Leon Redbone is a fringe performer with a dedicated following. I have seen him 8 or 9 times in concert.. if that’s not dedication, I don’t know what is. I have traveled to different states on more than one occasion to see him. I was literally the only one left to see his last 3 songs during a hurricane in Chattanooga at an outdoor concert. Leon Redbone strikes a chord with some people, and I am one of them. I am seeing him again next Friday, and I’m already excited.
Redbone’s history begins at the beginning of his career because virtually nothing is known about his background or personal life. His real name, birthday, country of origin and ethnicity are all unknown, though people have speculated about these things for 35+ years now. He has claimed to have been born in Bombay during a monsoon to parents Niccolò Paganini (a composer and violinist who died in 1840) and Jenny Lind (a singer who died in 1887), which contributes to the mystique about his age. He has also listed his date of birth as October 29, 1929, the day of the stock market crash that sent America into the Great Depression. He often claims (erroneously, of course) that songs written well before his time were “stolen” from him. It hearkens back to the days before information was so readily available about celebrities’ personal lives and upbringing. It appears he has worked very hard to create and maintain this mystique.
Leon Redbone has made a career out of arranging and performing songs that originated before my grandparents’ time, though he attracts a wide and varied audience, ranging in ages and musical tastes. His style is hard to pin down as it is a mix of old-time blues, ragtime, jazz, country, and vaudeville. If it were necessary to sum up his style, one might say he does cleaned-up renditions of Tin Pan Alley classics from the 1920’s and 30’s. He has a very unique voice and is able to pull a lot of yodel-style octave jumps. He is also an excellent acoustic guitarist, which is often obscured by his interesting baritone vocal stylings. He is somehow able to emulate all the counterpoint of ragtime on a six-string acoustic guitar–a feat not attempted by many. Upon his arrival to the music scene, Leon Redbone was rumored to be an alter-ego of Bob Dylan, Andy Kaufman and even Frank Zappa.
He composed/performed the theme song to Mr. Belvedere (and apparently composed/performed the theme song to the sitcom version of Harry and the Hendersons, which I did not know existed). He voiced the character Leon the Snowman in the 2003 film Elf, where he was also featured heavily in the soundtrack and film score.
Seeing Leon Redbone live is akin to stepping in a time machine. His fedora hat, dark sunglasses and cane contribute to the mystery and timelessness of the act. The stage versions of his songs are stripped down to the bare essentials. For the past ten years or so, he most often performs with just a trumpet player and pianist. His act is peppered with banter and jokes that feel over a century old. He often shuffles through papers and proposes “a sing-along” to his instrumentalists; the suggestion is met with a sigh and eyerolls as Leon breaks into song (usually “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” or “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star”). At the end of nearly every show, he re-emerges on stage to take a picture of the audience. If I were to ever develop a stage presence, I often wonder which of Leon Redbone’s stage gimmicks I would “borrow.”
Here is a video of Leon performing Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone, originally released in 1930:
Some of those guitar licks are extremely difficult. It is very laid-back and does not give that impression, but do not be fooled. This is the magic of Leon Redbone. It sucks that his left hand is obscured in this particular camera angle. Here are some more videos…