Who He Was: Mose Allison (1927-2016) was a Mississippi-bred singer-pianist-songwriter who, over the course of a half-century-plus career, hoed a unique row somewhere between the fields where jazz and the blues grew. He was a deft and humorous lyricist, with a droll and deadpan delivery, making his non-instrumental works instantly recognizable, once you were hip to his paradigm. Having worked his grandfather’s cotton farm as a child, he went on to earn a degree at the University of Mississippi, then to serve a stint in the U.S. Army, then to cut his teeth in New York City as a session pianist for Al Cohn and Stan Getz. He released his first album as a group leader in 1957, but it wasn’t until he had half-a-dozen records under his belt that his label (Prestige) put together an all-vocal compilation album (Mose Allison Sings), essentially defining the shape and trajectory of his subsequent career. His final album of new material, The Way of the World (2009), was a resonant critical success, and a fitting capstone to a long and illustrious career, on stage and in the studio.
When I First Heard Him: Like many (or most?) folks my age with a keen youthful focus on challenging rock music, I learned of Mose Allison via Pete Townsend, who re-arranged Mose’s seminal “Young Man Blues” for The Who’s epic late ’60s live shows, from whence it was captured brilliantly for posterity on the 1970 Live at Leeds album. Townsend also included “Eyesight To The Blind” (written by Sonny Boy Williamson, but covered definitively by Allison in 1959) as a key part of the Tommy album (1969) and subsequent film, where it was performed by Eric Clapton and Arthur Brown. I would cite The Who’s version of “Young Man Blues” (watch it live, here) as one of the most incredible works of musical re-construction and re-configuration in arena rock history, with Allison’s pithy and insightful 90-second ditty turned into a titanic piece of start-stop, audience-revving hard rock. Mose himself declared the Live at Leeds version of the song to be its “command performance.” The first time that I actually played one of Mose’s albums all the way through (I cannot tell you which one it was, alas, though I know that it did include “Young Man’s Blues,” as Mose actually titled the song) was when I was living at Mitchel Field in the late 1970s, regularly hanging out at the Nassau Community College’s media library, feeding my head with their exceptionally well-curated album collection. I liked that now-forgotten record and Mose himself well enough at the time, but I don’t think my listening palate was mature enough to really appreciate and embrace the subtleties of his oeuvre. When I was working as a music critic for Metroland in the mid-1990s, I received a review copy of a “twofer” archival release of a pair of his albums which had long been out of print: Swingin’ Machine (1962) and The Word From Mose (1964). I was ready for Mose by that time, and I absolutely adored (and still adore) those records, which led me to further explore his back catalog, with great enjoyment and satisfaction. I also had the great pleasure of seeing him live once, very late in his concert career, at the Van Dyck Jazz Club in Schenectady, New York, and it was a delightful and memorable evening, for sure.
Why I Love Him: Mose Allison was a true original, impossible to slot into any of the standard stylistic buckets that most artists fall into easily and readily. His song structures were certainly blues oriented, but his instrumental arrangements were anchored in jazz trio traditions (he only occasionally deployed horn or woodwind sections), and his lyrical and vocal approaches were sui generis, especially in the ways that he deployed humor in what most listeners and critics would perceive and revere as “serious” music. I also tend to be fond of Southern artists who achieve critical or commercial success without having to water-down the influences of their native roots, especially when they’re as sharp and smart as Allison was. Finally, I appreciate some of the parallels in life experiences that I share with Allison, beyond those Southern roots: he served in the military, he lived on Long Island for many years, and he maintained a home in the Low Country of South Carolina. The combination of all of those factors, and his fine ability to capture big stories in small texts, gives his music lasting resonance for me, and I appreciate the fact that he’s accessible to pretty much any audience on short listen (he’s a regular on our home digital jukebox, for the two of us alone, and for when we have company around), but that his work also richly rewards additional attention and close analysis. Unique, talented, fun, and entertaining. What’s not to love? (Note: Mose’s discography can be a bit convoluted, with many compilations and different versions of key songs; I’ve tried to identify the original studio sources for each of my top ten songs below, even if the Youtube videos may cite or reference other sources).
#10. “Your Molecular Structure” from I’ve Been Doin’ Some Thinkin’ (1968)
#9. “Days Like This” from The Word from Mose (1964)
#8. “I Don’t Worry About A Thing” from I Don’t Worry About a Thing (1962)
#7. “Stop This World” from Swingin’ Machine (1962)
#6. “I’m Not Talking” from The Word from Mose (1964)
#5. “It Didn’t Turn Out That Way” from I Don’t Worry About a Thing (1962)
#4. “If You’re Going to the City” from Swingin’ Machine (1962)
#3. “One Of These Days” from The Word from Mose (1964)
#2. “Night Club” from Western Man (1971)
#1. “Swingin’ Machine” from Swingin’ Machine (1962)