Leon Redbone: He’s A Kinder, Gentler Enigma

By Diane Bitting, Staff

Lancaster Newspapers, PA

Aug 9 2007

LANCASTER COUNTY, PA – Myth and mystery swirl around jazz and bluesman
Leon Redbone, who has been dubbed "the most famous non-famous American

His recurrent musical gigs on "Saturday Night Live" in the ’70s and,
more recently, his turn as the voice of Leon the Snowman in the movie
"Elf" and his "Baby, It’s Cold Outside" duet from that movie, have
brought him into the public consciousness.

Still, this enigmatic performer, who favors music from the late 19th
and early 20th centuries, has done little to shed any light on the
conjecture that surrounds him.

But a couple of tidbits came out during a recent, amiable phone
interview in advance of his return appearance at the Mount Gretna
Playhouse for Music at Gretna.

For one, it’s said that he travels exclusively by car after surviving
a plane crash in the early 1980s.

"I fly to Europe but I don’t fly domestic because I’d just as soon
get in the car and drive," he states.

While the crash part is true, the main reason he eschews flying is
because "it’s no longer civilized," he says, citing post-911 security
hassles. "I don’t want anything to do with it."

Another common perception is that he performs wearing a white suite
with his trademark Panama hat and dark glasses. Previous photos and
album covers notwithstanding, Redbone says that he rarely wears white.

"White does not travel well," he notes. "I mostly wear black."

As for those other mysteries – how old he is, whether he is Canadian
(he gained notice performing in Toronto in the ’70s), what his real
name is (Dickran Gobalian, a son of Armenian parents?) – those are
still pretty much mysteries.

When asked about his age, he replies, "I’m very old. … You wouldn’t
believe me if I told you."

"Thousands," he continued when pressed. "I just keep coming back."

Asked whether he is Canadian, he answers, "I would like to be

Why? "Why not? It seems like a nice country."

And what about the whole Dickran Gobalian/born in Bombay or Cyprus

"I’ve read that," he says. "I don’t believe everything I read.

Whether or not it’s true is another story."

But Redbone is famous for not telling his story. (He’s rumored to be
married and the father of at least one child.) Still, fans flock to
hear his unique guitar-accompanied delivery of ragtime and repartee,
accompanied by coronet player Scott Black and pianist Paul Asaro.

He calls the regulars his "old following … Is it a cult now?" he
says when asked about that reference.

Redbone takes his favorite vintage music on the road in part to keep
it alive. He laments the fact that in the past few years, fewer people
are able to sing along to such songs as "Shine On, Harvest Moon."

"As the years go by, there seems to be less connection to what was
once popular" in terms of music and expressing humor, he notes. "Give
it another 10 years and there won’t be any connection at all."

While he never rehearses a show – "I have absolutely no idea what I’m
going to do. … It sounds like a good idea but it isn’t for me." –
it’s highly possible that the Gretna audience will hear songs once
sung by Cliff Edwards (the voice of Jiminy Cricket), Gene Austin,
Lee Morse or Emmett Miller.

In fact minstrel singer Miller, known for the song "I Ain’t
Got Nobody," has often been the subject of Redbone’s attempts at
"resurrecting the forgotten" by researching his life and promoting
his music.

While music from the 1890s to the 1930s is his specialty, "music is
music to me. I like music from all over the world," he says.

Portuguese music in particular.

As for today’s musicians, there’s only a handful that he’ll listen
to. These include Norah Jones.

"I like the mood she creates without all the yelling and screaming
and publicity and nonsense," he says. She is, he adds, "an inspired
person musically. That is the way that is used to be."

The way things used to be seems to define Leon Redbone’s life.

"I miss the thinking process of earlier decades, where there were
still opportunities for people to actually somehow by their own wit
and intelligence … somehow be able to get something accomplished,"
says Redbone, who claims he would have been an inventor in another
era. (He says he has come up with a device that levels uneven tables
more easily.)

"With all the gadgets and technology flying all over the place, the
people have lost that sense of interest," he adds. "They’ve become
consumers more than they’ve become people who are interested in doing
things for themselves."

That said, he is the first to admit he is a "gadget person."

His gadgets, both old and new, include a couple of old-time phonographs
and a cell phone. But he doesn’t have an iPod – yet.

"I’m thinking of getting one."