Leon Redbone RIP

photo by Scott Newton

Austin City Limits mourns the passing of enigmatic and eclectic singer and song stylist Leon Redbone. He was 69, though, in typical Redbone fashion, his death announcement gave his age as 127.

Little is known about Redbone’s background, and he liked it that way. (One story goes that his desire for privacy was so intense that he gave legendary music talent scout John Hammond the phone number to a dial-a-joke service instead of his own.) It was eventually revealed that he was born Dickran Gobalian in Cyprus in 1949, emigrating to Canada in the mid-sixties. He first began performing in Toronto in the early 1970s with an unusual repertoire consisting of pre-World War II – sometimes pre-twentieth century – tunes from the vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley, blues and jazz traditions. His distinctive mumble-mouthed growl, superb guitar work, Panama hat, trademark bushy mustache and sunglasses caught the attention of Bob Dylan, who recommended him to Rolling Stone in 1974, garnering the singer a full-length feature in the magazine a year before he released an album. He released his debut On the Track in 1975, featuring beloved Warner Bros. cartoon character and kindred spirit Michigan J. Frog on the cover, the first in a string of albums resurrecting American songs long forgotten in the post World War era. “Leon introduced a whole new generation to some great American classics,” notes ACL producer Jeff Peterson. 

Though he never sold huge amounts of records or singles, Redbone became a familiar voice through commercials for Chevrolet, All laundry detergent, Ken-L dog food and, most memorably, Budweiser beer, singing “This Bud’s for you” while relaxing on a surfboard. He also provided the theme songs to television shows including Mr. Belvedere and Harry and the Hendersons. He was a favorite of Johnny Carson, appearing regularly on The Tonight Show, and was the musical guest on Saturday Night Live twice in the show’s first season. He vaulted back into popular culture after duetting with Zooey Deschanel on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” for the soundtrack to the now-classic Christmas film Elf, also providing the voice for the character Leon the Snowman. He retired in 2015, after which fan Jack White reissued both his debut album and an LP of early recordings on his Third Man imprint.

“He seemed like a novelty act to some, and he loved to play up the mystique, but when you heard him sing and play, you knew Leon was the real deal,” says ACL executive producer Terry Lickona. “When I booked him for ACL during my first year as producer, he was part of a ‘package’ tour with Tom Waits, so we were able to tape that legendary show with Tom on the same night. Among his many other contributions, we can thank Leon Redbone for bringing Tom Waits to the ACL stage!”

Redbone appeared on ACL in 1979 in support of his third album Champagne Charlie. Here he is putting his own distinctive spin on Blind Blake’s “Diddy Wa Diddy.”

Austin City Limits #406: Leon Redbone – “Diddy Wa Diddy” from Austin City Limits on Vimeo.