In the film Oppenheimer, it’s a wonder director Christopher Nolan didn’t have the randy theoretical physicist coo to his mistress a couplet from Mose Allison’s song “Molecular Structure:”
“Your molecular structure is really something fine,
A first-rate example of functional design.”
What was really fine for Mose was to hear rock ‘n’ roll titans take his mellow jazz-blues tunes and turn them into high-decibel classics that gave him a new audience and much-needed revenue.
Besides the Yardbirds’ cool cover of Mose’s “I’m Not Talking,” the Who performed a blistering take of his “Young Man Blues” on their Live at Leeds album; with guitarist Pete Townsend introducing a young man’s lament with “It’s one of his [Mose’s] own compositions which he wrote when he was about forty.” Mose noted of the Leeds LP, “That sold a lot of records and they used the song in a lot of their shows. That was the song that did the most for me financially.”
Mose never had Townsend’s millions of fans or millions of dollars. But he had the guitarist’s respect, with Pete admitting Mose was half of the inspiration for the band’s signature song: “When I started to work on ‘My Generation,’ I started working on a Mose Allison and Bob Dylan hybrid of a talking Folk song.”
And, like Mose’s best tunes, Pete wasn’t afraid to write lyrics saturated with sarcasm (“A Legal Matter”) and humor (“Tattoo”).
Van Morrison, who recorded the 1996 album Tell Me Something: The Songs of Mose Allison with Moses and Georgie Fame, called Mose “the Jazz version of Lenny Bruce.” Even at an early age, the Tippo, Mississippi native appreciated songs that could tap a toe and elicit a smile, like hearing Fats Waller on his cousin’s Victrola or bawdy blues music. Moses remembered: “I got the humor of the blues from the people I started out listening to. Players like Lightnin’ Hopkins put humor into everything they played. Most of the great ones used it. They used humor as a survival technique.”
Indeed, Hopkins’ morbid humor was on full display in his “Bring Me My Shotgun,” where he sets out to shoot a gal pal, but gives up because:
“Only reason I don’t shoot you little woman/My double barrel shotgun just won’t fire.”
While Lightnin’ warned one wary listener, Mose warned the world about the thrills and chills of living in a city in his “If You’re Going to The City;” which is the same name as a 2019 tribute album to him. This ditty could be autobiographical; perhaps telling of Mose’s move in the mid-1950s from Louisiana to New York City where he played with legendary jazz saxophonists Stan Getz and Zoot Sims and recorded his first album (Back Country Suite) in 1956. Through his very pointed lyrics, Mose gave the following warning to non-city slickers:
“If you’re goin’ to the city/You better bolt your door
They’ll take all what you got/And come back for more.”
Another biting Mose lyric (“I’m hip, you could use a button on your lip”) rolled off of the tongues of Mick Jones and Joe Strummer when they covered Allison’s “Look Here” on the Clash’s triple album set Sandinista!
Mose’s choice of other acid-filled words filled his stellar “Your Mind Is on Vacation” song with lines like:
“If talk was criminal/You’d lead a life of crime…./If silence was golden/You couldn’t raise a dime.”
It’s no wonder that another put-down artist, Bob Dylan, is a Mose man and expounded on his “Everybody’s Crying Mercy” tune in his book, The Philosophy of Modern Song. Mose’s lyrics, which were written in 1968, read like they were composed 55 years later:
“You don’t have to go to Off-Broadway/To see something plain absurd.
Everybody’s crying mercy/When they don’t know the meaning of the word.
A bad enough situation/It’s sure enough getting worse.
Everybody’s crying justice/Just as long as it’s business first.”
Unfortunately, Mose’s musings never made him a very rich man. In a 2002 interview with Australian author, John Braughton, he said: “According to the record companies that I worked for, none of my records have ever paid for themselves. Nothing has catapulted me into the higher echelons.” Mose laughed that some labels wanted him to change his sound, recalling that they advised him: “Do something contemporary–which to me means shoddy.”
Mose wound up living a decidedly middle-class life and raised four children with his wife of 67 years, Audre, in the non-musical enclave of Smithtown, NY. His son, John, who gave an opening night introduction to the documentary Mose Allison: Ever Since I Stole the Blues that was shown at the Grammy Museum, recalled a reporter asking his father: “Mose, you were socially relevant before Bob Dylan, satirical before Randy Newman and rude before Mick Jagger. How come you’re not a big star? And Dad replied, ‘Just lucky, I guess.’”
Yes, for his whole life, which ended at the age of 89 in 2016, Mose stuck to his guns and his deep jazz-blues roots, even mocking himself for making music that was strongly influenced by black blues artists by naming an album and singing a song called “Middle-Class White Boy.” Mose confessed:
“I’m not your Hoochie Coochie Man/I’m not the Seventh Son,
Just another middle-class white boy/I’m tryin’ to have some fun.”
Fair Use image of Mose Allison’s Greatest Hits