Legendary musician Leon Redbone passed away Thursday morning. He was 69 years old.
Bursting onto the music scene in the early ‘70s, Redbone’s revival of ragtime tunes captivated major musicians from the jump. With his gravelly baritone voice, harmonica, fedora and signature sunglasses, Redbone was a charismatic enigma. He crooned and joked, swung and laughed with his audiences, developing a cult of personality perhaps even more iconic than his music.
Appearing at folk festivals before recording his debut album, Redbone found early support from none other than Bob Dylan, who was fascinated in equal parts with his musicianship and his personality. In a 1974 interview with Rolling Stone, Dylan famously remarked, “Leon interests me. I’ve heard he’s anywhere from 25 to 60, I’ve been this close and I can’t tell. But you gotta see him. He does Jimmie Rodgers, then turns around does a Robert Johnson.”
From there, Redbone went on to record his 1975 debut album, On The Track, an instant classic of delta blues revivalism that harkening back to the airy instrumentation of pre-World War I pop music. He delivered 15 more albums prior to his death, only officially retiring from music in 2015, capping off 40 years in the industry with 2014’s Flying By.
In the intervening years, Redbone continued to beguile audiences for decades to come. He appeared frequently on Saturday Night Live and various late-night talk shows, even dipping into animation as Leon the Snowman in Will Ferrell’s Elf. Everywhere he went, he brought his guitar and playful sense of self.
An official statement shared on Redbone’s website leans into his sense of humor, detailing his plans to meet up with other ragtime legends in the afterlife and delivering one last joke: “It is with heavy hearts we announce that early this morning, May 30th 2019, Leon Redbone crossed the delta for that beautiful shore at the age of 127.”
Revisit Redbone’s music with a performance from 1976 below.