The ‘lost album’ that was recorded live in Mason City | Mason City & North Iowa
At the time of his death on March 20, 1999, Hobson “Hob” Mason had a resume that any musician could be proud of.
Born in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1924 but a decades-long resident of the North Iowa area, the jazz pianist and band leader had Mose Allison’s personal phone number in his address book, played with Count Basie and hung out with BB King.
“They’d come out and jam. We’d play all night, just having fun, you know?” Hob said in a 1998 article from the Globe Gazette about his being named the grand marshal of that year’s North Iowa Band Festival. For Hob, who played endless gigs at no-longer-existing venues such as the All Vets Club in Clear Lake, the Red Lama in Mason City and the Chart House steak house (which closed in March 1982), also in Mason City, getting that Band Fest honorific was one of the greatest achievements of his life.
Another particularly proud moment for Hob was cutting an album with the trio bearing his name at Sound 80 Studios in Minneapolis.
Coming in at just a shade under 45 minutes, Hob on piano, Carroll Stephenson on bass, Harry Egli on drums, and Bill Mahone as a guest clarinet / sax / vibraphone player journey through 11 tunes including jazz standards such as “Mood Indigo,” “Watermelon Man” and “Take the A Train.” The third song on the A-side of the record, “Seventh Son,” bears a particularly heavy groove marked by insistent drumming and sax bleating underneath simple vocals about being “the one they call the seventh son.”
The bookends of “Saturday Night at the Chart House,” “Take the A Train” and “Perdido,” both begin with Hob tickling the ivories before the rest of his band joins in. On the latter track, Hob gets to stretch out for a solo around the 1 minute, 27 second mark where he makes run after run up and down the piano. He does it with the kind of ease that only comes from decades of refining a craft first learned from a Catholic school nun named Sister Amadea. As a student, though, Hob mostly stuck with classical until he got close to the end of his high school career. That’s when he first started tinkering with the kinds of jazz standards he’d eventually record for the album.
Hob’s son, Morris Mason, suggested the albums were mostly bought by friends and people who went to see him play. His daughter, Denise Hennigar, thinks there could’ve been about 100 or so copies of the album that were pressed and sold for about $ 10 a pop. Nowadays, there’s likely a better chance of winning the Powerball jackpot than finding a vinyl copy of “Saturday Night at the Chart House” in the wild.
Googling the record, the most relevant hit for it is on the Discogs website, which is sort of like Amazon but for buying and selling all physical forms of music. There’s one listing for “Saturday Night at the Chart House” for $ 74 from a seller out of Chicago known as Wild Prairie. They picked it up, sealed, in Austin, Texas.
“Someone said it was $ 79 and I started laughing because I’m like: It’s 10 bucks,” said Denise, who’s kept one album back for herself.
Morris said that he has digital copies of the album so that he can listen to it in the car whenever he wants.
“It does take me back,” he said. “It’s one of those things that’s going to live on forever.”
Never a disparaging word
While copies of “Saturday Night at the Chart House” are scarce, at best, there’s never been a dearth of people in North Iowa with kind words to say about Hob.
In that article about the 1998 Band Fest, one resident said: “I’ve never heard him say a disparaging word about anyone.”
Tom Thoma, who drummed with Hob and now serves on the Mason City Council, said that he was great as a band leader and people loved to follow Hob around. In fact, a 1978 story from the Des Moines Register recounts that two couples traveled 102 miles to hear Hob play in Mason City one night.
According to Thoma, people came to Hob because the road life wore on him.
“He had a band at one time and they traveled around and one time the bus they were using went in a ditch during a snowstorm and Hob said: That was it. He wasn’t going to do it anymore. Wasn’t going to turn anymore, “Thoma said.
Despite years of not traveling, Denise said that Hob was liked enough that he could even show up on Bourbon Street in New Orleans and at least one person would know him.
Elaine Bennett, the former wife of Bill Mahone, said that Hob was a calm and quiet person.
“(He was) not overtly passionate about anything but he loved riding his bike around the lake and flying kites – sometimes simultaneously!” she wrote in a Facebook message. According to Morris, Hob was good enough with a kite and a flashlight that when a strong wind was blowing at night he could make visitors think they were seeing a UFO.
Within the past year, Morris said that a former classmate told him that they were once having a particularly rough time and Hob had such a good conversation with them that it turned their life around.
“Totally changed my perspective of who my dad was,” Morris said.
When she turned 21, Denise said that her dad made a performance out of it.
“He brought me a birthday cake on my 21st birthday, on the beach, and sang to me,” she said.
Even about a year before he died, Hob could be found playing shows at the Prime N Wine.
“He had the work ethic where if a tornado landed in Clear Lake, he got in his car and went to work,” Denise said.
When he wasn’t playing shows at venues, Hob would also play at friends’ houses, weddings and funerals. Almost exclusively in North Iowa, for 30-plus years.
“I never really felt like going anywhere else once I got here, “he once said.
Denise said that she never got to see Hob playing at a place like the Chart House, so the album is her only connection to that time in her father’s life. For that, she’s still thankful.
“I keep his music alive because I miss him a lot.”
Jared McNett covers local government for the Globe Gazette. You can reach him at [email protected] or by phone at 641-421-0527. Follow Jared on Twitter at @ TwoHeadedBoy98.