just walked in and said, 'Look, I just got released from Columbia. I was with Prestige, which was too little, then Columbia, which was too big. I'd like to talk to you guys.'"

This inability to fit neatly into a narrow marketing niche wreaks hell on careers. It's a corporate world of industrial music merchandising. If you're innovative or an original in the 1990s, forget about it, brother--move to France.

If it weren't for the fact that Allison's albums are recorded like traditional jazz--that is, quickly made affairs, live in the studio with a small group--he might not have such a prolific discography. Even in the 1950s, his first deal with Prestige was for six albums in two years, for which he was paid only $250 per. But taking care of business quickly in the studio suits him fine. "Records are just shadows," he believes. "They're how you felt that day, when material was new. Albums should take no longer than two days."

Record companies also have never let Allison release instrumentals, which is why live shows remain so crucial to him. Chromatic funk aside, each song contains a mandatory piano solo, which comes from the jazz side of Mose Allison. Just where did his particular piano style come from?

"My dad played stride piano, a ragtime sort of thing, Scott Joplin-inspired, Fats Waller," he explains. "He was semiprofessional, he played some jobs with a band when he was young. My dad taught himself to play by watchin' a player piano. I started taking music lessons when I was 5, but once I realized I could pick things out by ear, I refused to learn to read music. I'm not a good reader now."

When Allison moved to Smithtown in 1963, there were 13 acres of woods behind the backyard. A decade ago, development encroached. "I could go for walks in those woods," he says, looking out his backyard.

So, he is asked, do you want to be buried on Long Island or in Mississippi?
"I intend to be cremated," Allison says. "I'm gonna leave it up to my kids to scatter my ashes. One possibility would be the farm I was born on in Mississippi. It's fallin' down, but the ruins of the old house are still there. I get down there once or twice a year."

Allison retains his Delta drawl and Southern sensibility--even after raising four children, all now in their 30s, in Smithtown; even after being married to Audre, who hails from St. Louis, for 48 years. He's one of the last blues musicians who picked cotton as a youth, and that stays forever.

"The word memes just got coined a few years ago." He refers to another of his science books, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, by Richard Dawkins. "Genes are biological, the stuff in our physical makeup that has to do with how we're born. Memes are what we pick up culturally. There are scientists who say memes is not a valid term. But I think you pick up stuff from the culture you're born and raised into. The idioms you pick up, your thinking."

"The William Faulkner of Jazz" is a cheap compliment often leveled at Allison, simply because both men hail from Mississippi. Yet they look like brothers. We tour his living room, where paintings from friends hang: cowboy etchings, a painting of blue bulls, a portrait of Albert Schweitzer. A painting of Allison done by an El Paso artist depicts him with no eyes, looking like a blind man--a blind man who sees everything. One painting was done by an artist who never saw Allison's band, but did his impression of the rhythm section just from listening to the album. "He got the drummer uncannily right."

With each shingle in place on this house, it is a monument to stability. Allison is a suburban country squire. In the garage, every single garden tool, including Mose Allison's lawnmower, is perfectly hung in its place on the wall. Can this really be the residence of the Sage of Tippo? Or a staged setup at some straight friend's place? It's like discovering Miles Davis in Scarsdale, a PTA member in good standing with a golf club membership and a wife in the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Even so, this stable homebody still averages 130 road dates a year. In the '70s, he was doing 200 nights a year; most were one-night stands, which can drain a man. "I try to limit the one-nighters now and try to get as many weekend or three-night clubs," he says. And being a musician's musician, Allison has always relied on other musicians to spread his gospel. "Other musicians have helped me to survive. The rock 'n' rollers who've done my stuff over the years have brought in new audiences."

He claims to have never heard of the Cactus or Johnny Winter versions of "Parchman Farm," perhaps his most covered song. The Who did "Young Man Blues" on 1970's Live at Leeds, something you imagine made Mose Allison hold his ears in horror--yet it was impossible not to appreciate the recognition and the initial $7,000 royalty check. Edgar Winter's debut album from 1971, Entrance, had uncanny Mose Allison-like vocals. And artists from the Kingston Trio ("Parchman Farm") to the Clash ("Look Here") have covered his songs, though not always giving the credit--or the money--owed him.

"People are always tellin' me, you know, so-and-so did such-and-such," he says. "I'm the last person to find out about it. I always say, 'Man, I don't care what you do with my material, just as long as you give me credit.'"

Allison was once angered by a British interviewer's question about how he "stole the blues." Then he got hip to the blues police, and wrote the leadoff song on My Backyard, "Ever Since I Stole the Blues."

"I'm not even concerned with that anymore," he shrugs. "I just do my work. I don't care what people call what I do, if they don't wanna call it blues or jazz. My whole thing is gettin' to the gig, playin' the gig, and gettin' home."

Mose Allison is scheduled to perform on Tuesday, December 1, and Wednesday, December 2, at Timothy's. Showtimes are 7 and 9:30 p.m.

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