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.