All you really need to know about Leon Redbone is that Bob Dylan found him mysterious and inscrutable.
That’s like Bill Gates telling someone, “Wow, you’ve got a lot of money.”
Leon Redbone, whatever his real name was, died Thursday at the age of something or other. Those details, while interesting because he kept them so guarded, don’t matter nearly as much as the fact that our musical history has lost an artist who honored it in extraordinary ways.
Leon Redbone recorded 16 albums and toured for many years, rising a few modest pegs above cult stature and using all of his leverage to remind us that the spectrum of music has no endpoints.
From opera to old-time country, from vaudeville to the Delta blues, from Broadway to back-porch balladeers, Leon Redbone recorded and sung a little of everything, because he clearly listened to it all and loved it.
A Redbone record could have the sentimental pop classic “In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree” banging up against Fats Waller’s “Your Feets Too Big,” and the way he sang both of them, you ended up thinking yeah, that makes sense. They fit.
In so doing, Redbone disregarded every rule of the music biz, which likes predictable and contemporary.
Trying to predict what Redbone would put on his next record was like trying to predict the path a basset hound would take on a walk in the woods. Good luck.
The only safe bet is that the record would not be contemporary, or at least wholly contemporary. Redbone was more likely to sing the 1929 Jimmie Rodgers yarn “Desert Blues” (“Big Chief Buffalo Nickel / A mighty man in his day. . .”) than something any 21st century radio station would dream of programming.
And the best news of all: He was successful enough that he didn’t have to care. He could record “Mr. Jelly Roll Baker,” a somewhat risqué blues classic written in 1942 by Lonnie Johnson, or he might pick “You’re a Heartbreaker,” a wonderful pop tune that was lighter than a souffle when Elvis recorded it for Sun in 1954.
Redbone’s interpretations didn’t all sound alike, but he made them all sound like Leon Redbone. On record he sometimes put vintage orchestration behind his songs. In concert it was mostly Redbone and his guitar, artfully strumming or picking below his mellow, sometimes slightly gravelly voice.
Above all, in any setting, he sounded relaxed. No matter how intense the song, Redbone was calm. He had picked this song from millions of candidates, which meant he really liked it and he was going to give it his full attention.
His presentation was stylized and, okay, served the mystery he draped around his persona. He wore a white suit, Panama hat and dark glasses, as if he could have stepped off a train from India in the final years of the British Empire. Mr. Redbone, I presume?
There was never a microsecond, however, when Redbone’s persona felt like a gimmick, like a branding or a marketing tool.
The persona fit the music: stylishly out of time.
A lot of singers admired what Redbone was doing, maybe because a lot of artists wish they too could sing some crazy old song just because they love it. Artists from Merle Haggard to Ringo Starr and Zooey Deschanel sang with Redbone and Dylan spoke well of him, in part no doubt because Dylan shares Redbone’s understanding that Woody Guthrie and George Gershwin, say, were not from different planets.
Having musical preferences makes total sense. Declaring that all other styles are bad, boring or irrelevant is like declaring pizza is your favorite food and that’s all you will eat.
Leon Redbone was almost guaranteed to play something you didn’t previously like. And didn’t previously dislike. Because you hadn’t heard it — unless you too loved Blind Blake and Billy Murray and early Bing Crosby and 1920s Tin Pan Alley in addition to Hank Williams and traditional Christmas songs.
Leon Redbone, who may have been born Dickran Gobalian in Cypress and who was probably 69 years old, didn’t turn America into a nation whose people embraced the marvelously diverse universe of music its artists created and performed over the past 400 years.
He did keep that out there, where it belongs. There aren’t enough of him, and we are poorer for his passing.