When did you start writing songs?
If there's one question Mose Allison has been asked more than any other, that's it. It makes perfect sense, too, as Allison compositions have been recorded by the likes of Bonnie Raitt (“Everybody Cryin’ Mercy”), Elvis Costello (“Your Mind Is on Vacation”), the Who (“Young Man Blues”) and the Clash (“Look Here”) among dozens of other artists.
For all that, it's not a question with an easy answer. Allison's biography states that he was 5 years old when he discovered he could pick popular tunes out on the piano. The moment he started composing his own is harder to pin down.
“I've always written songs and sung them,” Allison told me a few years ago from his Long Island home. “Some of my influences and inspirations were people who sang and who were also good jazz players, like Louis Armstrong. I just started out that way, and I wrote songs when I was a kid.”
Many in the jazz community count Allison among the genre's giants. All the same, he hastened to note that he doesn't consider himself strictly a jazz artist
“I'm not confined to the jazz area,” he said. “My songs are what people like. That's what keeps me going.”
Allison was born on his grandfather's farm in the Mississippi Delta. After discovering his musical talent, he played piano — Nat “King” Cole was a prime inspiration — and trumpet. Allison went into the Army in 1946 and, after his hitch ended, began touring the South and West with his band.
The road led him to New York City in the mid-‘50s, where Allison got work with jazz saxophonist Al Cohn. He went on to play with Stan Getz, Zoot Sims and Gerry Mulligan. Allison released his first solo album, “Back Country Suite,” in 1957.
Allison never sold many records, but his songs attracted attention. In the ‘60s, “Parchman's Farm” was recorded by key blues-revival acts such as the Blues Project, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and Hot Tuna. The Yardbirds cut “Days Like This” and Johnny Winter did “I'm Not Talking.”
No artist has recorded as many Allison compositions as Van Morrison. The Belfast-raised singer included “If You Only Knew” on his 1985 “A Sense of Wonder” and cut a 1996 Allison tribute album, “Tell Me Something.”
Allison said he and Morrison met when they were both living in Marin County in the early 1970s.
“Van is a good friend, and he's a great player and a great singer,” Allison said. “It's always flattering when somebody does your material.”
In recent years, Allison was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master and honored with a marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail in his home town of Tippo, Miss. He also retired from road, his website noting that “after 65 years of touring Mose Allison has retired from live performance. He thanks all his devoted fans for the love and support they have shown him over the years.”
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