Mose Allison, a pianist and singer who called Long Island his home base for more than 40 years as he crafted witty, southern-accented lyrics delivered over a backdrop of boogie-woogie blues and jazz piano, died Tuesday of natural causes. He was 89.
His wife, Audre Allison, confirmed his death to The Associated Press.
Heavily influenced by jazz and by the blues he grew up listening to deep in the Mississippi Delta region Allison’ had a hard style to define: too blue to be jazz, too jazz to be blues, with a little bit of country thrown in for good measure. His love of New York’s burgeoning jazz scene in the late ‘50s led him to settle in Smithtown, where he spent much of his time when he wasn’t touring. “For the first 20 years, nobody here had any idea what I did,” Allison told the Dallas Observer in 1998. “But I like it that way. I hardly ever get recognized around here in the grocery stores. Don’t mind that at all.” He added that his neighbors didn’t recognize him until he appeared on a PBS program, opening for Bonnie Raitt at Wolftrap.
But Allison became such a local music fixture that he was inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame’s first class, alongside Billy Joel, Joan Jett and others in 2006.
Still, originality and iconoclasm was at the core of his appeal.
“I’ve always had a category problem, that’s for sure,” Allison told the Los Angeles Times in 1991. “There’s a lot of blues in what I do. It’s still primarily jazz, but there’s a lot of influences thrown in there.”
Although wide-scale attention eluded Allison, his mournful playing and tales of love and loss won him legions of devoted fans during a career that stretched over 60 years. He received the prestigious National Endowment for the Artists jazz masters honor in 2013.
With his molasses-and-whisky tinged voice and rollicking tunes, he also had major crossover appeal. His music has been covered by many in the rock world, including Van Morrison, The Who, Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt, the Yardbirds and even the Clash.
Born Nov. 11, 1927 in Tippo, Mississippi, Allison picked cotton and worked the fields at a young age, but started taking piano lessons in the first grade.
“There was always a piano in the house,” Allison told The Sacramento Bee in 2003. “My dad was a stride player, playing ragtime-type stuff. My mother sent me to a good piano teacher in the Mississippi Delta, and I took lessons for a few years. But as soon as I realized I could pick out things by ear, I quit taking lessons.”
And with that ear he quickly soaked up the boogie-woogie and blues sound he heard in sharecropper shacks, in the fields and on jukeboxes.
After attending the University of Mississippi for a year, Allison went into the military in 1946 and played in the Army band. After returning to “Ole Miss” for a short time, he formed a trio and went out on the road.
A year later, he married and returned to college at Louisiana State University where he graduated in 1952 with a degree in English and philosophy.
But music was his first love, and he went back on the road, touring the southeast and west. By 1956, he migrated to New York, and worked as a sideman for jazz legends like Stan Getz and Gerry Mulligan. The following year he recorded his first album, “Back Country Suite,” on the Prestige label, the first of over 30 albums he would record during his career.
In addition to his wife, Allison is survived by his son and three daughters, including singer-songwriter Amy Allison.
— with Glenn Gamboa