I think I first saw Leon Redbone on TV’s Saturday Night Live, and at the time I suspected his act was a put-on. A few people (not me) even thought he might be eccentric comedian Andy Kaufman in disguise. After all, the program is known for quirky stunts, so Redbone seemed to fit right in. Years later, I’m still not sure how much of his act is for real, but he certainly has managed to maintain the mystery.
His signature look is unmistakable– Panama hat, suit, smoked glasses and drooping mustache — and his distinctive drawling vocals complete the picture, but the entertainer remains an enigma otherwise. His appearances in a number of venues, including an iconic TV commercial for Budweiser, really don’t shed much light on Leon Redbone the man.
Redbone first came to fame three decades ago while appearing in clubs in Toronto, so was assumed to be Canadian, but he’s also been described as an immigrant from Cyprus. That’s just one of the many facts he won’t confirm, including his real name, which is rumored to be Dickran Gobalian. He loves to muddy the water, once claiming to be the son of storied singer Jenny Lind — but she died in 1887.
Whatever the facts might be, his unusual look, along with a repertoire that has always included many of the old classics, has made him a kind of cult hero. Songs such as “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Somebody Stole My Gal,” and “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” have helped keep him popular, and he also made a lot of new fans with his unforgettable duet with Zooey Deschanel on “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” from the soundtrack of the 2003 film Elf.
Leon Redbone is still performing, still putting on a good show for his many fans — and is still a mystery.