Mose Allison has passed away, the latest music icon in what is turning into a bumper year for the Grim Reaper.
I came late to his fan club. I was well into my 40s when I first heard Mojo Woman, which stopped me dead in my tracks. The notes moved through the room like meandering molten lava. Every inch of space was conquered by the pristine melody and syncopation.
For the next several years Mose was the man I turned to most frequently when I wanted something no other musician could give: bluesy jazz or jazzy blues. Neither and both.
For years, as I trudged through the snow banks at the University of Minnesota, I would see handbills with Mose’s picture stapled to lampposts all over the campus. Sadly, poverty and limited curiosity kept me ignorant of this genius for 25 more years.
When my wife and I were preparing for the arrival of our first child we were in instant unanimity about what his name would be: Mose. And though we were blessed with a boy and harbored quiet hopes he might take after his namesake, he has not.
But, he is aware of the great man after whom he is named.This afternoon when I announced the news, Mose (the younger) immediately stepped forward and embraced me.
The first thing that amazes you about Mose Allison is his piano playing. It’s fluid, syncopated, lively, inventive and completely off the cuff. He works the keyboard as if it were an orchestra producing swells and variations of sounds and pitch and tone with a dexterity that is endlessly alluring.
The aforementioned Mojo Woman is, of course a wonderful place to start. But there are any number of other pieces such as It’s Crazy and Mule where he takes on and conquers the world with his piano.
Someone said that each of Abba’s songs are mini symphonies. That’s how I feel about Mose’s piano solos. They are filled to bursting with exuberance, jollity and a totally unexpected ‘Aw shucks’ nonchalance.
He was self-taught for the most part. His father had been a semi-professional stride blues player but when his turn came round, Mose opted for boogie woogie. That style’s rapid and repetitious rhythms are evident through almost every Mose Allison piece, even his interpretations of others material.
But there are strains of ragtime and even classical music as well. Indeed, his first and most popular song, Back Country Suite (Young Man Blues) was inspired by Bela Bartok’s blending of folk songs in his classical compositions. “If he could do that, I wanted to try to do the same,” Allison has said.
Allison had no intention to be a singer or songwriter but his first label, Prestige, wanted him to be a pop star. And pop stars needs songs to sing. Allison’s repertoire was drawn from the blues which he grew up with down in Mississippi. “I always change the words and make them my own” he confessed. But he also turned his hand to crafting his own lyrics. Ironically, it was this unforeseen development that attracted attention.
It was especially the first generation of rockers in Britain who fell under Mose’s spell. Peter Townsend, John Mayall, Van Morrison and Georgie Fame all recorded Mose’s songs, giving them a completely new context. New audiences were created and by the late 1960s, Mose Allison had the reputation of the coolest of cool cats in rock ‘n roll circles. He himself was grateful for the exposure and royalties, but never took to the heavy rhythms of rock music. “Its’ hard to improvise with such a strong backbeat.”
Though his songs have not entered the mass consciousness in the same way other singers have, he has had a huge influence within music circles. His lyrics are laced with sardonic often self-deprecating humor and though often philosophical are never heavy or ‘serious’.
When delivered in his conversational, laid back style each song has a lightness about it. And they are often simply hilarious. Case in point, Ever Since the World Ended .
Every since the world ended,
There’s no more bible belt.
Remember how we all pretended?
Going ’round, lying ’bout the way we felt.
Every rule has been amended,
There’s no one keeping score.
It’s just as well the world ended
We couldn’t have taken much more.
The world has not come to end with Mose’s passing. But we are certainly feeling much lonelier today.
Rest in beautiful peace, Mose.