NEW HOPE, Penn. (New York Times) — Leon Redbone, who burst onto the pop-music scene in the mid-1970s with a startlingly throwback singing style and a look to go with it, favoring songs from bygone eras drolly delivered, died on Thursday, May 30 in Bucks County, Penn. He was 69.
His family announced the death on his website. A specific cause of death was not given, but Redbone had retired from performing in 2015 because of ill health.
Toting an acoustic guitar, his face generally half-hidden by a Panama hat and dark glasses, Redbone channeled performers and songwriters from ragtime, Delta blues, Tin Pan Alley and more, material not generally heard by the rock generation. His music defied easy categorization; he was sometimes described as a jazz singer, other times as a folk or pop or blues artist. He sang in a deep, gravelly voice that combined singing and mumbling, but he also deployed a falsetto of sorts on occasion.
He began turning up on the coffeehouse circuit in Toronto in the 1960s and developed a cult following. He broke through to a larger audience in late 1975 with his first album, “On the Track,” which included songs like My Walking Stick, by Irving Berlin, and Lazybones, by Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer. His sound was unique for the era, as the New York Times noted in a January 1976 article about the record and its producer, Joel Dorn: “Redbone, who in his nightclub appearances plays the role of a grinning, almost catatonic folkie, will undoubtedly confound many, but Dorn has certainly given him his due in a completely ungimmicked musical setting.”
The album earned Redbone two appearances on “Saturday Night Live” in 1976, during the show’s first season. Fifteen more albums followed, most recently “Flying By” in 2014. Redbone also sang the theme songs for the television series “Mr. Belvedere” and “Harry and the Hendersons,” was heard on various commercials, and provided the voice of an animated snowman in the 2003 movie “Elf.”