By Maureen Lee Lenker
May 30, 2019 at 07:59 PM EDT
Margaret Norton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Leon Redbone, the enigmatic and anachronistic singer-songwriter who favored tunes from the Tin Pan Alley era, has died.

His family announced his death via a statement on his website. “It is with heavy hearts that we announce that early this morning, May 30th 2019, Leon Redbone crossed the delta for that beautiful shore at the age of 127,” the statement begins. Redbone’s true age was the subject of speculation for years, though most cite it as 69 at the time of his death.

Redbone rose to fame in the 1970s despite his predilection for an older, largely out-of-favor style of music. He endeared himself to audiences with appearances on Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show, making frequent visits to the latter program when Johnny Carson was host.

Over the course of his career, Redbone released 13 studio albums and five live albums. His most famous song was “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone,” a song title dating back to the 1930s. The track also is the name of a 2018 documentary about Redbone, which has yet to receive wide release.

He was perhaps best known to audiences for his work in film and television. Redbone sang the theme songs for Mr. Belvedere and Harry and the Hendersons. In 2003, he voiced Leon the Snowman in Elf, also duetting with leading lady Zooey Deschanel on a rendition of holiday classic “Baby It’s Cold Outside” on the film’s soundtrack.

Redbone officially retired from touring in 2015, citing unspecified health concerns.

The rest of the official statement about Redbone’s death is full of the artist’s signature whimsy and offbeat humor. “He departed our world with his guitar, his trusty companion Rover, and a simple tip of his hat,” the statement reads. “He’s interested to see what Blind Blake, Emmett and Jelly Roll have been up to in his absence, and has plans for a rousing singalong number with Sári Barabás. An eternity of pouring through texts in the Library of Ashurbanipal will be a welcome repose, perhaps followed by a shot or two of whiskey with Lee Morse, and some long overdue discussions with his favorite Uncle, Suppiluliuma I of the Hittites. To his fans, friends and loving family who have already been missing him so in this realm he says, ‘Oh behave yourselves. Thank you… and good evening everybody.’”

Little is known about Redbone’s biography, but the Toronto Star reported in the 1980s that he was born Dickran Gobalian in Cyprus and changed his name after immigrating to Canada in the 1960s.

He enhanced his mysterious persona and vintage music tastes with his distinctive stage look, consistently donning sunglasses and sporting a bushy mustache and Panama hat. Redbone rose to professional notice on the folk festival circuit in Toronto in the 1970s.

Another folk singer, Bob Dylan, was particularly intrigued by Redbone’s inscrutable nature. “Leon interests me,” Dylan said in a 1974 Rolling Stone interview. “I’ve heard he’s anywhere from 25 to 60, I’ve been [a foot and a half from him] and I can’t tell. But you gotta see him. He does old Jimmie Rodgers, then turns around and does a Robert Johnson.” Redbone had a wide range of famous fans, including Jack White and Bonnie Raitt.

The singer released his debut album, On the Track, in 1975. He continued to gain traction throughout the decade, making two appearances on SNL during its debut season in 1975. In 1977, his album Double Time reached the Billboard Top 50, but his only Hot 100 hit was “Seduced,” off his 1981 album From Branch to Branch.

Redbone also lent his voice and persona to numerous commercials over the years, including spots for Chevrolet, Budweiser, Purina, and All laundry detergent.

A 2007 interview with the Toronto Star perhaps sums up his mystique. “Very little of my life goes into my music,” Redbone said. “I’ve never considered myself the proper focus of attention. I’m just a vehicle… not so much for the particular kind of music I prefer, music from an earlier time, as for a mood that music conveys.”

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