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Interview: Mose Allison (Part 2)


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Pianist-singer Mose Allison is perhaps rock's least likely muse. A Southern blues singer-pianist, Mose's lyrics are sophisticated and riddled with puns while his voice has a distinct twang. But it's this subversive originality and “who cares" approach that has made his music attractive to artists such as Georgie Fame, the Yardbirds, the Clash, Leon Russell, Van Morrison, Elvis Costello and Bonnie Raitt. You also can hear his flinty phrasing in the voices of Bob Dylan, Mungo Jerry, Gregg Allman, Neil Young, Boz Scaggs and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan.

But perhaps Mose's biggest rock-group fan was The Who, which heard his version of Sonny Boy Williamson's Eyesight to the Blind from Autumn Song and recorded it on Tommy. Then The Who performed Mose's Young Man Blues on Live at Leeds (1970). On the album, before playing the song, you hear Roger Daltrey credit Mose and praise him.

Mose's latest album, The Way of the World, is as good as any he has recorded. For my Wall Street Journal article on Mose from last week, go here. Now, here's Part 2 of my conversation with Mose:

JazzWax: In 1956, how did you meet Stan Getz?
Mose Allison: I used to go to these jam sessions at night at a loft on 34th St. that belonged to trombonist Clyde Cox. Many of the guys who were there were from the South. At these sessions, I met drummer Frank Isola, who put me in touch with Stan.

JW: How did you get along with Getz?
MA: Just fine. No problems. I worked off and on with him. He was a great player. I made one album with him and bassist Addison Farmer and drummer Jerry Segal. It was The Soft Swing in 1957. I didn't have to adapt to Stan's style. He liked me just as I was. My models as far as a rhythm pianist goes were Al Haig [pictured] and John Lewis. Stan had a lush intensity. We talked a lot. I liked him. He was a great player.

JW: Where is Parchman Farm, which you recorded on Local Color in 1957?
MA: Parchman Farm is in Parchman Miss. That's what they used to call the Mississippi State Penitentiary. They used to take prisoners to work in the fields. When I was 10 years old I was in a gas station in Tippo when a team of horses and bloodhounds came thundering through, looking for an escaped prisoner. It left a deep impression on me.

JW: What about Seventh Son from Creek Bank in 1958?
MA: I didn't write that song. That's Willie Dixon's. I first heard the song on a record by Willie Maybon. I liked it so much I decided to record it.

JW: What about your unusual vocal style?
MA: I'm just doing it. I developed the style over the years. My inspirations were Ray Charles, Charles Brown and Percy Mayfield [pictured]. I didn't run away from where I was from. I never felt that was necessary. I just did my thing. I hoped it would impress people. Back Country Suite got real good reviews so I continued doing what I did with a trio.

JW: You went to Britain in the mid-1960s?
MA: Yes, I went to England after a guy who booked Sonny Boy Williamson and others blues artists invited me to go on tour there.

JW: Who was the first English rocker to take on your work?
MA: Georgie Fame [pictured] was one of the first. I've known him for years. I met The Who later, after they had recorded Young Man Blues, which was a surprise to me. 

JW: When you heard it, what did you think?
MA: I figured that's great. Their version is really the command performance on my song. I like anything that anybody does with my material. I do what I want with other people's material, so I don't quibble when they interpret mine.

JW: Did you like rock?
MA: It was alright. I had already heard all the music on which rock was based, so it was just an extension of the blues to me. Muddy Waters [pictured] said something like, “Rock is just the blues but with a backbeat." All the rock guys used a heavy backbeat.

JW: Did you like it?
MA: Not really. I didn't like the constant backbeat because it limits you as far as improvisation goes. But I appreciated rock and what they were trying to do with the blues. Recently I did a tribute to The Who's Pete Townshend. They just rolled the piano out. There were mostly guitar players. They rolled the piano out in front of audience and I did Young Man Blues and Old Man Blues.

JW: Why do you think you're not better known?
MA: Probably because I'm so many different things. They don't know where to put me. The advertising world has to say someone is the best at something. I've never been the best at anything. I do a lot of things.

JW: Your new album, The Way of the World, is terrific.
MA: Thank you. I met guitarist-producer Joe Henry in Dusseldorf, Germany. He said at the time that he wanted to record me. I hadn't recorded in about 12 years and I didn't figure on making any more records.

JW: Why not?
MA: With the reissues and so forth, I have put out about 50 albums. None of them have sold very well according to the royalty statements I get [laughs]. I didn't see a need to make a new one.

JW: What changed your mind?
MA: Joe kept at me and mailed my wife and so forth. I kept putting him off. Finally I said to myself, Joe has a great reputation as a producer and he's also a great musician. I eventually came to the conclusion, “Why not?" We recorded at his studio, and I like how it came out. [Pause] Never underestimate the power of relentless persuasion [laughs].

JazzWax notes: Here are quotes from rock and blues musicians featured at a Mose Allison fan site:

“The man's voice was heaven. So cool, so decisively hip... Mose was my man. I felt him to be the epitome of restrained screaming power." —Pete Townshend of The Who

“When I discovered Mose Allison I felt I had discovered the missing link between jazz and blues" —Ray Davies of The Kinks

“Everybody I know in England was raised on Mose Allison." —John Mayall

“Mose Allison is a beautiful musician." —Willie Dixon “Mose, you got a good thing goin' on." —Sonny Boy Williamson

JazzWax tracks: Mose's The Way of the World (ANTI) is superb and includes a charming duet with his singer-songwriter daughter Amy on This New Situation. You'll find the album at iTunes or here.

JazzWax clip: Here's Mose's My Brain, the first song on his new album, The Way of the World. Dig the wordplay!...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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