Mose's better blues

A trip to Long Island reveals an Allison wonderland

If Mose Allison had ever hit the pop charts, he would most likely not have survived so long. He'd have been stopped in his tracks, like hundreds of careers that expire after a few quick hits. Allison has stuck to his guns for decades, making albums his own way. His most prolific output came from 1961 to 1976 on Atlantic Records, under the late jazz chief Nesuhi Ertegun. Mose declined Atlantic super-producer Jerry Wexler's offers to make a pop record. Hypothetically, what would have been so bad about going down to Muscle Shoals just once, during his 15 years with Atlantic, to let the great Wexler demonstrate his magic touch as producer?

"There are two things," Allison explains, with almost too much logic. "If it was a hit record, then I'd have to do that again. If it had become a hit record and made money, the only thing they'd want from me would be another. On the other hand, if it had flopped, that would have been bad. It would take me a long time to recover and get people back listening to what I do."

Former Atlantic records producer Joel Dorn, who produced several of Allison's 1960s albums, describes him as "the most interesting abstraction of the blues I've ever heard. The blues is a language where most people speak the same dialect. But he has another way of sayin' the same things. The Delta meets the Village. He was a fixture in Greenwich Village when people who were diggin' anything hip were diggin' Mose."

Allison's Prestige album covers of the 1950s depicted rural scenes. One had an old weathered door on the cover. His second album, Local Color, pictured a Southern landscape, though the picture was actually of Staten Island. But there were no photos of Mose on the albums. Allison says "they didn't want to let the news out" that he was white.

When Dorn first saw Allison live, around 1960 in Washington, D.C., "This fuckin' English teacher walked out," he recalls. "The difference between who he is and who you think he is is gigantic. The first thing with Mose is everybody thinks he's black. When they find out he's white, it's the same thing as Charlie Pride--he's like the reverse. But he's a regular guy who comes up with this world-class introspection. A master of instant, dispassionate irony."

If Allison is hard to categorize between jazz and blues--what bin is he in?--there were even people who classified him as a "folk artist." Phil Elwood, long ago with the San Francisco Examiner, described Allison's piano style as "chromatic funk." On Retrospective, an early '70s Columbia LP, Morgan Ames' liner notes follow: "To Mose Allison's dentist (presuming he has one), he might be Cavity in Lower Right Molar. To his laundry man, Mose might be No Starch...[but to his booking agent] Mose Allison is a man with a reputation for showing up on time for the gig, for paying his union dues, his agent's fees, and his sidemen...He arrives with two neatly copied books of his arrangements, one for the bass player and one for the drummer." "Nobody's been able to characterize me in a capsule comment," Allison says of this enigma. "Any one thing you say is gonna be wrong. You say I'm a blues person, that's wrong, because I'm not strictly blues. I'm influenced by the blues and learned from the blues players. You say I'm a jazz man, you're gonna miss a great portion of what I do."

One of Mose Allison's songs goes like this: "I been so far I must be back / Airline highway railroad track / Won't you tell me where we are / I been so far."

He was born Mose John Allison Jr. on the edge of the Delta, 15 miles from the hills in Tippo. He attended high school in Charlston, Mississippi, where Mose's dad was a merchant and a planter and, ultimately, a store owner. "I came from a stable family background," Mose insists, and you tend to believe him. Allison's brother still has farm land in Tippo.

Renowned as the spawning ground of blues guitar, the Delta produced but a handful of renowned barrelhouse pianists: Sunnyland Slim, Pinetop Perkins, Memphis Slim, and Roosevelt Sykes, the latter two from Helena, Arkansas. Though he was primarily a guitarist, Clarksdale, Mississippi-born Ike Turner's importance can't be underestimated on piano (among his many piano achievements was "Rocket 88" in 1951, considered history's first rock-and-roll record). Mose doesn't recall seeing any of the aforementioned live during his youth, or any famous guitarists for that matter. Just local guitar players around Tippo whose names he can't recall.

Allison worked weekends at his dad's general store, across the street from the gas station. The Tippo Service Station was the town hangout and actually featured a country-blues nickelodeon. "I used to go over there three or four times a day," Allison recalls. "They sold beer. It was sorta integrated; there was an area up front where the white guys shot craps. Then there was a back room where the black guys shot craps. But anybody could go in and listen to the records."

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