Granted, it’s a cover song on a live album, but “Young Man Blues” from The Who’s Live At Leeds ranks as one of the best in-concert performances ever captured on record in the history of rock. That recording helped raise Mose Allison’s profile—as well as his bank balance, he’ll happily admit—in the ’60s, when he was a struggling blues-jazz pianist with a string of well-respected yet relatively unheard releases on respected labels like Atlantic and Prestige. (The song The Who made famous was variously called “Young Man” and “Young Man’s Blues” on those early releases.) The reasons Allison never fully emerged from obscurity are simultaneously understandable and puzzling: Wordy, witty, and wise, his music is as earthy as it is urbane, the result of a blues-steeped childhood spent in the small town of Tippo, Mississippi, before he moved to New York and points beyond in pursuit of his craft. Resigned to journeyman status, he was thrust into the spotlight—or at least toward the edges of it—when The Who, The Yardbirds, and Blue Cheer (and later The Clash, Elvis Costello, and Van Morrison, who released an entire album of Allison’s songs in 1996) began covering his music.
With admirers as diverse as Diana Krall and the Pixies, Allison kept releasing records to little attention until he finally called it quits with his 1997 Blue Note album, Gimcracks And Gewgaws. But he was coaxed back into the studio last year by Anti- Records’ producer Joe Henry, who recently engineered excellent comebacks by soul legends Solomon Burke and Bettye LaVette. The new full-length, The Way Of The World, is not only Allison’s first studio record in 13 years, it’s one of the best of his career, a warm album sporting Allison’s spry finger-work and rickety drawl, not to mention a heart-melting duet with his daughter, noted singer-songwriter Amy Allison. Now 82 and fresh off an appearance at a Who tribute at Carnegie Hall, Allison spoke with The A.V. Club about being young, growing old, and singing the blues.
The A.V. Club: You’ve kept a healthy concert schedule over the past few years. What took you so long to get back into the studio?
Mose Allison: I have lots of CDs that came out at one time or another, and according to the statements I’ve gotten, no one’s buying them. [Laughs.] I figured there’s no need making a new CD. There are plenty of mine out there, and none of them are selling.
AVC: Was there any frustration behind the decision to stop recording?
MA: I don’t know whether it was frustrating or not. I didn’t feel anything. I just kept working 110 or 120 nights a year. That’s what I usually did the last several years.
AVC: Even during your downtime, were you still writing new material?
MA: No, I wasn’t writing. I don’t sit down to write a song; they just come to me from something that somebody says, or something in the news. The punchline comes to me, and I go over it in my head and get the song form. I hadn’t been doing that a lot.
AVC: What kind of punchlines, as you put it, went into The Way Of The World?
MA: I just finished a few songs that I had been working on for years. I did a few songs by other people, and it all came together into a CD. I’m not inspired by songwriting at all; that took place years ago. I’m pretty well established, as far as my influences go. I don’t listen to music anymore. It all sounds the same to me. [Laughs.] I’m pretty well self-involved.
AVC: There’s a real warmth and looseness to the album. How much did you map it out before going into the studio?
MA: I didn’t know what I was going to do. I let Joe Henry pretty much designate all that. He hired the musicians. I didn’t know any of them except for David Piltch, the bass player. I worked with him in Toronto when he was a teenager. And I was in a room by myself with the piano. So I just did my thing.
AVC: Was there a lot of improvisation during the recording?
MA: Well, you know, I’m improvising all the time. Everything I do is improvised. [Laughs.] On the piano, at least.
AVC: And then you went back and added lyrics?
MA: Oh, I don’t go back anytime. [Laughs.] I do the song a couple of times, and if I figure it’s presentable, I go to the next thing.
AVC: Whose idea was it to duet with your daughter Amy on “This New Situation”?
MA: We had been looking for that tune for years. She found it, the original Buddy Johnson tune, and it was originally sung as a duet in the ’40s. It’s got a flavor to it that’s a little unusual. Buddy Johnson writes a lot of unusual things like that.
AVC: In the song, Amy’s style of singing sounds like it comes from an earlier era than yours does.
MA: We just sang the tune, and that’s the way it was. [Laughs.]
AVC: Did you sing together while she was growing up?
MA: No, not really. I told her at an early age that she had a good ear. But I didn’t influence her music much. She’s pretty much developed her style on her own, and she’s a talented songwriter.
AVC: Has music always run in your family?
MA: Yeah. My dad was a self-taught stride piano player. The myth is—I don’t whether it’s true or not—that he taught himself to play by watching a player piano. I started going to a piano teacher at 5 years old, but pretty soon I started picking things out on my own and stopped taking music lessons. I never could read music very well, but I’ve still been doing it for 60 years now.
AVC: When did you first hear the blues?
MA: I don’t know. It was probably on the jukebox in the service station in Tippo, where I grew up. They had mostly country and blues on there, so I heard all those people: Big Bill Broonzy, Josh White, Memphis Minnie, and so forth.
AVC: What kind of impression did that music make on you?
MA: I don’t remember any impression. [Laughs.] The blues was just everywhere in the Mississippi Delta. It was mostly black sharecroppers living there, and there was a lot of blues around. Sometimes the guys would sing the blues in the fields, working. But it was always the blues singers who were shooting craps on Saturdays, playing guitar, and stuff like that.
AVC: A lot is still made of the racial divide in the Deep South during the years you grew up. As a white blues singer from Mississippi, did you see it that way?
MA: No. I didn’t have any trouble until I got to New York. [Laughs.] That’s when everybody started telling me I couldn’t do what I was doing.
AVC: It never crossed your mind before then?
MA: I never thought I was playing black music. I was just playing music, the stuff I liked. I sang blues at parties and things when I was a kid, you know?
AVC: You studied English and philosophy in college. Did that have any bearing on your music?
MA: Yeah, but when I first started out, I was taking chemical engineering. But I went into the army after that. When I came out of the army, I was a different person. I met a lot of good jazz players in the army.
AVC: So you kept playing while you were in the army?
MA: Oh yeah. I played the trumpet in the army band and the piano in the NCO clubs and officers’ clubs. I was just thinking about this the other day: We used to play “The Bunny Hop” at the officers’ club, and we’d have all these officers out there on the dance floor doing the bunny hop. [Laughs.]
AVC: Were you stationed overseas?
MA: No, I went to Seattle, and the idea was to go overseas from there. I was all packed, sitting on my duffel bag, and Congress passed a law saying you couldn’t send a guy overseas unless he’d had more than 20 weeks of basic training. I fell into that “under” category. They sent me to Colorado Springs, and I spent the rest of my time in the army playing in the band in Colorado Springs.
AVC: You recorded for Atlantic and Prestige in the ’50s and ’60s, when both labels were at their peak. How did it feel then to be listed among the likes of Ray Charles and Thelonious Monk?
MA: I wasn’t up there with those guys. [Laughs.] They didn’t do that kind of promotion for me. Atlantic, they didn’t sell any records of mine. I was never known too well.
AVC: And yet you recorded for both those labels for many years. Why do you think they kept releasing your albums?
MA: I don’t know. [Atlantic founder and president] Ahmet Ertegun was a friend of mine. He came out to California for a live date I did out there once in Hermosa Beach, and I met him there. I met [Ahmet’s brother and Atlantic producer] Nesuhi later in New York; they were a small company at the time. Years later, when I would go to Nesuhi’s office, it was on the 30th floor of Rockefeller Center. It became a huge place. I remember Nesuhi would always say, “We can try one more record, and we’ll see how that one does.” Those records never did anything. My music never got mentioned. My color got mentioned. [Laughs.]
AVC: So even though your records didn’t sell that well, you had fans in high places. For instance, the British bands in the ’60s.
MA: Yeah, definitely. It was the British rockers that saved me. They brought me to a different generation altogether. The Who and The Yardbirds and Georgie Fame and Van Morrison and all those people. The only person who ever did my songs in this country was Bonnie Raitt.
AVC: Did that attention from the rock scene in the ’60s come as a surprise?
MA: Oh, yeah. I remember the first check I got from The Who’s recording [of “Young Man Blues”]. I’d been getting checks for $10 and $15 and so forth, and this one was for a much larger amount than that. I thought it was a mistake. [Laughs.]
AVC: Were you ever consulted or even informed when someone was going to record one of your songs?
AVC: Have you had much personal contact with the rock stars who have recorded your songs?
MA: Yeah, I’ve met a lot of them. I played London a lot, and I met Pete Townshend years ago. I went out to his house one time. And Van Morrison, I’ve known for years. I’ve opened shows for him and Bonnie Raitt years ago.
AVC: And later on, acts like The Clash and Elvis Costello started covering your songs.
MA: I never bothered about keeping track. Diana Krall recorded a song of mine recently, and it helped a lot, financially. She sells a lot more records than I expected. Every now and then someone records one of my songs, and I get credit for it. [Laughs.]
AVC: Are there any interpretations of your songs that particularly stand out in your mind, for better or worse?
MA: No. I’m happy whenever anybody does my material. I don’t care what they do with it. I do what I want to with other people’s songs. [Laughs.] There have been some strange things, though; there was a group in the Netherlands or Belgium that did my song “Your Mind’s On Vacation,” and the woman singing it sounded like Eartha Kitt. She phrased it completely different from the way I did. I got a kick out of it. I don’t care what anyone does, as long as they go through the copyright office.
AVC: In early March, you performed as part of a tribute to The Who at Carnegie Hall. How was that experience?
MA: Yeah, I don’t know who put that together. I didn’t know most of the players backstage; there were hundreds of them. My daughter Amy was with me, and she knew everyone. I just did two songs, and it happened so fast.
AVC: Instead of playing a Who song like everybody else, you played “Young Man’s Blues,” the song of yours that they made famous.
MA: I was contacted months ago about doing the show, but I didn’t do anything about it. I didn’t have time to learn one of their songs.
AVC: Do you think anyone in the audience thought you were playing a Who song and not one you wrote?
MA: Oh, I’m sure. But they applauded either way.
AVC: You also played your sequel to “Young Man’s Blues,” “Old Man Blues.” What compelled you to write that follow-up?
MA: I wrote it 50 years after the first one. I don’t know I did it. By that time, I just figured I probably should write a song about old men. [Laughs.]
AVC: Townshend’s most famous lyric is “I hope I die before I get old.” Apparently that’s a hard attitude to sustain for very long.
MA: Oh, he probably stopped thinking that as soon as he got old. Maybe now he’ll do a cover of “Old Man Blues.” [Laughs.] I sure hope so.