It Pays To Be Van Morrison's Main Man.
By Dave McElfresh
JAZZ/BLUES ARTIST Mose Allison holds the distinction of being highly praised by Van Morrison, an artist known for rarely saying anything positive about anyone. Allison's unique blues lyrics and quirky singing style have gained more than a passing remark from Van the Man, who most recently produced and sang on Tell Me Something: The Songs Of Mose Allison.
"Yeah, Van's a good friend," says Allison in a call from his New York home. "We've been pals since I met him when he was living in California in the '70s. I opened 15 shows for him on one tour in the '80s, and he featured me on his Live At The Beacon Theater video. He also recorded a couple of my tunes on his album previous to this, How Long Has This Been Going On? He did a really good job on those. He's really helping me out."
It's truly unfortunate that Allison is still in need of anyone's help, considering that back in the '50s he proved a competent enough pianist to back sax giants Stan Getz and Gerry Mulligan. But Allison's real claim to fame has long been his cynical lyrics and almost comically cool vocal style. I don't ask much in this life/No special consideration, he and Morrison sing on the tribute album's "I Don't Want Much," Just treat me like His Majesty/Of a friendly OPEC nation. Respect is not something yet guaranteed by Allison's 40-plus years in the business.
"Every now and then I still get people saying, 'Oh, he's just trying to sound black,' " says the pianist/singer. "And I say, really? Which black singer is it that I sound like? I got a review in London a couple of weeks ago where the guy said I was almost as good as the real thing. It's just something that never goes away."
Allison readily admits his vocal style is influenced by country-blues figures he heard while growing up in the Mississippi delta. But no one east or west of the Mississippi comes anywhere close to being as creative with the simple blues progression as Allison.
"People come up to me and say, 'Man, I'm glad you're writing about something other than my-baby-done-left-me.' The blues can be boring like anything else, so I try to avoid the old blues clichés. I just think the blues idiom can handle a lot more things."
What accounts for Allison's longevity in music is his fine-tuned balance between a country blues influence and his ultra-contemporary urban lyrics. While country blues legend Reverend Gary Davis sang hymns to Jesus, Van Morrison here sings Allison's rerouted "Benediction": Remember the power that comes from above/When push comes to shove/Thank God for self love. Country bluesman Robert Johnson may have feared "de Debil" and hellhounds on his trail, but Allison's devils are far more prevalent in "Tell Me Something": You say the world is mad/You say that you've been had/There's no one you can trust/Well tell me something that I don't know.
It's an oddly cynical point of view for a man who resembles the perfectly calm grandfather type. "I'm not that laid back," he insists. "I have my hysterical moments like everybody else. But I'm able to put them in perspective, usually through the irony I use in my songs."
No doubt the acidic attitude is what has kept Morrison attracted to Allison's output. For most of Van Morrison's career, he has attacked his listeners for denying him privacy and the record industry for either diluting his music or the royalties due him. Both artists are similarly suspicious of evil forces--often real--that lurk in the shadows.
"Oh, yeah, yeah, Van and I have similar temperaments," says Allison. "He's from Belfast, you know, so he came from a tough place. And I was raised in the Mississippi delta during the depression."
The recording of Tell Me Something was squeezed into Allison's interactions with his diehard fan base in London. "I've been working London a lot, about two or three times a year, sometimes three weeks at a time. So I was on tour in London last year, and Van's got a state-of-the-art recording studio near Bath, about a two-hour train ride. I had a day off so I took the train down and did my part. It took me about 30 minutes. I didn't hear the rest of it until the record came out and the label sent me a copy.
Tell Me Something features Morrison, his longtime keyboardist Georgie Fame and Allison-disciple Ben Sidran covering a load of typically biting Allison material, with the latter appearing on two of the cuts alongside the Van Guy. Sidran's reverence of the pianist's vocal style may be more familiar to stateside jazz fans thanks to Sidran's long run as a jazz video host on VH-1 several years back. Georgie Fame's debt may be less familiar.
"Whenever I go to London I feel bad for Georgie. They always bring him up as someone who was influenced by me, which he was, and he'd be the first to admit it. But they never let these guys off the hook, no matter how far they get on their own. I'm sure it must bug him."
And Allison, too, no doubt. On the one side he's still being accused of ripping off the styles of old delta bluesmen; on the other, his influence on significant jazzmen like Sidran and Fame is demeaned to the level of mimicry, which dismisses Allison as a viable figure in shaping blues history.
But respect is slowly creeping up on Allison, who will turn 70 in November. "I'm going to L.A. for 10 days of dates tomorrow, and Germany next month, then back to London. I've been working 130 nights a year, but I think it'll be more than that this year."
Unlike Morrison, his songs never reflect a bitterness toward his audience--or lack of one. As witty and cynical as he's capable of being, Allison begins and ends the interview with an appreciation for the angry, headstrong Irishman who's brought his blues-and-jazz mixture to a rock audience through Tell Me Something.
"I'm real happy about the new album. It's done me real good, and I'm getting a lot more visibility since it came out." Every bit of publicity helps, man, says the figure who, ironically, is himself without a recording contract at present. That's the name of the game, publicity.
Mose Allison plays the Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave., at 8 p.m. Sunday, February 16. Tickets are $12 to $15, with a $1 discount for TKMA, KXCI, TBS and TJS members, available at the Temple box office only. Call 622-2823 or 1-800-638-4253 for tickets and information.
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