Leon Redbone, An Unusual Singer From A Bygone Era, Has Died

May 31, 2019
Originally published on June 2, 2019 10:57 am

Leon Redbone, the perpetually anachronistic, famously mysterious artist who rose to prominence as a performer on Toronto's folk circuit in the early '70s, died Thursday while in hospice care in Bucks County, Pa.

Redbone's family confirmed his death through a publicist. No cause was given, and Redbone's age was a subject of speculation for decades.

"I've heard he's anywhere from 25 to 60," Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone in 1974, "and I can't tell, but you gotta see him." That same year, when asked about his age by Rolling Stone, Redbone replied: "Of course I don't know. It's just something I vaguely recall. I can't say for sure." In the news release announcing his death, Redbone's age was cited as 127.

The only things known — ostensibly — of Redbone's origins were revealed by Toronto Star columnist George Gamester in the 1980s: that he was a Cypriot named Dickran Gobalian, who emigrated to Ontario in the 1960s and changed his name after arriving in Canada.

Redbone's obscurantist tendencies, including his ever-present, masking uniform of sunglasses, bushy mustache and Panama hat, gave Redbone the aura of a quixotic time-traveler, someone who simply stepped onto the stage fully formed.

And Redbone was a man happily — or at least, authentically — out-of-time. He played dusty classics — from Tin Pan Alley and ragtime to blues and country — with a loose fidelity, always anchored by his casually lovely and always wry voice.

Dylan's endorsement, made at the apex of his and Rolling Stone's cultural footprints, was a defining moment for Redbone and helped widened interest in him from stars of the era, including Bonnie Raitt and John Prine.

His commercial success, according to the Billboard charts, peaked in 1977 when the album Double Time reached the top 50 — helped, in part, by two performances during Saturday Night Live's debut season. But Redbone remained a cultural presence for decades, singing the theme song for '80s sitcom Mr. Belvedere and appearing as "Leon the Snowman" in the now-classic Christmas film Elf in 2003.

In 2015, Redbone announced his retirement from touring, with a rep citing health concerns. He followed that retirement up with another album, Long Way Home, composed of his earliest recordings and released by Jack White's label, Third Man Records.

When asked by NPR's Lynn Neary in 1984 whether he enjoyed his performances, Redbone responded with a wink: "I never have a good time ... but I try."

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Leon Redbone died this week. The singer and guitarist was 69 years old. He'd been in poor health. He was a singer with a laid-back delivery and, even as a young man, dressed and sounded like he'd stepped out of a bygone era, as NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: With his mustache, sunglasses, three-piece suits and Panama hat, Leon Redbone transported audiences back in time.


LEON REDBONE: (Singing) The night was mighty dark, so you could hardly see 'cause the moon refused to shine. There's a couple sitting neath (ph) the willow tree. For love, they pined.

BLAIR: Redbone was sketchy about the details of his life. He told one interviewer he was born in 1670; another, 1910. Redbone got his start on the folk circuit, first in Toronto and then in the U.S. He was introduced to millions of TV viewers when he was invited to perform on "Saturday Night Live" four times.


REDBONE: (Singing) Without my walking stick, I'd go insane. I can't look my best. I feel undressed without my cane.

BLAIR: According to a recent article in the magazine Oxford American, Leon Redbone was born in Cyprus to Armenian parents. Even Redbone's friends and family aren't sure where his love of old songs came from - ragtime, jazz, blues, country. Redbone once said, the only thing that interests me is history - reviewing the past and making something out of it. He listened to songs by Jimmie Rodgers, Robert Johnson and this one, "I Hate A Man Like You," by Jelly Roll Morton.


JELLY ROLL MORTON: (Singing) I hate a man like you, don't like the things you do.

BLAIR: Several decades later, Redbone recorded his own version.


REDBONE: (Singing) I hate a man like you, don't like the things you do.

BONNE RAITT: None of us had ever seen anything like Leon before.

BLAIR: Bonnie Raitt was mesmerized by Leon Redbone when she first saw him in the 1970s. She got to know him when they toured together and says they shared a deep appreciation for the blues. She says Redbone could pull off the subtlety of those old songs as if he was from that era.

RAITT: He just was honoring a music that would be, you know, put in the ivory tower of musicology departments and not appreciated. And he revived so much of what was great about those eras. And that's the legacy that he will always have.


REDBONE: (Singing) Sweet substitute, sweet substitute tells me that she's mine, all mine - does anything I tell her 'cause love is blind.

BLAIR: Leon Redbone was a self-described romantic. He once said, when performing songs from an earlier era, it wasn't really accuracy he was after; it was the sentiment. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.


REDBONE: (Singing) Talk about my substitute. Crazy about my substitute. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.