It’s the Panama hat.
I always feel a bit sad and perhaps even regretful when a notable figure passes. For someone who thrives on talking to and about interesting people, there’s a sense of finality, a feeling that an opportunity just slipped from my grasp. I know I won’t get to hear their stories first hand for myself, and I won’t get to share those stories with my viewers. So there’s a personal touch of grief in that for me. But when I heard the news that Leon Redbone passed away last week, I felt a little extra punch in the gut. Redbone was known for sporting a Panama style hat, a quirk that he shared with my late father, Jack, who passed away last year. Lurking just behind my regret at knowing I’ll never have the chance to sit down with Redbone is much larger grief over my father and a much deeper longing to sit down just one more time with him.
While no person who has ever walked the earth can compare to my father, it’s equally valid that no person who has ever walked the world can compare to Leon Redbone, either. You may not have known his name, but chances are very good that you knew his distinctive voice and phrasing. It takes moxie to invoke a bygone era and make it all seem fresh and new, and Leon Redbone had it. Here’s how.
Moxie embraces a little mystery.
Maybe Redbone was 127 when he died, as the announcement on his website states. On the other hand, he was born in Louisiana in 1910, not in Cyprus in 1949. Maybe his real name was James Hokum and not Dickran Gobalian. It’s really hard to tell because Redbone invented his history as deftly as he moved between chords on his trusty guitar.
What is without dispute is that Leon Redbone was a striking, distinct performer who reached back into the musical archives and brought forward ragtime, blues, and jazz. His voice was at once nasally and rich, his phrasing reminiscent of artists like Billie Holiday but at the same time entirely his own. His art wasn’t an imitation; it was an appreciation and celebration.
But even in describing his own art, he was contradictory.
“I’m just an entertainer, and I use music as a medium for entertaining,” he once explained in an interview. “But I’m not an entertainer either, because to be an entertainer it implies you have a great desire to want to entertain.”
Redbone was, at the same time ultimately, clearly distinct and also impossible to pin down. It takes moxie to hold contradictory notions in tension, and Redbone was a master.
Moxie lives in the moment.
For a man that seemed to have just stepped out of a time machine from the early 20th century, Redbone had a remarkable way of simply being in the moment.
He was a self-taught musician who played by ear. Accounts say he didn’t typically play a song the same way twice and didn’t keep a setlist but simply let performances unfold organically on stage.
“It’s painting something; it’s you creating a mood. You can create a mood anywhere you want, with colors, noise, yelling and screaming,” Redbone said in a 1995 interview.
It takes moxie to be so fully present that you bring others with you into the exact moment, and Redbone had it.
Moxie shows up in unusual places.
Redbone was one of those performers whom everybody knew about without knowing they knew about him. Even though he never enjoyed widespread name recognition, his voice was everywhere and didn’t attract big crowds to huge venues.
His work was intimate and ubiquitous. He lent his voice to the theme song for the 80s tv sitcom “Mr. Belvedere” and “Harry and the Hendersons.” His voice turns up in any number of children’s programs and advertisements for various products. And every Christmas you’ll hear him as the voice of the wise snowman in the movie “Elf,” performing a now-classic duet with Zoey Deschanel.
Other performers might have considered such activities beneath them, but Redbone embraced them in his own unique way.
“I think of these things as obstacles rather than opportunities,” he said. “Because if they were opportunities, it means I took the business of doing them seriously. To take me too seriously is the gentle kiss of death.”
Only someone with moxie has a strong enough sense of himself to perform so effectively, whatever the context might be. It’s not so much that he was some man for all seasons; he was so quietly powerful that he changed the climate around him.
Do you have a favorite Redbone moment?