ARCHIVE: Mose Allison — Now He’s Talking


By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit November 4, 2008)

There’s a famous photo called “A Great Day in Harlem” — an image so well known they made a whole documentary film about the taking of it. On assignment from Esquire magazine, Art Kane brought together the biggest collection of jazz greats ever assembled — black and white, male and female, old farts and young ’starts — for a snapshot of everybody who was anybody, circa 1958.

Well almost everybody. Happening along a little too late to get into the class picture was a recent transplant from Mississippi, a piano wiz who would come to have to his credit a popular novelty called “Your Mind’s On Vacation (But Your Mouth’s Working Overtime).” As a consolation of sorts, Mose Allison had his map snapped by Dizzy Gillespie, along with a few other stragglers to the party.

Fifty years later, Mose Allison is defined not by being late but by being there first — with his own bop-infused hybrid of jazz and deep-South blues that caught the attention of a new generation of rockers, from The Who (”Young Man Blues”), The Yardbirds (”I’m Not Talking”) and Bonnie Raitt (”Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy”) to The Clash (”Look Here”) and Stan Ridgway (”Monsters of the Id”).

His folk-primitive “Parchman Blues” has been passed around from band to band like a bit of folklore from centuries past, and Van Morrison (who’s usually the subject of awestruck tributes himself) took time out from his own thing to release a whole disc of Allison covers.

Mose Allison moseys into the greater Red Bank oRBit this Thursday evening, when he appears at Tim McLoone’s Supper Club on the Asbury Park Boardwalk. It’s his first time, naturally, at the spankin’ new and sophisticated space located on the top floor of Asbury’s iconic “Howard Jetsons” — but what threw us for a loop was his assertion that it’s the first time in his half-century career he’s ever played in this most musically minded of Shore towns.

Well, better late than never, we always say — and when we called (about a half hour late, it turned out) to interview the bona fide living legend, we quizzed him on all that and more.

Late-comersDizzy Gillespie took this shot of some latecomers to the “Great Day in Harlem” photo shoot. That’s Mose second from left, with Lester Young front and center in porkpie hat.

RED BANK ORBIT: So in all the years you’ve been touring around, playing all over the world, you don’t recall ever having played in or around Asbury Park?

MOSE ALLISON: No, I really haven’t done much around the Jersey Shore. I played Atlantic City a couple of times, and there was nobody there. But I’ve been to so many places, there are no sights I wanna see by this point anyhow.

What was the worst place you ever played in?

I think it was a club in Marin County — I’ve played a lot of dives, y’know, a lot of places where you wonder if you even wanna go through with it. There’s a singer by the name of Greg Brown, who wrote a song called “Mose Allison Played Here.” He was inspired to write it when he had a gig at some place, he really had his doubts about it, but then he saw my picture up on the wall, and he said well, if Mose Allison played here, that’s good enough for me!

Do you truck your own piano around wherever you go, or do you depend on the club to set you up with something?

No, I have to hope that they can provide a good piano for me — the worst was a place in San Francisco,and it was a place where a lot of big names played, but they just had the worst piano of all time. Completely out of tune. Another place, I showed up and they didn’t have a piano at all! I hadda go out and buy some old beat-up thing.

But I’ve played on everything from beautiful 9-foot Steinways, to old things that were held together with drink stains and sawdust.

Well, I’m willing to wager that the folks at McLoone’s set you up right. It’s a gorgeous, brand new club on the top floor of what used to be an old Howard Johnson’s. The owner’s a well known keyboard player himself, as is Bob Egan, who books the Thursday night shows there.

Well, that sounds good. This show was put together for me by my guitar player, Jim Dragoni; he’s a talented guy out of Philadelphia.

Sounds like you have the respect of a lot of people in the business; a lot of folks — like Van Morrison, Elvis Costello — who would chomp at the bit to work with you. Considering the fact that you never have had that runaway hit record or that household-name signature song, that degree of respect has got to be worth more than an armload of Grammys by this point.

Somebody once asked me why I’m not famous; I told ‘em I was just lucky, I guess! Y’know, Van’s a friend of mine; one of my favorite people. A lot of people have done a lot of favors for me — Pete Townshend’s another one — and Elvis Costello, I believe, did a number on my daughter Amy’s new album.

For me, the thing that set me off on looking into your old records was when The Clash covered “Look Here”…

Right. But y’know at some point I have to say lay off the tributes already; I’m still workin’!

I know you’ve been gigging around for many years, but didn’t you come a little bit late to the game when you made your first records?

I made my first record when I was almost thirty! I went to New York in 1956, did one album as a sideman, and I already had a lot of songs written by the time I started making my own recordings. I had a contract to do six albums in two years, at $250 an album. I guess you could say I’m not overly concerned with the business end of things.

What will you be playing when you take the stage on Thursday? Old stuff, new stuff, improvisations?

Oh, I don’t make it up as I go along. The last thing you want is to be sitting up there wonderin’ what you’re gonna do next, so the first thing you hafta do is to get yourself goin’, or you won’t get anybody else goin’. So I’ll play things like “Hello There Universe,” “Your Mind’s On Vacation,” “Feel So Good”…

Anything you don’t care to play these days?

I don’t play “Parchman Farm.” I haven’t done it in 34 years. I don’t see any need to do it — it’s not interesting to me, since it’s all pretty much one chord, plus it’s no longer relevant. The inmates it was written about, at the Mississippi penal colony — years ago they lobbied successfully to end the practice of forced labor there. Nowadays the state hires convicts out to work construction sites, and they get paid for it. In fact, my daughter, who’s a lawyer, worked for the judge in that case.

This is not Amy, the country singer, but another daughter?

Yes (Alissa), and I have another daughter (Janine) who’s a psychiatrist, along with a son (John) who’s a computer guy; a software administrator.

Wow; not bad for the offspring of a traveling bluesman.

I talk to ‘em all the time; they keep me up on what’s happening in the world. And me, I’m still hangin’ in there — gettin’ focused; makin’ music happen.