Ten classic interpretations of Allen Toussaint’s greatness

10 Nov 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

10 essential recordings by Allen Toussaint.

“Java,” Tousan (1958): A teenage Toussaint was already a major player on the New Orleans session scene in the ‘50s, and this piano-driven instrumental appeared on the album “The Wild Sounds of New Orleans,” where he was billed as “Tousan.” Six years later, a considerably less wild version by trumpeter Al Hirt became a huge pop hit. “Mother-in-Law,” Ernie K-Doe (1961): Toussaint, who was unmarried at the time, always heard comedians joking about their mothers in law, and wedded the tongue-in-cheek lyrics to a gospel piano riff.Allen Toussaint, the songwriter-composer behind such hits as “Working in the Coal Mine” and “The Fortune Teller,” died Monday following a concert in Madrid, according to various news sources.If there’s a hit single that came out of New Orleans in the early 1960s, there’s a good change that Toussaint wrote or produced it: “Working In A Coal Mine” by Lee Dorsey; “Fortune Teller” by Benny Spellman; “Mother-In-Law” by Ernie K-Doe. The jocular Ernie K-Doe ramped up the comedic possibilities while Benny Spellman delivered the answering bass vocal. “Fortune Teller,” Benny Spellman (1962): Credited to “Naomi Neville,” a pseudonym for Toussaint, it was originally an obscure B-side for singer Benny Spellman.

Though Toussaint, 77, had his own rich solo career, his work entered America’s collective psyche through renditions by some of the era’s great performers. According to the New York Times, his daughter, Alison Toussaint-LeBeaux, confirmed his death in an email, and stated that the cause appeared to be a heart attack. The producer used the studio as an instrument, creating an aural movie with the sound of a pick ax hitting rock, while Dorsey delivered a vocal that somehow sounded both impish and world-weary. “Look-Ka Py Py,” The Meters (1969): Many of Toussaint’s ‘60s sessions included the Meters, a rhythm section on par with any in the land. When the group struck out on its own, Toussaint was a natural choice to produce. “Rock of Ages,” the Band (1972): One of the Band’s career peaks was this New Year’s Eve concert, with Toussaint’s horn charts putting a looser spin on the quintet’s best songs. “Southern Nights,” Allen Toussaint (1975): Glen Campbell had a huge hit with the most personal of Toussaint songs, but the songwriter painted the more vivid dreamscape of his youth with his original performance. “The River in Reverse,” Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint (2006): In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the first major recording session in New Orleans was for this collaboration between the producer and a longtime admirer.

Costello sang the lead vocals with one exception – Toussaint’s plea on “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further?” “Songbook,” Allen Toussaint (2013): A career capstone, with Toussaint’s graceful vocals and masterly piano bringing out a deep personal connection to decades’ worth of timeless songs. The lyric turns on an ex-lover’s old cigarette butt and the heartbreak it recalls, and within that exquisite image an entire world blossoms. “Lipstick traces on a cigarette,” sings New Orleans vocalist Benny Spellman in the most popular version. “Every memory lingers with me yet.” So rich is the metaphor that critic Greil Marcus titled his book on punk rock after Toussaint’s song. Finally, after weeks of begging, the secretary says, “Hold on.” The next sound I heard on the phone was a glissando on a grand piano, followed by an unmistakable riff that I’d heard in dozens of rhythm & blues songs. Later on, the O’Jays, Ringo Starr and Alex Chilton would take advantage of Toussaint’s song craft with their versions of “Lipstick Traces (on a Cigarette).” In the ’70s he wrote and produced for Dr. Toussaint was born in New Orleans’ Gert Town, a working class neighborhood where he lived in a “shotgun” house — so-called because you could stand at the front door and fire a shotgun through to the other side of the house.

When I broached something unpleasant, like his dispute over songwriting credits with the Nevilles, he would turn to a slow mournful minor key and speak in a barely audible whisper. His own solo career peaked in the decade with the albums “From a Whisper to a Scream” and “Southern Nights.” He also teamed with Patti Labelle, producing the album “Nightbirds,” resulting in the No. 1 hit “Lady Marmalade.” Glen Campbell also had a No. 1 hit when he covered Toussaint’s “Southern Nights” on the pop, country and adult-contemporary charts. I stopped at a pay phone at a police station in the middle of nowhere, because I figured that a white Jewish boy from New York would surely get his ass handed to him and no one would find the body for months.

He wore a white button-down shirt decorated with musical notes, a skinny black tie with piano keys on it, black slacks and a black vest. “You’re a foreigner,” he said. “We’re always patient with foreigners.” He led me into the main studio, hardwood floors, foam baffling on the walls. Few writers can cut to the bone with longing like Toussaint: “Another day as again it’s rough/I want you to love me, love me, love me, baby, ’till I get enough.” This funky 1975 take on Toussaint’s “Going Down Slowly” mixes a disco groove with words about a descent into darkness. “Holy moly, slowly going down,” sing the Pointer Sisters. One of Toussaint’s biggest hits was also one of Glen Campbell’s: “Southern Nights.” A song that rode to the top of the charts, Campbell’s version illustrates the song’s elasticity. He peppered his conversations with R&B riffs. “Did you write that?” I asked after hearing a particularly familiar riff. “No, that was Professor Longhair,” he said patiently and proceeded to sing one of ‘Fess’s best known songs, “Big Chief.” He talked about writing Lee Dorsey’s biggest hits such as “Ride Your Pony” and called the R&B singer his muse.

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