Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

R.I.P. cult songwriter Leon Redbone

Illustration for article titled R.I.P. cult songwriter Leon Redbone
Photo: Frans Schellekens (Getty Images)

Leon Redbone, the ageless, unmistakable singer of American standards, has died. Rolling Stone reports that he was 69 years old, though a good-humored post confirming his death on Redbone’s website joked that he was actually 127.


“He departed our world with his guitar, his trusty companion Rover and a simple tip of his hat,” his family said in a statement. “He’s interested to see what Blind Blake, Emmett and Jelly Roll have been up to in his absence, and has plans for a rousing singalong number with Sári Barabás. 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, and some long overdue discussions with his favorite Uncle, Suppiluliuma I of the Hittites. To his fans, friends and loving family who have already been missing him so in this realm he says, ‘Oh behave yourselves. Thank you… and good evening everybody.’”

Redbone, a playful soul with an interest in ragtime and vaudeville, had a look as distinctive as his voice, often donning a Panama hat and giant pair of sunglasses. He maintained a mythical air about himself, toying with interviewers when they asked about his age and upbringing. His live shows incorporated comedy and music, and his act took him to Saturday Night Live on a number of occasions. He also sang the theme songs to television shows like Mr. Belvedere and Harry And The Hendersons, and appeared in commercials for the likes of Budweiser and Chevrolet. In 2003, he voiced Leon The Snowman in Elf, and even recorded a rendition of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with the film’s Zooey Deschanel.

Redbone released 16 albums throughout his career, beginning with 1975's On The Track. His rendition of Gary Tigerman’s “Seduced” from his 1981 album, From Branch To Branch, landed him on the Hot 100. His final album was 2014's Flying By. The singer announced his retirement in 2015, citing health issues.


He had a number of high-profile fans, including Neil Young and Bob Dylan. “Leon interests me,” Dylan told Rolling Stone in 1974. “I’ve heard he’s anywhere from 25 to 60, I’ve been [a foot and a half from him] and I can’t tell. But you gotta see him. He does old Jimmie Rodgers, then turns around and does a Robert Johnson.”

“To get the feel of what I do, you’d have to travel the back roads of this country. In the South, when ragtime was coming in. Back about 1890,” Redbone told The Washington Post in a hilarious 1978 interview. “You say ‘ragtime’ today and people think, ‘aha, “The Entertainer”’. That’s not what I do at all. Actually, I’d rather play Chopin at the piano than do anything else. But I can’t anymore.” When asked why not, he replied, “Discipline, my boy.

Randall Colburn is The A.V. Club's Internet Culture Editor. He lives in Chicago, occasionally writes plays, and was a talking head in Best Worst Movie, the documentary about Troll 2.

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