Mose Allison 1927-2016
When we were just a bunch of white boys barely out of school, falling in love with the sounds of Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed and Bo Diddley and wondering if we’d found a language that we could somehow call our own, Mose Allison showed how it could be done. Allison had been born in Mississippi and grew up on a cotton farm, the son of a piano-playing general store owner and a schoolteacher. He had a directly acquired knowledge of the culture of African American people, and he knew that the way to adopt their language while retaining some sort authenticity was to be yourself. Among those who learnt that lesson were Georgie Fame and Pete Townshend.
The first Mose Allison record I owned was an EP containing tracks from Back Country Suite, his first album, recorded for Prestige in 1957. All but one of the tracks were piano-trio instrumentals: miniatures with titles like “New Ground”, “Train” and “Warm Night”, somehow evoking the sights and sounds of the Delta, with Allison demonstrating a keyboard touch that blended the deftness of bebop with something earthier. The exception was a track called “Blues”, on which he sang in a voice that was high, light, and barely inflected: “Well, a young man ain’t nothin’ in this world today.” He didn’t sound like any of the blues singers I’d been listening to, but he sounded real.
Of course it was the singing that would make him famous: with his own compositions, like “Parchman Farm”, “Everybody Cryin’ Mercy” and “Your Mind Is on Vacation”, and with those of others, like Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Eyesight to the Blind”, Percy Mayfield’s “Lost Mind”, Mercy Dee’s “One Room Country Shack” and Willie Dixon’s “Seventh Son”. His songs sounded like theirs, and theirs sounded like his. What they shared was a wry, rueful, plaintive, homespun wisdom.
He played the trumpet, too, having taught himself and worked with a Dixieland band. There’s a lovely short version of “Trouble in Mind” on his second album, Local Color; he plays it tightly muted, in a traditional style, with just bass and drums, and you know this was someone who worshipped Louis Armstrong.
But it’s his piano-playing that I come back to nowadays, to the lightness of those early sketches and to the much denser textures of his later improvisations, heard to great effect when he finally became a regular visitor to London in the 1980s. There’s a mostly instrumental Atlantic album from 1962 called Swingin’ Machine which features a stellar quintet line-up — Jimmy Knepper (trombone), Jim Reider (tenor saxophone), Addison Farmer (bass) and Frank Dunlop (drums) — and provides another demonstration of what a fine player he was.
* Mose Allison’s first six albums are collected on a two-CD set from the Fresh Sound label: Complete Prestige Recordings 1957-59. Two dozen of his vocal recordings from 1957 to 1971 are anthologised in a new BGP set titled I’m Not Talkin’: The Song Stylings of Mose Allison.
R I P Mose…lots of good times at my loft at 3551/2 Bowery, and before that at Lacey’s loft
at 21 Bleeker…you always got a big sound even out of a tinny upright. soon !
Lovely article. Your site is consistently interesting.
“They always told me there’d be days like this”. It was Mose together with Atlantic era Ray Charles who converted me to jazz in the early 1960s. Hearing Mose’s take on ” Baby please don’t go” on French radio, buying the single, then all the back albums. As you say, I grew to appreciate his piano as much as his singing, concise and clean, a kind of amalgam of Al Haig, Nat Cole, with a nod to Monk but deeply personal. There are some real gems on those Prestige albums and onwards.
He was the personification of “hip” but in a totally natural and authentic way. It is almost a personal loss as he sound-tracked so much of my life, era and tastes. 89 is a good span but its still too soon. RIP Mose, one of the very good ones.
This is a lovely obituary. Thanks! I came to Mose by way of his daughter Amy, a marvellous witty songwriter with a fine melancholy edge. She’s done a lot of work in Scotland with David Scott. It’s possible to be very unkind about her voice, Minnie Mouse on helium, was one description I heard. But she has father’s concern with precision and delivery, and it’s a joy to listen to them both. Thanks, again Richard. A fine piece.
Richard. Thanks v much for this obit. Also a great infulence on me, as with you in Nottingham growing into music in the mid-sixties. Mose Allison was certianly like no-one else with his mesmerising nasal jive. I saw him in 1965 at Richnond Jazz and Blues Festival when working there. I also literally bumped into him in Soho around 12 years or so ago and talked to him about that ’65 show. He remembered and told me it was his first foray into the UK. A truly great influence on this young man! Stephen Barrett
This is Gold Standard Richard Williams, Richard. And something that will go into my Archive of the History of Music. A better summary of Mose Allison could not be imagined.
Mose was a poetic Kurt Vonnegut of jazz: less is more, and humor is serious business (they also shared 11/11 as a birthday). He also knew his way around a piano, and will always sit high in this southern middle class white boy’s pantheon: Augustine of Hippo, Allison of Tippo…