Allison started playing the piano at age 5, on his parents' farm in the Mississippi Delta. He absorbed the blues, jazz, boogie-woogie. He played in bands throughout the South and in the '50s joined the jazz scene in New York. And he's a noted songwriter: His songs have been covered by everyone from Bonnie Raitt to The Who to The Clash.
Allison has some 50 albums to his name, but his new recording, titled The Way of the World, is his first in 12 years. It was producer Joe Henry who coaxed him back into the studio.
"I figured I had a lot of albums out there, and none of them were selling," Allison says in an interview with All Things Considered host Melissa Block. "So I didn't see any need to make a new one, you know. But Joe Henry talked me into it. I finally decided, 'Well, why not? Let him see what he can do.' "
Henry joined in the conversation. He says that he got Allison to perform at a festival in Germany and thought that would be a good excuse to record the venerable musician in a studio. It wasn't quite that easy.
"I left there determined to make a full record with him, and he told me he would have none of it," Henry says. "I badgered him for about 10 months, and then he finally, I guess, just decided that one of the ways to get rid of me was to show up for four days. And then we were in."
At 82, Allison's sharp tongue is still finely honed. On the first song on The Way of the World, "My Brain," Allison turns it on itself. He begins:
My brain is always ticking, my brain My brain is always ticking, my brain My brain is always ticking Long as I'm alive and kicking My brain, cool little cluster, that's my brain
But by the end of the song, the tune has changed:
My brain is losing power, my brain My brain is losing power, my brain My brain is losing power 1,200 neurons every hour My brain, cool little cluster, that's my brain
Also present on The Way of the World is Allison's vocal tic. On his piano breaks, he often sings along to his improvised line — not quite scatting, but certainly vocalizing a bit.
"A lot of piano players do that," Allison says. "They all make noise with their mouth when they're playing. Glenn Gould does it. And Erroll Garner did it. I had to tell Columbia [Records], when I was recording for them years ago, to dampen it. Because they had it almost as loud as the piano, you know."
Henry says he was aware that Allison had requested that his mouth noises be de-emphasized. But he loves them.
"It's a certain kind of glue in the track," he says. "I think it's always good when you're reminded that a human being is sitting there doing something. And I'm a sucker for it."
Lines Of Comparison
In his liner notes for the record, Henry describes Mose Allison as a link between "Mark Twain straight through to Willie Dixon, with Chico Marx barking directions from the backseat, James Stewart at the wheel." He tells Melissa Block that the first real conversation he had with Allison wasn't about music, but rather the author Kurt Vonnegut.
"For some reason, I had been inclined to be re-reading Slaughterhouse-Five," Henry says. "And somehow it came up in conversation — I think I had read recently that Kurt Vonnegut had been a big fan of Mose, and Mose was a big fan of Kurt's. And they unfortunately had never had an opportunity to meet."
Allison and Vonnegut share the same birthday — and a tragicomic streak.
"He's definitely one of the people I really admire. We have a similar view of the world," Allison says, laughing.
The Sage Of Tippo
Allison grew up in the small town of Tippo, Miss., with no indoor plumbing or electricity until age 13. He says he still remembers the day that changed.
"All the lights in Tippo were on that night," he says. "It looked like Broadway to me."
Crucially, the arrival of electricity also meant the arrival of radio.
"That's when I wrote my first song, 'The 14-Day Palmolive Plan,' " Allison says. "It was about radio commercials."
In other words, from his very first work, Allison was already spoofing.
"That confirms something for me," Henry says. "I'm surprised how many times an artist you pay attention to, and you go back and hear their earliest work, how fully formed some people arrive. ... It sounds like he has his point of view completely intact. And I always find that really fascinating — how often people sort of walk through the door initially, and they've already got the uniform on."