The Funky Genius of Allen Toussaint
Feel-good music never gets enough respect, so the world was always at least one compliment behind when it came to the New Orleans R&B king who did it better than anyone.
You may never even have heard his name, but everyone knows an Allen Toussaint song.
Maybe you heard Al Hirt play “Java” or the Rolling Stones cover “Fortune Teller.” Herb Alpert doing “Whipped Cream” or the Pointer Sister and “Yes We Can.” Or LaBelle performing “Lady Marmalade” or Bonnie Raitt on “What Do You Want the Boy to Do?” Or the Hues Corporation or Three Dog Night doing “Freedom for the Stallion.” Surely he was the only songwriter to have his work performed by both Warren Zevon (“A Certain Girl”) and Glen Campbell (“Southern Nights”). And both Ernie K-Doe and Alex Chilton jumped on “A Certain Girl.” And everybody did “Get Out of My Life, Woman” and “Workin’ in a Coal Mine.”
Even if you didn’t like pop, you couldn’t avoid Toussaint’s music, whose earworm tunes were so irresistible to Madison Avenue that Toussaint melodies have scored commercials for six decades, as recently as a 2008 Axe deodorant commercial (“Sweet Touch of Your Love”).
It sometimes seemed that if he didn’t write every song in the last half-century, he probably produced it. That’s almost not hyperbole.
The presiding genius of Sea-Saint Studios in the Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans, Toussaint produced thousands of records yielding at least hundreds of hits by the likes of Irma Thomas, Lee Dorsey, Dr. John, Ernie K-Doe, Benny Spellman, assorted Neville Brothers, LaBelle, Robert Palmer, Solomon Burke, Paul McCartney, the Meters, Claudia Lennear, Elvis Costello, and the Wild Tchoupitoulas.
“Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky” was one of his song titles, and it might as well have been his musical motto, because everything he did came drenched and simmering in the gumbo vibe of New Orleans soul—that infectious “if you’re not dancing you’re dead” syncopated groove that never failed to put some pep in your step.
He was widely hailed as the Crescent City’s premier songwriter of the last half-century, but for me that’s faint praise. If he wasn’t America’s best songwriter, there was certainly no one better.
He was also, for what it’s worth, a perfect gentleman, soft-spoken, thoughtful, and articulate, though never one to suffer fools gladly, or at all for that matter. And now he’s gone, dead of a heart attack at 77 after performing on Monday night in Madrid.
Say what you like about him having led a long, full life. It’s still a damn shame.
Perhaps the only thing that can ease the sting of that death is the knowledge that Toussaint was one of those rare great men who got what was coming to him: a lovely last act on life’s stage.
The knock on Toussaint—and even this always sounded like people thinking that they couldn’t say nice things about him all the time—was that he was not the best performer of his own material. Well, when your material is being performed by Irma Thomas or Lee Dorsey, that’s likely true. But in fact, as anyone knew who caught his annual outings at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, he was way beyond competent on stage.
The unfortunate truth is, it took Hurricane Katrina to make the rest of the world aware of his talent.
After Katrina, musical fundraisers were ubiquitous, and Toussaint was often recruited as house band leader, arranger, and performer for these events. He probably appeared on stage more often after Katrina than he had previously during his whole life. Before long he had eased into his last permanent role as the city’s musical ambassador, touring the world, sometimes with a band but just as often alone, and he held audiences in thrall all by his lonesome. Having not only his own catalog but every conceivable style of New Orleans piano to draw upon, he made being a maestro look like child’s play.
For that matter, he was no slouch when it came to covering the songs of his (very few) peers. Check out his cover of Jesse Winchester’s “I Wave Bye Bye.”
For a taste of just how deep his knowledge of New Orleans music was, check out The Bright Mississippi, the album of jazz classics he cut a few years back with an all-star band that included Don Byron, Nicholas Peyton, and Joshua Redman.
Since the only way to truly introduce music to someone is to play it, I’ll close with a handful of suggestions: please listen to Toussaint’s albums Southern Nights and Life, Love, and Faith, both of which contain extraordinary examples of his talent as composer, arranger, and performer. I mean, how insane is it that the same guy can pen “Soul Sister,” “On Your Way Down,” “Southern Nights,” and “Victims of the Darkness”? That’s some serious range. If you can find it, throw in New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival 1976, which is styled like an package show, with multiple acts, Toussaint being one, and his set being the highlight (with serious competition for that claim supplied by the filthy genius of Lightnin’ Hopkins).
But if I persuade you of nothing else, and here’s me down on my knees, have a listen to Yes We Can, which is nominally a Lee Dorsey album, but given the musical mind meld that went on between Dorsey and Toussaint, no album ever warranted a double credit more.
Dorsey was Toussaint’s musical alter ego. One could sing anything the other could write or produce. And it never got better than their collaboration on Yes We Can, which besides the title track contains any number of Toussaint songs that do that weird thing where you hear it the first time and swear it’s been with you all your life. “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley,” “Riverboat,” “Occapella,” “Tears, Tears, and More Tears”—lucky the person who does get to hear this all his or her life.
I listen to something from this album almost every day, and it never gets stale. This is New Orleans funk (the Meters were Toussaint’s house band for recording) at its sparest. It’s like zen funk, with all the space left in the music in just the right places. But please don’t think that means effete. It’s deft, but it’s got heft, and it makes you feel like a million bucks. I could put every self-help book in the world on one side of a scale and this album on the other side, and Yes We Can would carry the weight.
Just knowing that one of the two men most responsible for this record still walked the earth was enough to make me smile against anything the day could bring. Now all that’s left is the music. Luckily that’s enough.