Mose Allison, a singer, pianist and composer who blurred musical borders with his earthy, comically charged blues songs and his bebop-fueled piano stylings, creating a wry musical legacy that influenced dozens of better-known performers, died Nov. 15 in Hilton Head, S.C. He was 89.
His death was announced on his website. The cause was not disclosed.
Mr. Allison, who grew up in the blues heartland of the Mississippi Delta, began his career as a jazz pianist in the 1950s before developing his own brand of ironic, blues-flavored music. He released more than 30 albums and wrote scores of songs that became a major inspiration for a younger generation of musicians, including the Who, Bonnie Raitt, the Rolling Stones, Randy Newman, Elvis Costello and the Clash.
While cashing royalty checks from the record sales of latter-day rockers, Mr. Allison remained something of a musical oddity, appearing with acoustic jazz trios in small clubs into his 80s. He was sometimes described as too bluesy for jazz and too jazzy for the blues, an original and unconventional combination of, say, Percy Mayfield and Thelonious Monk.
“I guess I’m the man without a category,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. “People are always trying to categorize me as blues or jazz or folk. Some say I’m a jazz pianist that sings the blues.”
Some of his best-known compositions from the 1950s and 1960s, such as “Young Man Blues” and “Parchman Farm,” began as spare, sardonic laments about social concerns and alienation. He sang the lyrics in an understated, almost monotone voice while his bebop-inflected piano chords churned underneath.
When performers such as the Who, Raitt, Costello or Johnny Winter interpreted Mr. Allison’s music, the guitars and amplifiers were often turned up, and the message, as in “Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy,” went from a murmur to a more urgent challenge:
People running round in circles
Don’t know what they’re headed for
Everybody’s crying peace on Earth
Just as soon as we win this war
Many of Mr. Allison’s songs were marked by a biting wit, including the oft-requested “Your Mind Is on Vacation”:
You know if silence was golden
You couldn’t raise a dime
Because your mind is on vacation
And your mouth is working overtime
His whimsical humor was often etched with a darker meaning that some people saw as cynicism.
“Limousines and swimming pools, I didn’t get my share,” he sang in “Gettin’ There.” “I’m not discouraged but I’m gettin’ there.”
He subverted the sunny title phrase of “I Don’t Worry About a Thing” with the next line: “because I know nothing’s gonna be all right.”
Mr. Allison said his humor grew out of a hard-wrought truth he found in the blues.
“The blues are dealing with reality,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 1989. “What saves the whole thing is its sense of humor and irony. . . .
“I’m out of that Southern brand of stoicism where you don’t say what you really mean and where there are a lot of double meanings. I refer to it as the tradition of the ‘wise fool.’ That’s the guy who everybody in town considers a fool, but he comes up with something that makes sense every now and then.”
Mose John Allison Jr. was born Nov. 11, 1927, on a farm near Tippo, Miss. His father was a farmer, store owner and amateur piano player; his mother was a schoolteacher.
Mr. Allison began taking piano lessons at 5 and grew up listening to jazz and blues records on jukeboxes. Count Basie and Tommy Dorsey were as much a part of his musical foundation as the blues of Sonny Boy Williamson, John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters, all of whom were born within 30 miles of Mr. Allison’s childhood home.
Other early influences included jazz pianists Fats Waller, Earl Hines and Nat King Cole — better known in his early years as a pianist than as a singer. By 16, Mr. Allison was playing the piano and trumpet in local clubs.
After serving in the Army, he graduated in 1952 from Louisiana State University as an English major. He admired the writing of Mark Twain and continued to read literary fiction and historical books throughout his life.
“I always say my inspiration comes from three sources,” he told The Washington Post in 2004. “One is the Mississippi Delta, the idioms, aphorisms and attitudes that I grew up with, which includes a lot of skepticism and exaggeration. The next thing was jazz musicians, and that’s a different thing. And the third influence is the English major.”
In 1956, Mr. Allison moved to New York and worked as a sideman with such jazz stars as Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan and Zoot Sims. After recording his first album, the instrumental “Back Country Suite,” in 1957, Mr. Allison made 14 records between 1958 and 1968, most of them featuring his original vocal numbers interspersed between classic tunes by Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin and Willie Dixon.
In 1996, he appeared on a tribute album, “Tell Me Something: The Songs of Mose Allison,” produced by rock star Van Morrison. The BBC released a documentary about Mr. Allison in 2006, and his final album, “The Way of the World,” appeared in 2010. He was named a 2013 Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts, the country’s highest honor for jazz musicians.
Mr. Allison lived on New York’s Long Island for four decades before moving to Hilton Head a few years ago. Survivors include his wife of 65 years, Audre Mae Allison of Hilton Head; four children; a sister, Joy Allison Amann of College Park, Md.; and two grandchildren.
“I was a little more grim when I first started out,” Mr. Allison told the Sacramento Bee in 2003. “I always wondered why nobody was laughing when they were supposed to. I used to be considered a cynic. Now, I’m almost considered a comedian. I think people have caught up with me a little.”