Mose Allison - Biography

By J Poet

Mose Allison can be summed up in two words – Mose Allison. He’s one of American music’s most singular talents, a musician that’s carved out his own unique niche. You could call him a bluesman, jazz piano player, song stylist, singer/songwriter, composer, bandleader or traveling philosopher without missing the mark, but Allison encompasses and transcends any easy classification. He also refuses to classify himself.

“I don’t know what I’ve got going,” Allison said from his Long Island home, his soothing Mississippi drawl still in evidence. “I used to tell a joke. Mose the singer and Mose the songwriter got together and said if we could just get rid of this piano player we can make some serious money.”

Allison was born in Mississippi in 1927 grew up in near Tippo, Mississippi. Allison took piano lessons while he was still in grammar school, as many kids did back in the days before the birth of rock’n’roll. His father was a semi-professional stride piano player. He used to do gigs when Mose was young, but quit to become a farmer and storeowner. There was a good piano teacher in Tippo and he took lessons long enough to get the feel of the keyboard. He quit as soon as he could pick things out by ear.

The music he wanted to play, he heard on the radio, blues, jazz and jive by cats like Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller and especially Louis Jordan. While he was in college he put together a piano trio to play bars and clubs, and was surprised by how successful he was. The night he graduated from Louisiana State University, with a degree in English and Philosophy, he missed the graduation ceremony to play a gig in a honky tonk.

Allison moved to New York in 1956 and landed studio sessions with people like Stan Getz and Jerry Mulligan. He signed a record deal with the then tiny Prestige label and was as surprised as anyone when his version of Willie Dixon’s  “The Seventh Son” became a pop hit in 1959. His early albums were mostly instrumental: jazzy country blues piano with a touch of classical music including Back Country Suite, (1957, Prestige), Local Color (1957, Prestige) and Ramblin’ with Mose (1958, Prestige). His first vocal album Mose Allison Sings (1957, Prestige) was out for almost two years before “The Seventh Son” hit.

In the 60s and 70s, Allison blossomed as a songwriter, turning out standards like “Your Mind Is on Vacation,” “Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy” and “Hello There Universe.” His Atlantic records show an artist picking up steam with every release. Solid efforts include Wild Man on the Loose (1965, Atlantic), Hello There, Universe (1969, Atlantic) and Your Mind Is on Vacation (1976, Atlantic). While touring provided a stady income, Allison never made much from his records, so he stayed away from the studio for six years until Bruce Lundvall launched Discovery Records. Allison came back with one of his strongest collections Middle Class White Boy (1982, Discovery). When Lundvall moved over to Blue Note, he brought Mose with him. Allison’s songwriting flourished and reached new heights of deadpan humor and keen insight on albums like Ever Since the World Ended (1987, Blue Note), My Backyard (1989, Blue Note) and Gimcracks and Gewgaws (1997, Blue Note)

Allison’s winning combination of social commentary, humor and cynicism, have long been praised, but the man often says he’s no cynic. “Cynics don’t have a sense of humor and most of my songs have a joke involved,” Allison said. “The key to my writing is ‘kiddin’ on the square.’ You’re joking on the surface, but you’re saying something serious underneath it. In the area I spent my childhood in, nobody said anything straight out — it was all aphorisms, irony, hyperbole or understatement. If you don’t understand that, you don’t understand kiddin’ on the square.

Despite his talent, in 2008 Allison is without a record contract, although he has done a couple of freelance dates for Blue Note. Mose Chronicles, Live in London Vol. I (2001) and Mose Chronicles, Live in London Vol. II (2002) are live Greatest Hits sets, and make a good introduction to the man and his music.

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