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Eccentric singer-musician Leon Redbone dies at age 69

He gained fame in TV appearances, voice role in ‘Elf’

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Leon Redbone, a musician of enigmatic individuality who seemed to inhabit the past in his concerts and recordings, playing and singing early jazz and blues as if he had strolled straight out of the 1920s, died May 30 at a care facility near his home in New Hope, Pa. A family statement whimsically noted that he “crossed the delta for that beautiful shore at the age of 127.”

In fact, Redbone was 69, said his wife and manager, Beryl Handler. He had complications from dementia.

Redbone first gained notice in Toronto in the early 1970s, seemingly emerging from nowhere as a self-created performer who defied time, popular tastes and musical trends to delve into the past with a style all his own.

He played acoustic guitar and sang in a deep, guttural voice that seemed to have come from a traveling medicine show or the back alleys of old New Orleans. Always appearing in a coat and tie, hat and dark glasses, he seemed at first glance to be something of a costumed caricature.

“I dress this way when I walk out onstage to play guitar and when I walk out into the street,” he told the Kirkland (Washington) Reporter in 2011. “I dressed this way when I was a child, assuming I was a child.”

He was an eccentric blend of antiquarian, actor, singer, musician and performance artist — with a strong element of Marxian (as in Groucho) absurdity. Redbone sometimes pulled a tomato from his handkerchief and placed it on a stool beside him, then wrapped it up again as he left the stage.

He entertained his listeners with hoary jokes, paddled his guitar as if rowing a boat for one of his signature songs, “Up a Lazy River.” His banter with the audience could be zany or head-scratchingly puzzling.

“If you know the words,” he might say, “please hum along.”

For years, there was speculation that “Leon Redbone” was actually the invention of comedian Andy Kaufman, musical iconoclast Frank Zappa — whom he strongly resembled, with his bushy mustache and soul patch — or even Bob Dylan in disguise.

It was Dylan who brought Redbone widespread recognition after a 1972 performance at Canada’s Mariposa Folk Festival.

Other musical admirers included Tom Waits, John Prine, Jack White and Bonnie Raitt, who sometimes toured with Redbone.

“I spent an afternoon with him in a hotel room,” Raitt told Rolling Stone, “and I was wondering when he was going to become normal. He never did.”

Throughout his career, whether in concert, in interviews or on television, Redbone never broke character. When it came to his music and his persona, he was dead earnest.

In 1976, Redbone performed two times on “Saturday Night Live,” which led to sales of 200,000 copies of his debut 1975 album, “On the Track.” His only song to reach Billboard’s Hot 100 was “Seduced” (1981), a modern song by Gary Tigerman.

Redbone made frequent appearances on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” and other television shows and sang the theme song of the 1980s sitcom “Mr. Belvedere.” He was featured in several popular advertising campaigns, including for Budweiser beer.

More recently, Redbone was the voice and visual inspiration of “Leon the Snowman” in the 2003 Will Ferrell holiday movie “Elf.” (He tells Ferrell’s character, “don’t eat the yellow snow.”) Over the film’s final credits, Redbone sings a duet of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with the film’s co-star, Zooey Deschanel.

He released 16 albums over the years.

“I think music is, in effect, a time machine,” he told the Associated Press in 1990. “It takes you to different places, places you’d want to go. It can take you to a past you’re not familiar with. I can’t figure why people would want to go the places they’re singing about these days.”

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