The current Schwann Catalog lists no less than 16 available albums by Mose Allison, representing just about a decade of the Mississippi-born pianist-singer’s work. Ironically, the album he considers his best, Hiram Brown Suite (Columbia), is among the few that have been discontinued.
Shortly after this interview took place at Allison’s home in Smithtown, N.Y., he went to Lost Angeles for an engagement at the Lighthouse, where he recorded for Atlantic with Red Mitchell on bass (incidentally, it was the bassist’s last record date prior to his departure for Europe). The album, to be released soon, consists entirely of new Allison pieces.
JIM DELEHANT: What was your life like down South?
MOSE ALLISON: I was brought up in a Mississippi cotton farming county on the Delta. It was a crossroads place. It had a service station, cotton gin, and a general store. My mother was a grammar school teacher, and my father owned the general store. He also farmed. I did all the things that you don’t want to do. I found out about work early—the truth about work, the truth about the fields. I got out of Mississippi when I joined the Army. I was in an Army band. We played a lot of dances and I met some good musicians. Then I went to the University of Mississippi, mainly because they had a good band.
After that I went on the road and finished college at Louisiana Sate. Some of the guys I played with once in a while were Joe Houston and his band, and Gatemouth Brown. He had a good band. I used to listen to Bull Moose Jackson. I heard Percy Mayfield. I dug Charles Brown. I was pretty well saturated with it. I didn’t have to buy blues records, because there was so much of it around in person. That’s about all I heard when I was growing up. The guitars were amplified then, but they were subtle. All the groups had two or three horns and little ensemble things worked out.
JD: What was your first learning experience as a musician?
MA: I had piano lessons as a child for about five years. I stopped the piano and played trumpet in a high school band. I played piano again when I was in the Army. Nat King Cole was my first big influence; the boogie woogie players too. That was happening when I started out. In the 1930s boogie woogie and jazz were the same thing. Aside from popular songs of the day, I learned to play boogie woogie. Boogie woogie is happening all over again in rock ’n’ roll. It’s just eight to the bar. Even cha cha and folk music is all similar. I’ve got some Hungarian folk music here that’s got that eight-to-the-bar feeling. You find it everywhere. It’s a physical release. It has a circular motion, as opposed to up and down. With swing you used to be all up and down—1-2-3-4. That’s the way marches are, and a lot of Western music. But the Latin stuff and the music from Africa and Asia—even Indian music, it’s got that eight-to-the-bar feeling. It flows more.
JD: Are your lyrics from your own experience?
MA: Sure. I’ve visited Parchman Farm, a friend of mine was in there once. I never did time there, but I lived near there when I was a kid. I heard a lot about it. Your Mind Is On Vacation And Your Mouth Is Working Overtime just came out of useless conversation. I’m beginning to wonder if I’m writing the songs or the songs are writing me. It’s not difficult for me to write lyrics, but it’s hard to find ways of expressing them. I don’t like to write the same thing over again. I get lots of song ideas, but I have to get them in shape. I got a lot of stuff piled up. I have to get them recorded.
JD: Did you hear John Mayall do “Parchman Farm”?
MA: I didn’t hear that, but Johnny Rivers did one. I guess that’s my most recorded song, but the one I made the most money on is “I’m Not Talking.” I think the Yardbirds did it. … I keep getting checks for it, so somebody must have done it. That’s okay, but I don’t want to have to keep doing the same things over and over just to come up with a hit. I want to stay as flexible and independent as possible. I don’t want to start figuring out what’s selling and what isn’t.
JD: You and Jerry Lee Lewis are both from Mississippi. But why is he so primitive whereas you’re so sophisticated?
MA: It’s a different background and temperament. I had a liberal arts background. I have a B.A. in English. At one time, I wanted to be a writer.
JD: You could probably play real funky if you wanted.
MA: That’s it. I don’t want to have to do that—on the vocals either. My piano playing is always in transition. I’m always adding things to it. That’s how I stay interested in it. I don’t want to toss off a bunch of clichés just because I can do it. I’m not funky in the popular sense of the word. But it’s always been blues. When I first started recording, it was like Southern romanticism and that’s where the funky stuff came from.
JD: Bobbie Gentry seems to be the female counterpart of you.
MA: Well, there is a difference. She uses a lot of local color—“black-eyed peas” and so forth. I never do that too much. “Pass the grits” and all that is old stuff. A goodlooking chick can sing that, but I can’t. When I heard that song, I figured she hadn’t been home in quite a while. The people down there are trying to get away from that stuff now.
JD: Were you ever involved in church things down there?
MA: No, but the country blues tunes were important to me. I’ve worked out of that pretty much—that local color stuff. I’m trying to be more universal now. There are still funky elements, but not in the ordinary sense of the word. Probably neo-funk.
JD: Did you play with any African American bands down South?
MA: When I was coming up in Mississippi, I jammed with a lot of blues guys. I sat in with B.B. King’s band a few times in Memphis. I knew Bill Harvey, who used to be B.B.’s tenor player. I used to hang out with him. There were a lot of great bands around then. Where I was raised in Tippo, Miss., there were just a few local guitar players. When I finally got on the road, I heard a lot them. I played a lot of dates in Southern Louisiana, with my trio mostly. Mississippi was dry, but there was a lot of liquor and gambling in other places.
JD: Do you ever get tired of playing blues?
MA: Blues is a very limited thing to play. I have to keep adding things to it to keep it interesting. I keep striving for higher levels of performance. That’s the only way I can maintain the pace of going out and playing. It gets tiring going from California to Chicago. If you’re not interested in it, it can get to be like prison. Now B.B. King, he was never an improviser. He’s a blues guitar player—a natural cat. He tries to get better doing his natural gig. I don’t think he consciously seeks new influences.
I don’t go out and consciously look for something to stick in my playing either. You’ve got to absorb it. When I run across something I’ve never heard before, like this Hungarian folk music, I listen a lot and absorb something from it. Somehow it blends in with what I’m doing. But blues is the basic thing. Good country blues is the basis of my thing and it always will be.
JD: Have you ever worked with an electric bassist?
MA: No, but I’m not against it. I have played with r&b bands down South and in the Midwest. I used to have trios, quartets and quintets, sometimes two horns, and we’d play a lot of rock ’n’ roll stuff. We called it r&b then. We relied on that for working. It was mixed in with jazz. Actually, it’s hard to draw the line.
JD: Are you glad to be out of that now?
MA: I’m glad to be out of the South. There was no money there, just little bars and honky-tonks. We had to play a lot of bouncy stuff like the King Cole Trio used to play, and a lot of early Ray Charles, Charles Brown and T-Bone Walker stuff. Most of the guys I played with down South are still stuck there. Only one of the guys I can think of went on to be something, and that was Brew Moore, the tenor player. Some came to New York, but they couldn’t take it.