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Retro Redux: The Mystery Of Leon Redbone

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I think I first saw Leon Redbone on TV's Saturday Night Live, and at the time I suspected his act was a put-on. A few people (not me) even thought he might be eccentric comedian Andy Kaufman in disguise. After all, the program is known for quirky stunts, so Redbone seemed to fit right in. Years later, I'm still not sure how much of his act is for real, but he certainly has managed to maintain the mystery.

His signature look is unmistakable — Panama hat, suit, smoked glasses and drooping mustache — and his distinctive drawling vocals complete the picture, but the entertainer remains an enigma otherwise. His appearances in a number of venues, including an iconic TV commercial for Budweiser (video below), really don't shed much light on Leon Redbone the man.

Redbone first came to fame three decades ago while appearing in clubs in Toronto, so was assumed to be Canadian, but he's also been described as an immigrant from Cyprus. That's just one of the many facts he won't confirm, including his real name, which is rumored to be Dickran Gobalian. He loves to muddy the water, once claiming to be the son of storied singer Jenny Lind — but she died in 1887.

Whatever the facts might be, his unusual look, along with a repertoire that has always included many of the old classics, has made him a kind of cult hero. Songs such as "Ain't Misbehavin'," "Somebody Stole My Gal," and "I Ain't Got Nobody," have helped keep him popular, and he also made a lot of new fans with his unforgettable duet with Zooey Deschanel on "Baby It's Cold Outside," from the soundtrack of the 2003 film Elf.

Leon Redbone is still performing, still putting on a good show for his many fans — and is still a mystery.

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About Big Geez

  • A lot of people know him from the Mr. Belvedere theme song, too. I saw him in a small club last fall and loved the show

  • According to his website, he’ll be at the Pocono Folk Festival in August. Wish I wasn’t a thousand miles away…

  • The first time I ran across Leon Redbone was at the 1978 Mariposa Folk Festival in Toronto. We were both well on our way to being in alterted states of awareness – he was wandering around with a plastic beer cup filled with whisky but completely immaculate in white suite and panama hat. He was also able to climb up on stage and deliver his usual fine performance.

    I don’t know if the “Leon Redbone” personna is a performance or not – there were quite a few around the folk festival circut in those days who did assume a character before going on stage – but he was able to sustain it no matter how many sheets to the wind he was performing or not.

    Thanks for reminding me about Leon.

  • Big Geez

    Thanks for sharing your memories — another look at a fascinating guy.

  • Clavos

    I’m a long time fan, but until I read this essay, knew nothing about him.

    Saw him once, in a small club appearance in Atlanta many years ago. I remember he sat on a stool on a poorly lit stage, with just a spot on him — could barely see him, even though it was a small venue, but oh, that music!

  • Baronius

    FWIW, Dickran Gobalian is an Armenian name, and it wouldn’t have been uncommon for an Armenian couple in Cyprus to move to Toronto in the 1950’s.