Pianist, singer, songwriter
People have been trying to categorize Mose Allison since he started playing professionally over forty years ago. The problem being, he’s too blue to be jazz, to jazzy to be blues. What he has forged, then, is a completely distinctive sort of music with his own signature voice. His acerbic wit has always been his calling card, as well as an albatross around his neck: he’s been branded a cynic against his will. To Allison, it’s just a matter of telling it like it is.
Mose John Allison, Jr., was born in Tippo, MS, on November 11, 1927. His dad, who operated a large farm and dry goods store, was a former ragtime pianist. After his parents started him on the piano at age five, Allison couldn’t help but soak up the blues and boogie woogie he heard while hanging around the farms, share-cropper shacks, and local juke boxes where he grew up. He quit taking lessons after five years, preferring the same education his father and the local black musicians got: learning by ear. Although Allison took up trumpet in high school, he didn’t find it as useful for expressing his ideas, and besides, the piano players always got hired first.
Varied musical influences came at Allison from all sides, mostly different forms of jazz and early rhythm and blues. “Allison’s style gradually evolved beyond the confines of the late 30s period in which he came up,” described Wayne Saroyan in the Contra Costa Times. “He’s added elements of bebop, swing and blues into an idiosyncratic style that revolves around his dry, satiric wit and honey-sweet Southern drawl.” As a teenager Allison was a hit playing local parties spoofing radio commercials and blues novelties rife with double-entendre. But during college at Louisiana State University and while in the army, he thought he outgrew the blues, preferring the more sophisticated sounds of pianists Nat “King” Cole, Erroll Garner, and John Lewis. It wasn’t until he returned to college after the army that an aesthetics class helped him see how hip the blues really were, not just a form of entertainment, but a music of survival.
Allison then hit the Southern circuit, fronting his own trio and as a sideman for other groups. He played in honky tonks, strip joints, and lounges throughout Louisiana and Texas. He played with some of the best blues artists around, including Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Bull Moose Jackson, B.B. King, and Joe Houston. At a summer gig in Missouri in 1948 Allison met Audre Mae, a girl from St. Louis who he would marry three years later.
For the Record …
Born Mose John Allison, Jr., November 11, 1927, in Tippo, MS, son of Mose (former ragtime pianist, operated a large farm and a dry goods business) and Maxine (a grammar school teacher) Allison. Married c. 1951; wife’s name, Audre Mae; children: Allissa, Amy, John, and Janine. Education: attended University of Mississippi, 1945; Bachelor’s degree in English and Philosophy from Louisiana State University, early 1950s.
Started playing piano at age 5; began playing gigs as a teenager; first Allison-led trio album, Back Country Suite for Piano, Bass and Drums on Prestige, 1957; toured the South, then later the U.S. and the world, c. 1948-present.
Addresses: Record company —The Blue Note Labels, 1290 Avenue of the Americas, 35th Fir., New York, NY, 10104.
Assuming New York City was the place to be, Allison made a pilgrimage there in 1951. But what he found was a bunch of out-of-work musicians. He went back South, finished up school, played some more, and then returned to New York with his family in 1956. Allison was a hard-working musician, and he developed a reputation as such, as well as for being talented. He apprenticed with the best ensembles: Gerry Mulligan’s, Chet Baker’s, and Stan Getz’s to name a few, and played in prestigious places, like Birdland, the Jazz Gallery, the Half Note, and the Village Gate. Back Country Suite for Piano, Bass and Drums, released in 1957, was the first Allison-led trio album. This was the start of a long and prolific recording career. At the same time he tried his hand at writing fiction—his degree from LSU was in English and Philosophy—fantasizing that it could be a fall back career should he have to leave the music field.
Allison’s first albums on Prestige received “generally good reviews,” recorded Irwin Chusid in the Rhino Records booklet for the Allison anthology, Allison Wonderland. “And his casual delivery and post-bop key-boarding were attracting adherents among record-buyers and club-hopping night owls.” After six Prestige albums and not a whole lot of money, Allison went over to Columbia Records. That didn’t last long. As quoted by Chusid, Allison said, “They wanted to make a pop singer out of me.” He got out of the lucrative contracts saying, “I might as well get some satisfaction out of what I’m doing, because you don’t know if you’ll ever make any money out of it.”
Allison moved to Atlantic Records for a rewarding 14 year relationship that produced 10 landmark albums. After Atlantic, Allison shopped around for a new label for a few years. But, as Chusid put it, “being a living legend didn’t guarantee a contract. He especially had problems with young A & R execs, whose sense of history went back as far as last Monday.” Allison eventually signed with Elektra/Musician, but he recorded only one studio album, Middle Class White Boy, and one live album, Lesson in Living before moving on to Blue Note five years later in 1987. Meanwhile Allison kept up a heavy touring schedule, playing around 170 nights a year and only tapering down to 130 in his late sixties.
Strangely enough, in 1994, there was a sudden boost in the Mose Allison industry. “I think everybody thought I was dead,” he joked to the Boston Herald’s Larry Katz.“I usually have about one CD every three years and all of a sudden I’ve got about 10.” In addition to his latest Blue Note album, The Earth Wants You, Columbia put out their multivolume set, High Jinks, Discovery put out two early 80s Allison comeback albums, and Rhino put out their career retrospective, Allison Wonderland: The Mose Allison Anthology.
Mose Allison continues to have a remarkable career. He’s been asked to play with people as disparate as country music’s Willie Nelson and Irish troubadour Van Morrison. His work has been revered and covered by rock stars the Who, fellow cynical singer/songwriter Randy Newman, and English pop genius Elvis Costello, as well as blues singers Bonnie Raitt, John Mayall, and a host of others. His albums are continually praised: Clive Davis wrote “it is fair to say that nobody plays piano quite like him” in the Times of London. CMJ’s Jim Caligiuri wrote, “What he’s been a master at for the past 44 years—writing and performing some of the sweetest swing and blues on earth—and does so with seemingly effortless grace and uncommon style.” But perhaps Jim Trajeser of the Blade Citizen Reviewwas the most dead on when he noted, “Based on the strength of Allison’s [The Earth Wants You], it might have been a bit premature for a retrospective of his career.”
Back Country Suite for Piano, Bass and Drums, Prestige, 1957.
Local Color, Prestige, 1958.
Ramblin’ With Mose, Prestige, c. 1958.
Creek Bank, Prestige, 1959.
Autumn Song, Prestige, 1961.
The Transfiguration of Hiram Brown, Columbia, 1960.
I Love the Life I Live, Columbia, 1961.
V-8 Ford Blues, Columbia, c. 1961.
Mose Allison Takes to the Hills, Epic, 1962.
I Don’t Worry About a Thing, Atlantic, 1962 (reissued on Rhino, 1994).
Swingin’ Machine, Atlantic, 1963.
The Word from Mose, Atlantic, 1964.
Wild Man on the Loose, Atlantic, 1966.
Mose Alive!, Atlantic, 1966.
I’ve Been Doin’ Some Thinkin’, Atlantic, 1968.
…Hello There, Universe, Atlantic, 1970.
Western Man, Atlantic, 1971.
Mose in Your Ear, Atlantic, 1972.
Your Mind is on Vacation, Atlantic, 1976.
Middle Class White Boy, Elektra/Musician, 1982 (reissued on Discovery, 1994).
Lessons in Living, Elektra/Musician, c. 1983 (reissued on Discovery, 1994).
Ever Since The World Ended, Blue Note, 1987.
My Backyard, Blue Note, 1990.
Allison Wonderland: The Mose Allison Anthology, Rhino, 1994.
High Jinks! The Mose Allison Trilogy (includes The Transfiguration of Hiram Brown, I Love the Life I Live, and V-8 Ford Blues), Columbia/Epic/Legacy, 1994.
Pure Mose!, Ram, 1994.
The Earth Wants You, Blue Note, 1994.
Austin American-Statesman, June 30, 1994.
Blade-Citizen Preview, August 5, 1994.
Boston Globe, August 12, 1994.
Boston Herald, August 12, 1994.
Buffalo News, July 11, 1991.
CD Review, September 1994.
City Pages (Minneapolis), August 3, 1994.
City Paper, September 16, 1994.
CMJ New Music Report, July 4, 1994; July 25, 1994.
Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, CA), June 22, 1994.
Hot House, July 1994.
Houston Chronicle, July 17, 1994.
JazzTimes, October 1994.
Metro Times (Detroit), July 27, 1994.
Request, September 1994.
Sun-Times (Chicago), July 31, 1994.
Tampa Tribune, July 29, 1994.
Times (London), November 30, 1994.
Washington Post, September 2, 1994.
West County Times (Richmond, CA), June 22, 1994.
Additional information for this profile was provided by Blue
Note publicity materials, 1994 and the CD pamphlet from Allison Wonderland, Rhino, 1994.
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