Enigmatic cult singer Leon Redbone died on Thursday after a long and storied career as an archivist and historian of obscure, pre-recording-era American music. His age has been the source of debate for decades — the official announcement playfully claims he was 127 — but most reports state his age as 69.
“He departed our world with his guitar, his trusty companion Rover and a simple tip of his hat,” his family said in a statement. “He’s interested to see what Blind Blake, Emmett and Jelly Roll have been up to in his absence, and has plans for a rousing singalong number with Sári Barabás. An eternity of pouring through texts in the Library of Ashurbanipal will be a welcome repose, perhaps followed by a shot or two of whiskey with Lee Morse, and some long overdue discussions with his favorite Uncle, Suppiluliuma I of the Hittites. To his fans, friends and loving family who have already been missing him so in this realm he says, ‘Oh behave yourselves. Thank you… and good evening everybody.’”
Details of his death are otherwise sketchy, as are details of his life.
Known for his dark sunglasses, Panama hat and mustache, Redbone made his name in the mid-’70s while working the folk festival circuit, where he met Bob Dylan.
Dylan famously praised Redbone’s mysterious nature in a 1974 Rolling Stone interview, as the singer would always refuse to answer any questions about his background.
“Leon interests me,” Dylan said at the time. “I’ve heard he’s anywhere from 25 to 60, I’ve been [a foot and a half from him] and I can’t tell. But you gotta see him. He does old Jimmie Rodgers, then turns around and does a Robert Johnson.”
Redbone was reportedly born Dickran Gobalian in Cyprus, according to Rolling Stone, before moving to Canada in the ’60s where he began his music career playing in Toronto nightclubs.
While Redbone never achieved mainstream commercial success, his appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and Saturday Night Live have earned him a fervent underground following.
Redbone sang the theme songs for the television shows Mr. Belvedere as well as Harry and the Hendersons, and would also go on to appear in commercials for Chevrolet, Budweiser, and All laundry detergent. He also voiced the character of Leon the Snowman in the 2003 film Elf.
The singer released his debut album, On the Track, after signing a recording deal with Warner Brothers in 1975. Redbone released three more major label studio albums through the late ’70s and early ’80s, earning his only Hot 100 hit “Seduced” from his 1981 album From Branch to Branch, which was released by Atlantic.
He would go on to release several albums through smaller independent record labels before retiring from music in 2015 due to health issues.