Influential blues and jazz pianist Mose Allison, whose songs were covered by an array of rock veterans, died Tuesday at the age of 89 of natural causes. Allison’s daughter, Amy, confirmed the musician’s death to Rolling Stone.
Though primarily known for his piano playing, Allison also garnered acclaim for his voice, crafting a repertoire that drew on Delta blues, bebop, early American pop and even European classical, per NPR. Consequently, Allison’s earliest labels struggled to find the best way to market him, with Prestige pushing him as a pop star and Columbia and Atlantic billing him as a blues artist.
But Allison ultimately defied such categorization, as his songs would go on to be covered by an extensive and diverse collection of artists including the Clash, the Who, Elvis Costello, the Gories, Van Morrison, Robert Palmer, Bonnie Raitt, Roy Rogers, Leon Russell, Hot Tuna, the Yardbirds and the Bangles.
Speaking to Rolling Stone before Allison’s death in an interview to be published on Wednesday, Townshend says, “Mose was a huge, huge crush of mine. I just loved him. I loved everything he did. I did exactly the same thing.”
“He was the thread that connected Willie Dixon and Mark Twain,” adds Joe Henry, the producer who worked with Allison on his 2010 album The Way of the World.
Born in the Mississippi Delta, Allison began playing the piano at age five and was soon recreating songs he heard on a local jukebox by ear. Spurred by his father, also a piano player, Allison continued to take lessons but also spent time working on his grandfather’s farm.
In the Forties, Allison went into the Army, playing with the Army Band, and spent some time touring the U.S. with a trio before ultimately graduating from Louisiana State University in 1952. In 1956, he moved to New York City to begin his professional career, inking a record deal with composer-saxophonist Al Cohn and releasing his first album, Back Country Suite in 1957.
The LP featured a handful of blues covers, but also numerous originals that comprised the titular suite, such as the first recording of a tune called “Blues.” The Who famously covered the song, later known as “Young Man Blues,” on Live at Leeds.
That same year, Allison released another album, Local Color, which featured a reworking of Bukka White’s prison blues, “Parchman Farm.” That tune would become one of Allison’s best known songs, and another popular cover for countless artists over the years.
Allison would go on to form his own trio with bassist Addison Farmer and drummer Nick Stabulas, while also performing with numerous jazz greats like Stan Getz, Zoot Sims and Gerry Mulligan.
Allison retired from live performance in 2012 and was named a jazz master by the National Endowment of the Arts one year later. In 2015, he released what would become his final album, Mose Allison American Legend, Live in California.
“I followed Mose’s career. I heard a lot of records and I saw a lot of gigs and I realized that he was a philosopher,” Van Morrison said in a joint interview with the musician. “He’s a musician, but he’s also a philosopher.”
Mose Allison – “Young Man Blues”
Mose Allison – “I Ain’t Got Nothing But the Blues”
Mose Allison – “Your Molecular Structure”
Mose Allison – “Parchman Farm”