Singer Leon Redbone Has Died, Age Unknown Redbone's career was defined by biographical mystery and a musical ear obsessed with the sounds of yesteryear. He also sang the theme to Mr. Belvedere.
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Leon Redbone, An Unusual Singer From A Bygone Era, Has Died

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Leon Redbone, An Unusual Singer From A Bygone Era, Has Died

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Leon Redbone died this week. The singer and guitarist was 69 years old. He'd been in poor health. He was a singer with a laid-back delivery and, even as a young man, dressed and sounded like he'd stepped out of a bygone era, as NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: With his mustache, sunglasses, three-piece suits and Panama hat, Leon Redbone transported audiences back in time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHINE ON HARVEST MOON")

LEON REDBONE: (Singing) The night was mighty dark, so you could hardly see 'cause the moon refused to shine. There's a couple sitting neath (ph) the willow tree. For love, they pined.

BLAIR: Redbone was sketchy about the details of his life. He told one interviewer he was born in 1670; another, 1910. Redbone got his start on the folk circuit, first in Toronto and then in the U.S. He was introduced to millions of TV viewers when he was invited to perform on "Saturday Night Live" four times.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY WALKIN STICK")

REDBONE: (Singing) Without my walking stick, I'd go insane. I can't look my best. I feel undressed without my cane.

BLAIR: According to a recent article in the magazine Oxford American, Leon Redbone was born in Cyprus to Armenian parents. Even Redbone's friends and family aren't sure where his love of old songs came from - ragtime, jazz, blues, country. Redbone once said, the only thing that interests me is history - reviewing the past and making something out of it. He listened to songs by Jimmie Rodgers, Robert Johnson and this one, "I Hate A Man Like You," by Jelly Roll Morton.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I HATE A MAN LIKE YOU")

JELLY ROLL MORTON: (Singing) I hate a man like you, don't like the things you do.

BLAIR: Several decades later, Redbone recorded his own version.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I HATE A MAN LIKE YOU")

REDBONE: (Singing) I hate a man like you, don't like the things you do.

BONNE RAITT: None of us had ever seen anything like Leon before.

BLAIR: Bonnie Raitt was mesmerized by Leon Redbone when she first saw him in the 1970s. She got to know him when they toured together and says they shared a deep appreciation for the blues. She says Redbone could pull off the subtlety of those old songs as if he was from that era.

RAITT: He just was honoring a music that would be, you know, put in the ivory tower of musicology departments and not appreciated. And he revived so much of what was great about those eras. And that's the legacy that he will always have.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET SUBSTITUTE")

REDBONE: (Singing) Sweet substitute, sweet substitute tells me that she's mine, all mine - does anything I tell her 'cause love is blind.

BLAIR: Leon Redbone was a self-described romantic. He once said, when performing songs from an earlier era, it wasn't really accuracy he was after; it was the sentiment. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET SUBSTITUTE")

REDBONE: (Singing) Talk about my substitute. Crazy about my substitute.

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