Mose Allison: Lifesong Philosopher

Profile of singer/pianist/composer

In 1963, the NAACP chose Mose Allison as “Best Jazz Vocalist” without ever seeing him perform, and in an interview with Nancy Wilson on NPR’s “Jazz Profiles” he commented; “I was honored, but It was quite funny for them (NAACP) to choose me, ‘cause they didn’t know I was a white boy” and thought I was Black.” And so did everybody else who bought his albums that is until they saw his face on the album covers. He’s performed “the Hat Trick” as singer, pianist, and composer of Blues and Jazz for more than 55 years.

Mose Allison was born in Tippo, Mississippi and began piano lessons at 5 years old . He stopped taking them and learned piano by ear like his father who was a Ragtime pianist. He played trumpet in high school and gave it up after graduating. He was accepted at the University of Mississippi majoring in Chemical Engineering for a year then enlisted in the Army for 2 years. After his hitch, he entered Louisiana State University and graduated with a degree in English and a minor in Philosophy. Mose took advantage of his English degree and began writing Fiction as a backup career in case his music failed.

Traveling the Southern circuit, Mose played with Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, B.B. King, Bullmoose Jackson, and Joe Houston. He moved on to the Apple to pursue his jazztistical virtues in the rat race jazz capitol of hip cats. His career began performing at the legendary clubs Birdland, Village Gate, and Half-Note with Stan Getz, Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims and Phil Woods.

In 1957, he signed with Prestige Records and recorded his debut album Back Country Suite, and in ‘58 formed his trio with Taylor LaFarge on bass, (replaced later by Addison Farmer) and Frank Isola on drums. Six years later in 1963, Prestige let him record an all vocals album Mose Sings, songs written by Sonny Boy Williamson---“Eyesight to the Blind”; Jimmy Rodgers’ “That’s All Right”; and Willie Dixon’s “The Seventh Son”.

But it was his original composition that garnered all the requests in his gigs---”Parchman Farm”; written about Mississippi’s chain-gang prison and for 20 years his most requested. But in the ‘80’s, he dropped it from his repertoire for his reasoning, “I don’t do the cotton sack songs much anymore. You go to the Mississippi Delta and there are no cotton sacks. It’s all machines and chemicals.”

Mose reiterated that, “My major influence was Louis Jordan’s blues such as “Outskirts of Town” and “Pinetop Blues.” He also credits Nat Cole, Louis Armstrong, and Fats Waller. He switched from trumpet to piano after listening on the radio to Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis, and Pete Johnson. But it was Percy Mayfield, the ‘Poet Laureate of the Blues’, and Ray Charles’ personal writer who was his major song writing inspiration for several compositions: ”I Don’t Worry ‘Bout A Thing’; “Your Mind Is On Vacation’; “I Love the Life I Live’; “V-8 Ford Blues”; “Swingin’ Machine”.

During his 55 year career, Mose has recorded 39 albums for 7 record companies: Prestige; Atlantic (14 years); Columbia; Discovery; Elektra; Verve; Blue Note (15 years).

Mose reminisced, “After 6 albums with Prestige and not a lot of money, I signed with Columbia ---that didn’t last long; they wanted to make a pop singer out of me.” So he got out of the lucrative contract 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.” Moving on to Elektra he recorded 2 albums, a live album Lessons in Living and Middle Class White Boy. Many of Mose’ songs reflect his philosophies of life’s living: ”Lessons In Living”, “Middle Class White Boy”, “I’ve Been Doin’ Some Thinking”, “A Word From Mose”.

After touring extensively performing 170 engagements and festivals yearly, mostly in Europe and many gigs at his favorite London spot “Ronnie Scotts and in L.A. at the “Lighthouse” and “Concerts by the Sea”. Mose secured a home with Blue Note Records from 1987 to 2002; and after a 10 year recording hiatus, released The Way of the World; and it’s not a coincidence that Mose has used the ‘World’ in his titles on other occasions: ”Hello There Universe”; “Ever Since the World Ended”; and “The Earth Wants You” that includes ‘Cabaret Card’ describing the plight of a N.Y. jazz musician’s struggle to keep his club performing license. Mose’ writing indicated that this card was more important to the jazz musician than a NY driver’s license.

Mose Allison’s compositions and music reflect his philosophy of life songs illustrating his earthly vision of blues and jazz streaming through his blood. His music has influenced many Pop and rock artists:Leon Russell, “I’m Smashed”; Van Morrison’s “Tell Me Something: the Songs of Mose Allison”; Bonnie Raitt-”Everybody Cryin’ Mercy”. Even Clive Davis the most knowledgeable man in the music business had this to say:”It is fair to say that nobody plays piano quite like Mose Allison”. And at his stage in life---it would be philosophically correct to say he is undoubtedly his own “Certified Senior Citizen.”

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Ed Hamilton