M ose Allison’s albums have never sold well. Yet his songs have provided income for decades, thanks to The Clash, The Who, Bonnie Raitt, Elvis Costello and Van Morrison — all acts that have covered Allison’s songs through the decades.
“The first royalty check I got for The Who I thought was a mistake, because it was several thousand dollars,” Allison said. “It wasn’t that much, but it was a lot more than I had been getting.”
While the 83-year-old may not be a household name, he struck a chord with English rock stars in the 1960s.
“I always say the British rockers saved me,” said Allison, who performs at Cal Poly on April 2. “They saved me from obscurity because they introduced me to a new audience.”
Raised in Tippo, Miss, Allison grew up in a house that didn’t even have electricity until he was 13, limiting music-listening options.
“I think somebody had a battery-operated radio,” he said from his home in South Carolina, where he lives with his wife of 60 years, Audre.
Allison started out playing trumpet, but then switched to piano.
“My dad was a self-taught pianist,” he remembered. “He played sort of a Fats Waller style — the stride piano. And he couldn’t figure out why I was playing boogie woogie.”
When electricity finally did come to the Delta, radio commercials inspired
Allison to write his first song — “The 14-Day Palmolive Plan.” After a stint in the U.S. Army and after earning his degree in English and philosophy from Louisiana State University, Allison moved to New York to further his music career.
Known for his soft voice and piano chops, Allison often covered acts such as Willie Dixon, Hank Williams and Duke Ellington — a reflection of the music he heard on the radio as a child. But during his prolific recording career, he also cut many of his own songs, which are known for their wry observations on modern life and their blend of jazz and blues.
During the 1960s, blues weren’t especially popular in America, but they were in England, where Allison was touring.
“Young Man Blues” — his take on a young man’s struggles — resonated with the counterculture movement and became a staple of The Who’s live shows. Featured on the band’s popular “Live at Leeds” album, The Who put a hard rock twist on what was originally a much more gentle tune. But Allison is flattered to be covered, no matter how the song is altered.
“I feel that it is a compliment when anybody covers your songs,” he said. “So I don’t mind if they mess with it. I mess with songs I do from other writers.”
Other rock musicians have taken their admiration of Allison even further. Van Morrison recorded a Mose Allison tribute album, “Tell Me Something, The Songs of Mose Allison,” and the Pixies even wrote a song about him, “Allison.”
Yet, despite all the acclaim from other musicians, Allison has always had to tour to make ends meet.
“I have to do it to make money,” Allison said. “I have to travel to go to where the jobs are.”
Yet last year, after a long studio absence, producer Joe Henry convinced him to record again. The result was the album “The Way of the World.”
The man who once penned “Young Man Blues” acknowledged aging in the song “My Brain,” a take on Willie Dixon’s “My Babe,” which humorously tells of a brain losing power. But as that album showed, Allison’s brain is still strong enough to write and perform new songs, allowing a newer generation to hear his music.
“They did more promotion for that record than any one I’ve done before. I was doing interviews all over the world,” Allison said.
Alas, he added: “It hasn’t converted into sales.”