Leon Redbone died on Thursday. His management said he was 127 years old at his passing, which seems likely, considering the style of ’20 jazz that he favored. But more-reliable sources place his age at 69.
Redbone got as far as a guy who played ukulele, wore a Panama hat and sang through his nose could get, I guess. His career took off in the mid-1970s, after he caught the eye of Bob Dylan, followed by an appearance on “Saturday Night Live.” From there, Redbone never strayed from his collection of vaudeville, ragtime and Tin-Pan Alley songs. He kept the details of his life deliberately murky. It appears he was born in Cyprus, and moved to Canada early in his life. Then I think he might have been living in Pennsylvania, because that’s where he was when I called him a few times over the years.
A note on Redbone’s web site announcing his death speculated on a few post-life activities for the crooner: “An eternity of pouring through texts in the Library of Ashurbanipal will be a welcome repose, perhaps followed by a shot or two of whiskey with Lee Morse.”
The kingdom of an ancient Assyrian is beyond my travel budget. But Morse is not. Redbone and I spent a winter afternoon together, walking through Riverside Cemetery in search of the grave of Morse, a female jazz singer of the 1920s and ’30s and a favorite of Redbone. I wasn’t sure how to take this rolling anachronism of a man. He dressed and talked like someone from the past who had stepped through a portal and found himself in a future that he wasn’t quite interested in being a part of. He was wary of these times, he said. No good would come of the technologies that were obscuring our humanity. In simpler times, at least we could see the dangers that confronted us: We were doomed to be slaughtered by some genetically inferior hordes riding out of the hills.
Quirky. Kinda funny. Was he simply staying in character for my benefit? Or was he always like this?
Morse was a perfect Holy Grail of jazz for Redbone. Born in rural Oregon, she began recording jazz in 1924. She had a few hits, although a hit was defined a little differently in her day than it is now. “I’ve Got Five Dollars,” that was one. “If You Want the Rainbow,” that was another; it showed up in an episode of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire.” Sometimes she yodeled in the midst of the song. She was in a few short films as well.
She was quirky. Kinda funny.
But her career dried up, and heavy drinking seemed to play a role in it. A few comeback attempts failed. She married a man from Rochester in 1946, and launched yet another comeback attempt. She sang here in clubs and appeared on the radio. But again, the comeback failed, and she died here in 1954, at age 57.
While Redbone and I were walking through the cemetery, he told me he was thinking about recording an album of Morse’s songs. I believe he was already doing “Ukulele Lady” in some of his shows. “Tain’t No Sin (To Dance Around in Your Bones),” that’s another Morse song I can hear Redbone playing.
But while a Morse song, “Just You and I,” does lead off his final album, 2014’s “Flying By,” he never got around to releasing an entire album of her songs. And we never found Morse’s headstone that afternoon. Instead, we went back to his hotel, sat in the bar and drank a couple of whiskies.
I returned to Riverside Cemetery later that spring, and did find where Morse is buried. She’s beneath one of those flat grave markers, we hadn’t seen it beneath the snow.
BE THE FIRST in your neighborhood to know when a new Critical Mass has been turned loose. Go to the “Subscribe” button on the web site jeffspevak.com for an email alert. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.