The first time I heard and saw Leon Redbone sing and play his guitar was late at night on Saturday, February 28, 1976.
Leon was the musical guest on that evening’s episode of Saturday Night Live. (It was the 15th broadcast of the series’ now-legendary first season.) Actress Jill Clayburgh was the host and she gave Leon a smiling and enthusiastic introduction.
The camera revealed the mustachioed musician sitting crosslegged on a short stool in a pool of light from an overhead spot. He wore a black suit, white dotted tie and a white panama hat pulled close to the top of his dark-tinted glasses. On his lap was a small mahogany-body Martin acoustic guitar.
The song he performed so brilliantly that evening was “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”
Originally published in 1929, the words to “Ain’t Misbehavin'” were written by Andy Razaf and the music composed by Thomas “Fats” Waller and Harry Brooks. It was first performed that year at a Harlem nightclub as part of a musical comedy play called Connie’s Hot Chocolates.
The song has been recorded countless times by a long list of musical greats including Ruth Etting, Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Billie Holiday, Johnny Hartman, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles and Willie Nelson.
Leon included his rendition of “Ain’t Misbehavin'” on his 1975 debut album, On The Track. Jazz violinist Joe Venuti joined Leon on the recording.
Here it is.
To say that Leon’s performance that evening on Saturday Night Live was a boost to his career would be a huge understatement.
I can also safely say that Leon’s performance changed my life, too.
Soon thereafter, I purchased a copy of the sheet music for “Ain’t Misbehavin'” and – once I’d translated the ukulele chords to guitar chords – worked out my own rendition of the song. Then, as one good thing leads to another, a string of “vintage” songs made their way onto my set lists. Among them were: “Swinging On A Star,” “Five Foot Two, Eyes Of Blue,” “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” “Lulu’s Back In Town” and the always-popular “What You Goin’ To Do When The Rent Comes ‘Round?”
Learning those songs greatly expanded my chord vocabulary (I finally had to learn how to play barre chords!) and pushed my fingerpicking chops into regions previously unexplored. Then those chords and techniques started showing up in my original songs.
Then… about a year ago, I put together a new arrangement of “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” in the key of G, Cotten-style.
Influence is a wonderful thing.
Leon Redbone was born Dickran Gobalian on August 26, 1949 in Nicosia, Cyprus.
He passed away on May 30, 2019 in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
Leon once said about his work: “The only thing that interests me is history, reviewing the past and making something out of it.”
Thank you, Leon, so very much. Behave yourself.