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YouTube Gold: Leon Redbone

What a totally unique performer

Leon Redbone Performs In Minnesota
 MINNEAPOLIS, MN - APRIL 26: Leon Redbone performs at the Fine Line Music Cafe in Minneapolis, Minnesota on April 26, 1990.
Photo by Jim Steinfeldt/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Leon Redbone, who died in 2019, was a once-in-a-lifetime musician.

Born in Cyprus to an Armenian family that would soon emigrate to Canada, Redbone had a very unusual niche: he played mostly Tin Pan Alley songs that were written between 1890 and 1910.

He was also a superb guitarist and vocalist and he really leaned into his persona, always dressed like a man of the late 19th and early 20th century, never without his dark glasses, hat and guitar.

He first came to public attention in 1972 when Bob Dylan raved about him to Rolling Stone magazine.

And for about 45 years, Redbone did his act. He never broke character: he was always that quiet, man on a chair who sorted the world out with a guitar and a bit of humor.

He had other gifts too. For one, he was an absolute master of the throat trumpet and had apparently studied Mongolian throat singing as well. He could whistle brilliantly too.

Though he maintained the facade for his entire career, ultimately it was about the music he loved. His versions of Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Marie are just about perfect.

He also delved into more modern music, in one case Your Cheatin’ Heart by Hank Williams.

Hey, it’s more recent than the 1890’s.

It’s almost impossible to cover a song by someone like Williams, but Redbone makes it funky and backdates it stylistically to his preferred era.

On this version of Harvest Moon, Redbone has the backing of an entire orchestra. He gives a pretty good pocket lesson on his considerable gifts: the sharp guitar work and a voice that is like no other.