Leon Redbone, the acclaimed singer and guitarist who performed jazz, ragtime and Tin Pan Alley-style songs, died Thursday in New Hope, according to a statement released by his family.
No details about his death were provided. A statement on Mr. Redbone’s website noted his death with cheeky humor: “It is with heavy hearts we announce that early this morning, May 30th, 2019, Leon Redbone crossed the delta for that beautiful shore at the age of 127." His longtime publicist Jim Della Croce confirmed that his age was in fact 69.
Mr. Redbone’s career got a boost in the early 1970s when Bob Dylan met him at the Mariposa Folk Festival in Ontario and praised his performance. Dylan said that if he had ever started a label, he would have signed Mr. Redbone.
Mr. Redbone was known for his ever-present Panama hat, dark sunglasses, and Groucho Marx mustache. He was famously secretive about personal details, although the Toronto Star reported in the 1980s that he had immigrated to Canada from Cyprus and that his birth name was Dickran Gobalian.
He lived on a farm on Aquetong Road in Bucks County and near Delaware Water Gap in Northeastern Pennsylvania. He frequently performed at area clubs such as John & Peter’s in New Hope. Della Croce said Mr. Redbone loved New Hope because it was an artists’ community. “He was every bit the performance artist on every level,” Della Croce said.
“Leon never wanted musicians to open his shows,” said Jesse Lundy of Point Entertainment, who booked the singer into the Painted Bride and Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville in recent years. “Always comedy or anything unique, and not music. It was always a challenge to come up with something unique enough. I had a sword-swallowing fire eater open for him at the Painted Bride. That was hardcore.”
He released his debut album, On the Track, in 1975, and dropped 16 albums throughout his career. The air of personal mystery that he cultivated meshed with his old-timey musical style, which drew on blues, vaudeville, and minstrel traditions. In 1974, Dylan recommended him in an interview, saying, “I’ve heard he’s anywhere from 25 to 60, and I can’t tell, but you’ve gotta see him.”
Mr. Redbone voiced Leon the Snowman in the 2003 Christmas comedy Elf, starring Will Ferrell, and sang “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” as a duet with Zooey Deschanel for the film. He also sang the theme for the TV series Mr. Belvedere.
He was inducted onto the Philadelphia Music Alliance Walk of Fame in 1997.
Mr. Redbone retired from performing in 2015 for health reasons.
He is survived by Beryl Handler; daughters Ashley and Blake; and three grandchildren.