I guess thing I was most surprised about in hearing about the death of Leon Redbone today was his age. I figured he was 69 a long time ago.
I first remember seeing Leon on Saturday Night Live, back in the days when I was told I was too young to be watching it and snuck peeks on a little black-and-white set that got moved to my bedroom. Redbone was a frequent guest, appearing on the show twice in the 1975-76 season alone – when he was all of 26. He went on to appear on The Tonight Show many times as well.
Some of the confusion about Redbone’s age no doubt came from Bob Dylan, who dropped his name into a Rolling Stone interview in the 70s after seeing him perform in Canada. Dylan suggested that you couldn’t tell “whether he was 25 or 60.” The endorsement helped to build a sort of cult following around Redbone, and add an aura of mystery. Warner Brothers records didn’t necessarily help: in 1978, they released a promo single of Redbone’s “Alabama Jubliee” on a 78 RPM disc, just at the time many people were beginning to throw away their old multiple-speed phonographs.
In some ways Leon Redbone was a mystery. He was Armenian, but his parents were from Jerusalem, and they moved him to Cyprus, and then to London, and then to Canada. He was sort of from everywhere. By the 1980s he was – appearing in commercials for products like Budweiser beer. You also should recognize him for performing the theme song from Mr. Belvedere, but if you don’t wish to own up to watching it, that’s OK.
A younger generation knows his animated self. In 2003’s Elf he played the part of Leon the Snowman, and sang the sometimes-controversial “Baby It’s Cold Outside” alongside Zooey Deschanel. He’s done some other Christmas work as well, so if there’s one of those radio stations near you that flips to all-Christmas music sometime around Labor Day you may well have heard his work there, too.
On this blog I tend to focus on the pop charts. To that end Leon Redbone is a one-hit wonder, in a sense. Despite releasing sixteen albums, only one single – “Seduced” – made its way into the Hot 100, landing at #72 on April 25, 1981. This is why the charts can be tricky: by the numbers you shouldn’t know his work, and yet you do. (Of course, by the charts, you shouldn’t really know “Stairway to Heaven,” but you do.)
You can hear “Seduced” by clicking here.