IF YOU GO
Who: Leon Redbone
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: The Kent Stage,
175 E. Main St., Kent
Tickets: $25; call 330-677-5005, or go to kentstage.org
By John Benson
The inimitable Leon Redbone has spent the past 40 years carving out his own niche in the music industry. Throughout his 15-plus albums, the Toronto native has explored turn-of-the-century music (that’s 19th- to 20th-century) ranging from flapper-era radio ditties, Depression-spawned ragtime and World War II folk-jazz.
However, he’s also been a paradox, channeling old tunes — some originals, some covers — into modern-day relevance. Not only did he make his network debut in 1976 on “Saturday Night Live,” where he showcased his indelible version of Irving Berlin’s “Walkin’ Stick,” but he’s also written television theme songs (“Mr. Belvedere” and “Harry and the Hendersons”), acted (“Elf” and “Life Goes On”) and appeared in popular commercials (“This Bud’s for You” and Chevrolet’s “Getting to Know You”).
Still going strong at age 61, Redbone, known for his white fedora, jacket and sunglasses, returns to Northeast Ohio for a Friday show at the Kent Stage. The Vindicator talked to Redbone about his loyal audience, the influence of Irving Berlin on his career and why obscure artist Eide Norena still inspires him today.
Q. Invariably, you are known as a quintessential cult artist. Why are people still interested in your music decades later?
A. I would hope that it’s because it’s good material. It’s well-crafted songs from many years ago, and it’s always resonated with me, so I’m assuming if an audience in 1919 liked it, there’s no reason why an audience in 2000-whatever-it-is wouldn’t like it.
Q. Looking back at all of your influences, which artist stands out as having the biggest impact on your career?
A. A lot of them are obscure because I like all kinds of music — and not necessarily ones I perform — but the obvious songwriters come to mind. I think (Irving) Berlin was definitely the torch for many songwriters that came after he did, and of course he lived a very long time. When I was recording (1975’s “On the Track”) for Warner Bros., he was communicating with his office in New York, so the man was quite active right up to the end.
Q. Did you ever meet Irving Berlin?
A. Not face to face. At that point, usually we’d call from the studio because he liked his music the way he had envisioned it when he wrote these tunes. I think he didn’t mind the way I did them because it wasn’t that much different than what he would have expected. So one could say he was living in the past but, in reality, he was living in the present because he wrote the tunes a certain way and wanted to hear them that way. And I was quite agreeable in that department.
Q. Speaking of which, do you feel as though you’re living in the past?
A. I’ve always lived in the past, but I’m doing so on a daily basis. So I have my eye on technology, which I find rather interesting, but even that’s becoming old-hat now, so what remains is craftsmanship and the ability to somehow express basic ideas — nothing earth shattering — in a pleasant way that can affect somebody listening to it. Because that’s essentially what the ultimate effect was then: Write a simple song with a simple sentiment and see if you can actually communicate with people who would be somehow interested in that, which, theoretically, should be everybody. But things change.
Q. It’s been a while since you released a new studio effort. Any thoughts on recording again?
A. I think about it occasionally, but then the thought goes away. And then it comes back again. I think I would like to do something. I’m toying with some ideas and which direction to go as far as the type of material, but I’m finding the material I like is the material I’ve always liked. So I don’t necessarily think onward and upward has any merit or substance in what it is I do essentially, because it’s not so much trying to create a new trend. I’m just interested in good music.
Q. Finally, considering you are so well-versed in music, if you were going to the moon, what one song would you take with you?
A. It would be a tough choice. I think there was one wonderful tune recorded many years ago in live broadcast by a soprano, who I think is probably the most-talented voice and mood creator and amazing vocalist: (Eide) Norena. Hardly anybody knows her. It’s a voice that I don’t think anybody has ever come close to. This is virtually the last recording she made in 1938 or 1939, which had a quality to it that I don’t think can be duplicated. There’s only one Norena, and it was a piece from “Atalanta” by Handel. I think you can actually travel to the moon just playing that.