Mose Allison: Cover to Cover
By his own count, pianist-composer Mose Allison has written about 150 songs in his singular, 60-year career, but he can be forgiven for not knowing the number of artists who’ve recorded his compositions. The tally, after all, is always rising here and overseas. Allison’s website lists more than four dozen singers or groups that have interpreted his lyrics, and a motley bunch it is: the Bangles, Bobbie Gentry, the Who, the Clash, the Kingston Trio and Diana Krall, just for starters. During a recent visit to Washington, D.C., the Tippo, Miss., native, still touring in his eighth decade, listened to several cover tunes of his memorable and often mordant songs. Some performances were familiar to him, others not, but each track triggered thoughts about Allison’s craft, career and associations.
“Stop This World”
Girl in the Other Room, Verve, 2004
That’s the first time I heard that all the way through. I met Diana out in Carmel. She was playing for Clint Eastwood’s wife’s birthday party. I like her. I’m very pleased with that rendition. I think it’s better than mine. Elvis [Costello, Krall’s husband] did a couple of my tunes, too. He’s a fantastic singer and done so many types of things. I first heard that line—“Stop this world, let me off”—from Professor Irwin Corey. I had trouble getting it copyrighted because of the English musical called that. [Stop the World—I Want to Get Off]. I had to convince them that I had gone about it individually. I wrote it when I was kind of down, which happened every now and then, a lot in the late ’50s, early ’60s, before I started working regularly. You know, a jazz player in New York, kind of touch and go. We had four children at that time, so it was a little rough.
Asleep at the Wheel
“Your Mind Is on Vacation”
Reinventing the Wheel, Megaforce, 2007
I heard about that rendition—that’s good. Of course, it’s always nice when anybody does your material. It’s always flattering, no matter what they do with it because I take liberties with other people’s songs, too. I think the oddest recording of “Your Mind Is on Vacation” was by a Belgium group call Hasta La Vista. I tell you, they sounded like a New Orleans funk band, and the singer sounded like Eartha Kitt. Phrased it completely different. It knocked me out, such an odd situation there. I think I wrote that song when I first started playing at the Showboat. People would ignore me when I was on, talk through my set, because nobody had heard of me then. That’s how that song originally got started—audiences. But then I came to realize that it has a lot of different applications, especially politicians. So now when somebody asks me who I had in mind when I wrote that song, I say: thee. I usually get an idea—a phrase or a punch line or something—then I sort of work it out in my head after that. I don’t even sit down at the piano and try to sing it before I get it all figured out in my head. I’ve lost a couple of tunes by not writing them down, so I started doing that. The songs I do now are the ones I think are the best. I sometimes renovate old songs and change a word here or there. “Monsters of the Id” is one that everyone understands now but not many understood first.
John Hammond Jr.
“Ask Me Nice”
Footwork, Vanguard, 1978
My mother one time said she liked that song, and that’s the only one she ever said anything about [laughter]. I just thought about doing that tune again. I haven’t done it in years. I have other tunes that replace some and then I don’t think about it for a while. Some I’ll start doing again 30 years later. Most of the time people will say, ‘Did you just write that?’ I met John when I was first in New York. He used to come and see me at the [Village] Vanguard with Bob Dylan sometimes. He’s been a big supporter and we’ve been friends for a long time. That sounded good—that [country blues sound] is sort of what I originally had in mind. I used to sing “Let Me Play With Your Poodle,” “Diggin’ My Potatoes.” There’s one that I remember from those days, “she used to sell my monkey” [“Sell My Monkey”]. And then B.B. King did it on The Tonight Show! It knocked me out. I hadn’t heard it in years. I remember there was one blues player who came to Tippo for a few days, remember him playing and singing, but I really heard that kind of thing on the jukebox and records.
John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers
Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton, Deram, 1966
That’s probably the most recorded of all my songs. Unfortunately, I didn’t get that much money from it because that was before I got a collection agency and all that. Countless rock bands did that song—they still do it sometimes—but I don’t get much from it. When I go to Europe, that’s the first thing they want to hear. I quit doing it 30 years ago. I saw on a TV program, they were interviewing a kid that had shot somebody, and he was so remorseful. He didn’t realize what he had done until it was too late. I remember that incident—that sort of started the process for that song. Of course, Parchman Farm [the prison] was always on my mind. When I was a kid in Tippo, they came through with horses, a posse, bloodhounds—they were looking for somebody. I was less than 10, probably. [Mayall’s] version made me more familiar with people over there. I remember going to London and I found out Georgie Fame was doing my stuff. He’s was one of the first rockers, but he’s more than that now, a real jazz player and friend of mine for a long time. When I started playing there, it was usually one night here and one night there, kind of tiring, but that’s what I did for years.
“Young Man’s Blues”
Live at Leeds, MCA, 1970
I refer to that as the command performance version. My record of it was just me singing and playing the piano—kind of down, you know. They made it into an anthem and I liked that. Pete Townshend has done me a lot of favors throughout the years. I see him now and then. I got a royalty check for this, and I thought, man, this is a mistake! It was for seven grand, or something like that, and I’d been getting checks for $15 or $12.98. I got in touch with the publisher, and they said, “Oh, no, it was done by a rock group in England.” [The conversation, inevitably, leads to the Clash’s version of Allison’s “Look Here,” which appeared on their Sandinista album]. In the late ’50s or early ’60s, I met Harry Colomby. He took over Thelonious Monk’s career and ended up getting him on Time magazine. So he started booking me, opening for Monk, which was a good thing for me because Monk was always a hero for me. He said, “Why don’t you write some lyrics to one of Monk’s tunes?” So I went home and I found one that I thought I could write lyrics to. I came back in a few days and said, “Harry, I’ve written some lyrics for ‘Bemsha Swing.’” And he said, “Monk doesn’t own that anymore.” So I decided to do a job on the intervals and make it my own tune, and then later the Clash did it, so I’m the middle man between Thelonious Monk and the Clash. I’m thinking of doing “Look Here” again in the original version, but I don’t want to have to explain it [laughter].
“Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy”
In Blue, Concord Jazz, 2002
I met her one time in New York and she told she me had done that. She does a real good job with it. Elvis Costello did it too, and I think his version is better than mine. Bonnie Raitt was the first one to do it, way before anyone else. She’s a good friend of mine, and I opened shows for her at that time. I think I heard somebody say, “Everybody’s cryin’ mercy but nobody knows the meaning of the word.” I remember it stuck in my head, figured it was a good line and could be developed into a song. I’d write whenever I got an idea. I remember I wrote “What’s Your Movie?” in an airport lounge on the West Coast or somewhere. That’s a case of one coming all at once, but they usually don’t. The only ideas I get now are new words to old songs [laughter]. I’ll give you an example of one: “Perdido” turns into “Stupido.”
“Tell Me Something”
Tell Me Something: The Songs of Mose Allison, Verve, 1996
I like to pick a phrase that might have different meanings to different people. It can be taken different ways—that’s how that song started. The words come first because that determines the song’s form. Van is one of the most distinctive singers. I’ve known him for a long time. I met him when he was living in California. He did one of my songs early and kept telling me that he was going to do this song and a whole album. Finally, Ben Sidran, I think, nudged him. But if Van had done the whole album, that thing would have sold a bundle. But as it was, they had Georgie Fame and myself and Ben Sidran singing tunes. I just wish Van had done the whole thing because he’s such a distinctive singer. I opened shows for him a long time ago. These places I played with him, I couldn’t believe that he was going to fill them up because they were so huge. But by the time I finished my set, man, it was always full, no matter how big it was. I opened about 20 shows with him. That’s when I was really on tour. You put your bags out in the hall and somebody would come and get them—that’s really touring.
I liked him a lot—he had the left hand just a little behind the beat. Actually, that’s what all the classic jazz players did—they messed with the beat a little. They play behind or pull ahead sometimes. I liked Erroll Garner because he personified that.
I went to a record distributor in Greenwood, Miss., who had all kinds of blues records. I didn’t want to sing pop songs, so I went there. That’s when I heard “Love the Life I Live,” by Muddy Waters, actually, and then I heard [Willie Mabon’s version of] “Seventh Son.” That’s how I first became aware of Willie Dixon. Then I met him in Chicago. He encouraged me and we hit it right off.
Oh, Percy Mayfield! When I was in Jackson, Miss., playing at a local club, Percy came through town. I was always able to get into black clubs, so I went to see him at a black club on the edge of town and I couldn’t get in. I sat outside and I could barely hear him. I was aware of him before that. He was one of the first blues guys to do something different from 12-bar tunes.
I didn’t particularly like Hoagy Carmichael’s movie roles. He was always a mascot. But he was a great writer. “Skylark”—that thing has got a bridge with one of the most fantastic progressions that I’ve ever run across. When I started working out that song, I had a great appreciation for Hoagy Carmichael. He wrote a lot of great songs.
I’ve always said that Duke was the greatest American composer until I started getting into Thelonious Monk tunes and then I had to make some room for him. But Duke was always an influence. His band was live on the radio during World War II every Saturday. I think all the musicians liked that band.
He had a completely unique style. He started something that nobody had done—it’s indescribable, but that’s what it was. I always admired him. He had a classic demeanor— dignity. I worked a lot opening shows for him and he didn’t say much, but when he did, it was always pertinent. I heard Monk records when I was still down South, and I liked Al Haig a lot, one of the early boppers, and John Lewis. In my teens, Nat Cole and Erroll Garner were my two main men.
Louisiana Governor and songwriter Jimmie Davis
I thought “You Are My Sunshine” could be done in another way, as a slow tune in a minor key, and it works real good. The country music I heard—and I heard a lot of it—was everywhere, but I was more involved with boogie woogie and that kind of thing.
Fellow Mississippian Elvis Presley
I didn’t hear him for a long time, until after everyone was talking about him. The thing I recall people talking about was how black he sounded, but when I first heard him I didn’t think he sounded black at all. I used to pass Graceland, up on the hill, way before he bought it. Kurt Russell did a real good job of playing Elvis in a movie, and that got me listening to him and he sang a lot of different kinds of things. I admired him.
Loudon Wainwright III
He’s my favorite songwriter around now. Anybody who writes that people in love make me sick—that’s my kind of songwriter.
Originally published in August 2008