When Joe Henry met Mose Allison

Jul 22, 2009 at 12:00 am

"Well, a young man, he ain't got nothing in the world these days." Or so a young man named Mose Allison sang in his backcountry half-sung, half-spoken twang in a New York studio in 1957, inaugurating a singular recording career. The song, then just "Blue Blues," on an album that mainly featured his piano playing, would be rechristened "Young Man Blues" and become a rock staple, one among many of his songs that have won favor with bands and singers from the Yardbirds to the Who and Van Morrison.

Forty years later in another New York studio, Allison recorded "Old Man Blues," pointing out the esteem granted the elderly in the Orient, then bringing things back home:

But in the USA
Where the young man knows how to wheel and deal
The young man's got the sex appeal
The young man is the man of the hour
Thirty-five years of purchasing power

And the old man today
Ain't nothing in the USA.

Those were the last words of the last track of Gimcracks and Gewgaws. And although Allison later recorded a couple of subsequent live discs, and starred in a BBC bio-doc, and kept working 100-or-so nights a year, he came see that disc as his last studio testament. Which was where things stood until former Detroiter Joe Henry got involved. Thanks to Henry's persistence, after finishing his Dirty Dog gig on Saturday, Allison heads to California for his first studio work in a dozen years.

"Joe Henry booked me in Düsseldorf, Germany, for a couple of concerts, and that went well, and he decided then that he wanted to record me," Allison said the other day, taking a call at his home in East Port, N.Y., a spot far enough out on Long Island to keep a few farms in the residential mix. "That's where it's sitting right now, and I'm just trying to get tunes together that I haven't recorded before."

Henry's telling of their collaboration is a little more involved, as he recounted in a recent e-mail.

"I have been listening to Mose Allison since I was a teenager," wrote Henry, harking back to his youth in the Detroit suburbs. "His singular and poetic take on songwriting — fusing jazz standard and country blues tonalities into something unique and personal — influenced me the way it influenced Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Randy Newman and Elvis Costello, to name a few equally singular artists who count Mose as a heroic signpost."

Henry said he stood in the wings of the German festival during Allison's sets and "marveled at the amazing songs that flew by — 17 or 18 per show." He'd long wanted to record Allison, but now he began to wonder what Allison might add to his "already legendary catalogue."

When Henry first asked the answer was simple: Allison didn't want to add a thing. "'Oh, I'm through making records,' he told me with a dismissive laugh," Henry wrote. So Henry kept talking up the idea with Allison and with Allison's wife, Audre, who encouraged it. "I came home from Germany determined to continue knocking on Mose's door until he either gave in to my advances of told me to knock it off."

Give in was what Allison eventually did, and Andy Kaulkin, another Allison fan and head of Anti- records, Henry's label, got behind the project.

As to repertoire, Allison said, "There is a couple of tunes that I have, that I've been playing but haven't recorded. Lot of it's going to be tunes I've never done before. I'm doing a Memphis Slim tune and one of Amy Allison's — my daughter, who writes songs, had a CD released with Elvis Costello and so forth."

Henry wrote that they might do one of his compositions and "something that we're writing together ... some country blues and some rarely heard jazz standards."

But when it came to some other details, Allison, who tells of being hard-headed with label honchos in the past, was apparently ready to go with Henry's flow. "I've spent so much time on the other records and they haven't sold anything. I'm going to let Joe Henry do things as far as backgrounds and musicians go," Allison said, before recounting some of his hardheaded dealings with the record industry.

For instance, with so many screaming guitar bands — from Blue Cheer to the Clash — having recorded his songs, you've got to think that a label exec or two would have pushed that on Allison as an act of roll-the-dice marketing if nothing else.

"Oh, yeah, there were record companies that tried to do that," Allison said. He recalled that after his first six discs with Prestige — at $250 apiece — "I figured I'd look for a big label. That's why I went with Columbia. The big label didn't work. They wanted me to do something more commercial. So then I went to Atlantic. They wanted me to go to Muscle Shoals, play with a band down there or something, had made some hits for them. I wouldn't do anything for a couple years. Finally, they let me do what I want to do."


Doing what he wanted to do, of course, has worked out pretty darn well for Allison. Not hit-making well as a performer, but comfortable-niche well. And his career has moved at a good clip from the get-go.

After growing up in the Mississippi Delta, attending the University of Mississippi and Louisiana State University (English major, philosophy minor) and doing an Army stint, he hit the New York scene in his mid-20s. He'd had the music bug since his childhood, and his musical self-education included watching piano rolls and listening to Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller on a wind-up Gramophone. He had enough jazz chops to fit easily into the New York scene — and backcountry bluesiness that quickly set him apart.

"There were a lot of lofts around town where you could meet guys and play, they had jam sessions," he recalled. He met the former Frank Isola, a drummer out of Detroit, at one of those sessions, and in short order, he was working next to Isola in Stan Getz's band. Prestige Record's Bob Weinstock heard him at another jam session, and in short order Allison was recording his "Back Country Suite" — an all-instrumental work except for his young man's ditty that dated back to "when I was in Mississippi working on a farm for a while."

He started cranking out albums for Prestige, singing more now along with playing piano, and he was making an impression beyond jazz circles. American bands like the Blues Project (featuring Al Kooper) were into him, as were Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey's pre-Who band, the Detours. Allison's "Parchman Farm" was the Detour's signature number.

Allison says none of that made a big impression on him until the Who's rendition of "Young Man's Blues" on Live at Leeds in 1970 resulted in an unexpected check for $5,000 in the mail. Allison has often said that he assumed that somebody had a made mistake.

But asked which of the rock versions of his songs are his favorites now, he simply said, "I don't mind. I don't care what anybody does with my material as long as they give me credit and do the things so I get paid."

Henry said his goal is to make a record "both authentic to Mose's great legacy, and yet free of it. Yes, he will speak as he does, in the musical language of his own invention, but will say things he hasn't exactly says before."

Henry said he'll use his "favorite rhythm section in the world, Jay Bellerose on drums and David Piltch on upright bass," his frequent collaborators. He'll also bring in Walter Smith III from Terrence Blanchard's band and guitarist Anthony Wilson (son of ex-Detroit jazz legend Gerald Wilson).

And in a salt-of-the-earth metaphor that fits Allison's manner of speech, Henry said they'll "head down to my basement studio here in South Pasadena and spend five days pulling fish into the boat."


Allison on songwriting:

His songs covered by others include "I'm Not Talking," "Monsters of the Id," "Everybody's Crying Mercy," "Your Mind is Vacation," "Young Man Blues" and "Parchman Farm" (not to be confused with the several like-titled "Parchman Farm" songs by others). We asked about a couple of his better and lesser-known gems.

"Young Man Blues": "It just comes to mind. It comes into my head from somewhere, I don't know. But anyhow, I wrote that when I was in Mississippi working on a farm for a while. ... The Who's version of that has done more good than anything else. It's still around and it's still being reissued and it's on a video game right now."

"Everybody's Crying Mercy": "I don't remember. They just come through my head, sayings of people that I've heard over the years, and they come back to me and I feel they're worthy of developing. That's an old saying, I don't know who said it first, 'Everybody's crying mercy, and nobody knows the meaning of the word.' I've heard that years ago."

"Ever Since the World Ended": "I'll tell you how that came about. I remember the planets lined up a few years ago, and astrologers all said it meant the end of the world, and nothing happened that we can determine. I figured well, maybe the world ended anyhow and we don't know about it yet. So that's how that came about, from the planets lining up."

"Texanna": "Texanna was my grandmother, my father's mother, and nobody knew her because she died when he was born, I think. So nobody has any idea of anything about Texanna. I couldn't find out anything about her. So I had this statue on the mantle that reminded me of the one picture that we have of her, and she evidently ... I mean my father looked quite a bit like her, so that's how that came about. She's my mystery grandmother."

"Old Man Blues": "'Old Man Blues' is something I wrote because I'm older now, I figured I needed to do something to contrast to 'Young Man Blues.'"

Mose Allison performs Wednesday-Saturday, July 22-25, at the Dirty Dog Jazz Café, 97 Kercheval St., Grosse Pointe Farms; 313-882-5299.

Joe Henry's new disc, Blood from the Stars, comes out on Anti- records next month.

W. Kim Heron is Metro Times editor. Thanks to MT editorial intern Julia Fitzgerald for transcription. Send comments to [email protected].