Few musicians can say they’ve influenced The Rolling Stones, had a song covered by The Who, and inspired a whole tribute album of music recorded by Van Morrison.
Mose Allison has done all that and more.
The Clash, J.J. Cale, the Yardbirds, Eric Clapton, Elvis Costello, John Mayall and Bonnie Raitt hare among the many artists who have borrowed songs from the legendary Mississippi bluesman.
But Allison isn’t too bowled over by his own contributions to musical posterity. In his soft southern drawl, he says that other musicians were likely attracted to his tunes because they deal with love, war and other human frailties.
“I’ve always considered that I was dealing with the essentials — themes that time doesn’t change,” says Allison.
He doesn’t write much new music these days — in part because after half a century, he kind of feels he’s said it all.
For instance, the Iraq War is no different than the Vietnam War or any other war, says Allison. “People who don’t have anything to do with (it) get killed. It’s a tragic situation but that’s the way we are.”
He says he’s flattered by all cover versions of his songs. “I’m just grateful the British rockers have done so much for my material,” he says — particularly The Who, who turned his Young Man’s Blues into one of their performance staples. Punctuated by loud bursts of electric guitar, the Who’s version has been redone by The Foo Fighters, and has also become the backdrop of a video game.
This last fact seems to really please Allison, who will perform at Red Deer’s The Elks Lodge on Friday, June 26, with support from Edmonton jazz musicians Sandro Dominelli and Mike Lent.
“They’ve acquainted my music with a younger audience.”
Allison was born on his grandfather’s farm on the Mississippi Delta and named Mose after his father. He can only surmise that Mose is a short form of Moses. In any case, he maintains it’s a good old Mississippi name that isn’t known anywhere else.
At five, Allison began playing the piano by ear and picking out blues and boogie-woogie tunes he’d heard on the jukebox. His early influences were Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller and Duke Ellington.
Soon Allison was playing the trumpet in his school marching band and writing his own songs. After touring with an army band in 1946, he married a school teacher and they eventually had four children.
Allison earned an English and philosophy degree from Louisiana State University, and eventually formed his own trio. The group played the nightclub circuit in the southeast and western U.S., blending the blues with the modern jazz influences of Thelonius Monk, John Lewis and Al Haig.
Allison went on to record and play with jazz greats Stan Getz, Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, but he believes his music was often misunderstood.
His songs are supposed to be humorous — but Allison feels it took the world a while to catch on. “They used to call me a cynic,” says the songwriter, “but I didn’t think that at all.”
He would often riff on a popular catch-phrase — “just something people were saying” — such as, “Tell me something that I don’t know,” or “If you live, the time will come,” or “Everybody’s crying mercy when they don’t know the meaning of the word.”
Then he would coyly elaborate on it.
He attributes the tongue-in-cheek tone of his songs to his Mississippi upbringing. “Nobody says anything outright. It’s always understated, or exaggerated, or the opposite of what they mean. . . . It took a while for people in New York to get it.”
Now entering his eighth decade, Allison hasn’t slowed much, still touring 100 days of the year to places as far-flung as England. While he hates the rigors of travel, he still loves performing for fans.
He sometimes teams up with his daughter Amy Allison, who is a successful New York singer-songwriter. She’s a third-generation entertainer in the family, since Mose Allison’s father played a mean stride piano.