Allen Toussaint: He Played Something Sweet, Something Funky

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Allen Toussaint, who died Monday in Madrid of an apparent heart attack, was arguably the greatest songwriter/producer to ever come out of New Orleans. He made some fine records under his own name, but his finest recordings were issued under other names—names like Lee Dorsey, Paul McCartney, Otis Redding, The Rolling Stones, Patti LaBelle, Elvis Costello, The Meters, The Band, Dr. John, Robert Plant, Robert Palmer and Ernie K-Doe. Toussaint was a musical giant.

You would never know it, though, from spending time with him. Always dressed in crisp, expensive clothes with a surprising color accent and always speaking in the soft, purring voice of a late-night disc jockey, he deflected attention as skillfully as a trained therapist. But the sly humor of his songs soon surfaced in his conversation as well, emerging through his bushy mustache in a hearty chuckle.

During the 1986 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, I spent an afternoon with him at his place of work, the Sea-Saint Recording Studios, which was named after its owners, Marshall Sehorn and Allen Toussaint. Tucked inside an unassuming office building in a quiet, residential neighborhood, the studio walls were decorated with gold albums and autographed photos from Paul McCartney, The Neville Brothers, Patti Labelle and others who had worked there.

When I asked how he fit into the New Orleans keyboard tradition, he answered by sitting down at the piano and playing examples from every key member in that lineage—Professor Longhair’s wild rumba beat, Fats Domino’s hypnotic triplets, Tuts Washington’s rag-influenced boogie-woogie, Smiley Lewis’s blues-influenced boogie-woogie, and James Booker’s bravura cadenzas. “I think I’m a little bit of all those people,” Toussaint concluded. “I hope so, because they’re each so strong in their own right.”

What ties them altogether, he added is “the beat. The sound of a second-line parade marching down the street makes New Orleans music as unique as it is…The strut, the pride, that syncopated rhythm—especially coming back from the cemetery—keeps you on your toes. It leaks into all our music, even jazz. If you listen to Ellis Marsalis sometimes, you’ll hear that, yes, he’s one of those guys.”

What Toussaint added to that tradition were the melodic hooks and clever catch phrases that turned those second-line rhythms into hit singles far beyond New Orleans. First it was just the music (he wrote popular instrumentals such as “Java” for Al Hirt and “Whipped Cream” for Herb Alpert), but then he added words for songs such as “Mother-in-Law” by Ernie K-Doe, “Ya” by Lee Dorsey “It’s Raining” by Irma Thomas and “I Like It Like That” by Chris Kenner—all before he turned 24.

“Writing songs seemed so natural to me,” he said that day, “that I assumed all musicians wrote songs, though I found out they don’t. If you play all day long like I do, you come up with interesting ideas and you want to organize them. At least that’s what happened to me. I didn’t try to write in a New Orleans style; I write in that style just because I’m from here.”

When he got out of the army in 1965, Toussaint went back to work with Dorsey, crafting such national hits as “Ride Your Pony,” “Working in the Coal Mine” and “Holy Cow.” Otis Redding took Thomas’ “Ruler of My Heart,” changed a few words and enjoyed a 1963 hit with his revised version, “Pain in My Heart,” later covered by The Rolling Stones and credited to Toussaint’s musical alias Naomi Neville.

Toussaint’s “Fortune Teller,” originally a Benny Spellman hit in 1962, was later recorded by The Rolling Stones, The Who and Robert Plant & Alison Krauss. “A Certain Girl,” first cut by Ernie K-Doe, was later recorded by both The Yardbirds and Warren Zevon.

In 1965 Toussaint walked into the Ivanhoe, a French Quarter nightclub, and saw his old production clients, Art and Aaron Neville, performing as the Neville Sounds. Toussaint grabbed the rhythm section, renamed them the Meters and turned them into Louisiana’s second-line version of Booker T. & The MGs. Not only did the quartet enjoy instrumental hits of their own, but they played for Toussaint when he produced such albums as Dr. John’s Right Place, Wrong Time, Paul McCartney & Wings’ Venus and Mars, Robert Palmer’s Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley, Patti LaBelle’s Lady Marmalade and The Wild Tchoupitoulas.

Toussaint wrote out the legendary horn arrangements for The Band’s Rock of Ages album at a piano without help of a horn rehearsal. He appeared with Professor Longhair in the award-winning documentary film, Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together. He composed the songs for the 1987 off-Broadway musical, Stagger Lee, starring Ruth Brown. He wrote “Southern Nights,” the title track of his 1975 album, and a song that Glen Campbell turned into BMI’s “Most Performed Song” of 1977.

“That was one of those inspired songs,” he told me during another conversation in 1991. “That comes right from my own childhood, from when my mother and father would take us out to visit the old folks in the country. They would speak Creole, and we would sit out on the porch tell ghost stories. A guy would pull a banjo out from under the bed, and there would be music as we watched the fireflies out in the fields. That was a very real song.”

On April 30, 2006, during the first New Orleans Jazz Festival after the city’s levees had failed during Hurricane Katrina, Toussaint took the stage with a salt-and-pepper afro, a canary-yellow blazer, gold pants and a gold tie. His sunny sartorial splendor was a statement of defiance in the face of the water, mud and sewage that had filled his home and his beloved Sea-Saint Studio. He sat down at his keyboard to play the lilting right-hand triplets and the pumping left-hand 4/4 chords that are New Orleans’ second-line piano.

After a medley of his hits, Toussaint brought out on stage Elvis Costello, his collaborator on a terrific new album, The River in Reverse. On the Costello-written title track, the Englishman sang with a sharp shout over Toussaint’s slippery piano fills: “Wake me up with a slap or a kiss.” Toussaint’s horn section added an exclamation mark, and Costello added, “There must be something better than this, because I don’t see how it can get much worse. What do we have to do to send the river in reverse?” The combination of infectious New Orleans music and incisive protest lyrics made it the most successful of all Katrina-inspired anthems.

Toussaint started playing in public more often after that emotional homecoming concert. He made an impressive instrumental jazz album, Bright Mississippi, in 2009 and re-recorded many of his best compositions on a solo album called Songbook in 2013. He was on a tour of Europe when he died this week. And he continued to pen remarkable songs.

“I don’t know where the initial melody comes from,” he told me in 1991. “There are tones that just stay with you your whole life. Once I have a tune, I create a little scenario to go with it, a little movie, about how the world should be, what a wonderful life it could be.”

The world is a little less wonderful without Allen Toussaint in it.

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