Mose Allison is no longer the young man whose "Young Man Blues" found its way onto two live Who albums, but he's still a force to be reckoned with. He's had his songs covered by artists like the Clash, Eric Clapton and Elvis Costello, and has also had songs written about him by Greg Brown ("Mose Allison Played Here") and the Pixies ("Allison").
It's not hard to see why: Since Back Country Suite, his 1957 debut on the Prestige jazz label, Allison has been nothing if not prolific. He's released some 40 albums showcasing his piano style, which was distilled from the blues and jazz recordings he heard growing up, as well as his lyrics, which tend to fall somewhere between dry and droll.
And now, at the age of 82, Allison is touring to promote his first new album in more than a decade. The Way of the World was released earlier this year on Anti-Records, the eclectic sister label to Bad Religion guitarist Brett Gurewitz's more punk-inclined Epitaph Records.
Like Bettye LaVette, Merle Haggard and Mavis Staples before him, Allison is now sharing a label with artists like Nick Cave and Dr. Dog, bringing him to the attention of a whole new demographic. It was another Anti- artist, Joe Henry, who coaxed the veteran jazzman back into the studio, even though he'd sworn off recording years earlier.
So now, four decades after "Young Man Blues" first appeared on the Who's Live at Leeds, Allison finds himself enjoying, or at least experiencing, something of a career revival. We figured we'd talk to him about that, as well as a few other things.
Indy: I understand it was Joe Henry who more or less dragged you back into the studio to record The Way of the World. How did you know him in the first place?
MA: Well, I was on a show with him in Düsseldorf, Germany, and he was a good musician and had a great reputation as a producer. He asked me to record then, but I didn't take him seriously. I thought I would just wait and see what happened. But he kept e-mailing my wife, and so finally I decided, you know, why not?
Indy: Your new song "My Brain" reminds me of Woody Guthrie's "This Train." Was that intentional?
MA: Well, it's from "This Train." But Willie Dixon wrote a tune in the '60s called "My Babe," and that was a hit for Little Walter, and so that's where I took it from. But I found out later that it all came from Rosetta Tharpe.
Indy: So has getting a taste of recording again revived your appetite for the studio?
MA: No, because you have to do things over and over, and if anybody makes a mistake, you know, that's bad. So recording is more or less a chore.
Indy: Growing up in Mississippi, a lot of blues and jazz must have seeped into your music. What did you listen to when you were young?
MA: Well, I learned about jazz from my cousin, who had a wind-up Victrola and some records by Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Earl Hines and so forth. And the service station had a jukebox where I heard a lot of country blues.
Indy: I've noticed that when you play a solo, you kind of vocalize along with it. At what age did that start?
MA: I don't know. That was way back. A lot of piano players make that noise. And one time it was so bad that I asked the recording people to take it out, but they liked it. [Laughs.]
Indy: You recently played a Who tribute show at Carnegie Hall, along with artists like Bettye LaVette, who's also on Anti-. What was that like, and did you already know Bettye?
MA: Well, no, I didn't know anybody. [Laughs.] You know, my daughter Amy knew a lot of them. They just rolled the piano out in front of the bandstand and I did two songs.
Indy: You must have at least known members of the Who?
MA: Oh yeah, Pete Townshend has been to see me a couple of times in London, and I went out to his house one day. So I've known him for a while, and he's done a lot of favors for me. A lot of people, they haven't heard of me except for that one Who tune I did.
Indy: Are you getting a younger audience from being on Anti- Records?
MA: Well, you know, the record hasn't been around that long, so I don't know what the result will be. But I've done a lot of interviews.
Indy: Speaking of which, one of the lyrics you're best known for is "Your mind is on vacation / But your mouth is workin' overtime." Was that song about journalists?
MA: No, no, no. [Laughs.] It was originally written about some nightclub audience that was really noisy, and that's how it started out. But then I finally decided that it applies to me.