Interview - How Joe Henry Coaxed Mose Allison, And His Tongue, Back Into The Studio The great blues pianist and songwriter, now 82, swore off recording for more than a decade. And then Joe Henry approached him to make a new album, and didn't relent for a year. Here, the artist and producer talk about their collaborations on The Way of the World.
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Coaxing Mose Allison Into The Studio

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Coaxing Mose Allison Into The Studio

Coaxing Mose Allison Into The Studio

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

(Soundbite of song, "Modest Proposal")

Mr. MOSE ALLISON (Singer/Songwriter): (Singing) Let's give God a vacation. He must be tired of it all

BLOCK: A classic zinger from Mose Allison.

(Soundbite of song, "Modest Proposal")

Mr. ALLISON: (Singing) Breaking the game, taking the blame, 24 hours a day on-call. He gave us the power to reason. He put the spark into clay. So let's let Him go for a season and start making sense today.

BLOCK: Mose Allison at age 82 has lost none of his edge. He started on piano at age 5 on his parents' farm in the Mississippi Delta; absorbed the blues and jazz, boogie-woogie, bebop. He played in bands throughout the South and in the '50s joined the jazz scene in New York. His songs have been covered by everyone from Bonnie Raitt to The Who to The Clash.

Mose Allison has some 50 albums to his name, but this new recording, titled "The Way of the World," is his first in 12 years. And it was producer Joe Henry who coaxed him back into the studio.

Mose Allison and Joe Henry join us to talk about the new project.

Hi to you, both.

Mr. JOE HENRY (Record Producer): Hello.

Mr. ALLISON: Yeah, how are you?

BLOCK: I'm great. Mose, I think your fans might be wondering, you know, you tour constantly. I think you do something like a hundred gigs a year but you haven't recorded in a dozen years. What took you so long?

Mr. ALLISON: Yeah, well, you know, I figured, you know, I had a lot of albums out there, and none of them were selling, 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? You know, let him see what he can do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: And, Joe, this was a real campaign for you. How did you do it?

Mr. HENRY: Well, I had brought Mose with me to a festival in Germany that I was curating and I thought that was my excuse to work with him. And I - you know, I left there determined to make a full record with him, and he told me he would have none of it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HENRY: And 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.

BLOCK: Mose, you've been known over the years for your sharp tongue. And I love that you sort of turn that on yourself a little bit in the song "My Brain," which starts out really positive. It's this song of praise.

(Soundbite of song, "My Brain")

Mr. ALLISON: (Singing) My brain is always ticking, my brain. My brain is always ticking, my brain. My brain

BLOCK: And then by the end, there's this fatalism that creeps in about your brain and the mind, and what happens as we age.

Mr. ALLISON: Yeah, well, that's the way it works.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Yeah, I think I've heard that. I've noticed it myself.

(Soundbite of song, "My Brain")

Mr. ALLISON: (Singing) My brain is losing power, my brain. My brain is losing power, my brain. My brain is losing power, 1200 neurons every hour. My brain, cool little cluster, that's my brain. My brain

BLOCK: I want to ask you about something that you're doing on this song and a bunch of the songs on this CD. During the piano breaks, where you're vocalizing, it's not quite scat singing. It's not quite humming, not quite moaning. Let's take a listen.

(Soundbite of piano music)

BLOCK: Mose, tell me about what you're doing there. Is it a conscious thing at all or is it spontaneous?

Mr. ALLISON: Well, you know, a lot of piano players do that, you know? They all make noise with their mouth when they're playing. Glenn Gould did it.

BLOCK: Yeah.

Mr. ALLISON: And Erroll Garner did it. I had to tell Columbia, when I was recording for them years ago, to dampen it. You know, because they had it almost as loud as the piano, you know?

Mr. HENRY: I was aware going into the sessions that it was something that he wanted de-emphasized. At the same time, as someone who's listened to Mose for a long time and registers that vocalizing is part of his thing, if we got rid of it completely, there was something for me that was diminished. It's a certain kind of glue in the track. 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Joe Henry, you - in your liner notes for the CD, you have this great description of Mose Allison being a link from Mark Twain straight through to Willie Dixon, with Chico Marx barking directions from the backseat, James Stewart at the wheel.

Pretty good company, Mose.

Mr. ALLISON: Oh, yeah. I like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HENRY: I think the first sustained conversation that Mose and I had was not about music. It was about Kurt Vonnegut. For some reason, I had been inclined to be re-reading "Slaughterhouse-Five." 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.

BLOCK: Hmm. Mose what do you remember about that chat?

Mr. ALLISON: Well, we have the same birthday, Kurt Vonnegut and I. And, you know, he's definitely one of the people I really admire. And we have a similar view of the world.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: I can see that. Sort of a jaundiced eye but a smiling eye too.

Mr. ALLISON: Oh, yeah.

(Soundbite of song, "I Know You Didn't Mean It")

Mr. ALLISON: (Singing) I know you didn't mean it when you blew us up. You just happened to think it was a good idea. Ungrateful people tried to interrupt, when you were just trying to make your viewpoint clear.

BLOCK: Mose, I've been reading about you, your boyhood in rural Tippo, Mississippi. And I read that you had no indoor plumbing, no electricity 'till you were 13. Right?

Mr. ALLISON: Yeah, right. Yeah. Outhouse and carrying water from the well and the whole number, yeah.

BLOCK: And I was thinking about, you know, when power came that what would come with it obviously

Mr. ALLISON: Oh, man.

BLOCK: is radio, which must have just been a huge

Mr. ALLISON: Yeah.

BLOCK: opening for you.

Mr. ALLISON: Yeah, radio came and like, all the lights in Tippo were on that night and it looked like Broadway to me. But that's when I started listening to radio. And that's when I wrote my first song, "The 14-Day Palmolive Plan."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALLISON: It was about radio commercials.

Mr. HENRY: That was your first song?

Mr. ALLISON: Yeah. That was when I was 13.

Mr. HENRY: Okay. Can you still play it?

Mr. ALLISON: Oh, well, I can I remember some of it, you know?

I woke up this morning feeling low. I thought I had turned on my radio. I finally found some jive that's fine. It's really ready and on the line. And a guy steps up and cuts off the band and to tell about the 14-day Palmolive Plan.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HENRY: Oh, I wish we had recorded that.

BLOCK: There's still time.

Mr. HENRY: There's still time.

BLOCK: So you were hearing jingles on the radio and you just started spoofing it right away.

Mr. ALLISON: Oh, yeah, right. Yeah, you know?

Mr. HENRY: That confirms something for me. You know, I'm surprised how many times an artist that you pay attention to, and you go back to hear their earliest work, how fully formed some people arrive. And when Mose recites that verse, it sounds like he wrote his first song with his point of view completely intact. And I always find that really fascinating how often people sort of walk through the door initially and, you know, they've already got the uniform on.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: Well, Joe Henry and Mose Allison, it's great talking to you. Thanks so much.

Mr. HENRY: Thank you.

Mr. ALLISON: Okay.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: Mose Allison's new CD, produced by Joe Henry, is "The Way of the World." You can hear full songs from the album at

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