The year I was studying with Dave Van Ronk was also the first year of Saturday Night Live, back when it was a provocation rather than an institution. We wondered every week if it would get pulled off the air, and I don’t think that was just our imagination – and the musical choices were as weird and edgy as the comedy. Like, for example, Leon Redbone. I doubt that man would have had a career if he hadn’t happened to release his first album just when the most talked-about show on television was open to the oddity of a strange, deadpan character sitting onstage with a guitar and moaning old pop songs, so uncool that it was another kind of cool.
I didn’t catch his first appearance, when he sang “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” but saw his second, when he did “My Walking Stick,” an odd object from Louis Armstrong and the Mills Brothers — and I ran right out and bought his record. (I guess that was my year for running out and buying records of acts I saw on television, the other being Blondie.)
I don’t think I had ever heard “Ain’t Misbehavin’” before that, and I certainly hadn’t heard “Lazy Bones,” or “Lulu’s Back in Town,” or any of the other songs on that LP, which I recall as mostly having just him on guitar and vocals, and his trumpet imitation, and sometimes a tuba, and Milt Hinton on bass, and a few other sidemen including Joe Venuti on violin – whom I’d never heard of, but who was obviously great.
I actually saw that SNL appearance before getting to New York, and I heard Redbone around the same time at Passim Coffeehouse in Cambridge – I didn’t have the money to go inside, but sat in the narrow well outside the window, pressing my ear to the glass, and for some reason no one came out and chased me away.
So I was smitten and learned a bunch of the songs, though just to sing silently in my head, since I couldn’t figure out the chords. And when Dave started playing me records of pop singers from the 1930s, notably Bing Crosby and Fats Waller, I mentioned Leon Redbone’s record… and Dave growled: “He got the chords wrong to the bridge of ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’ – and with Joe Venuti in the studio! If he didn’t know the chords, why didn’t he ask Joe?”
A year or so later, when I got my hands on a fake book and learned the chords and worked up an arrangement, the first thing I did was play it for Dave, to make sure I had the chords right. He said, sure, they were fine – he was a jazz guy, and knew there were a variety of possible “right” chords, which didn’t mean there weren’t some wrong ones, like for instance what Redbone played in the bridge…*
So that’s the story of how I learned “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” and my brief infatuation with Leon Redbone – by the time his next album came out I was listening to Waller, Crosby, Armstrong, the Mills Brothers, the Ink Spots, the Boswell Sisters, and I’d had my fling with him and it didn’t excite me anymore. But I have no idea how long it might have taken me to get into this kind of music without him, because he had good taste in songs and made them seem approachable for someone with basic ragtime-blues chops, and in his odd way, he was cool.
*For what it’s worth, I just went back and listened to Redbone’s recording of “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” and his chords sound fine to me.