Allen Toussaint once asked in song, “What is success? Is it doin’ your own thing, or to join the rest?” The New Orleans native, of course, was well-acquainted with success, if ever mindful of its cost. In a career spanning seven decades, Toussaint happily was able to do his own thing – as a pianist, composer, lyricist, arranger, conductor, orchestrator, producer, and recording artist. Toussaint, who passed away suddenly last evening at the age of 77 while on tour in Europe, brought the music of New Orleans to the world stage. His signature style was effortlessly funky, melding elegant, slyly knowing piano lines inspired by Professor Longhair with insinuating, sultry horns. Yet the music of Allen Toussaint was also adaptable. Toussaint shared a special kinship with fellow New Orleans R&B legends including Ernie K-Doe, Lee Dorsey, Irma Thomas, Chris Kenner and Benny Spellman, but his music crossed all geographic, genre and generational lines. His songs fit the diverse likes of Glen Campbell, Lowell George, Diana Ross, Tony Orlando and Dawn, The Pointer Sisters, Robert Palmer and Elvis Costello like a glove.
In his 2015 memoir, Costello recalled one particularly touching moment. He had performed at a number of benefits with Toussaint in the devastating wake of Hurricane Katrina; the events of the tragedy would later inspire both artists to create The River in Reverse, a stirring tribute to the resilient spirit of the Crescent City. Backstage, Costello asked his friend what he knew of his weather-ravaged home and studio. “The news wasn’t very good,” he wrote. “I heard myself say, ‘I’m so very sorry.’ Allen paused for [a] moment, nodded his acknowledgment, and then added, ‘Well, the things that I had then, they served me well.'”
Indeed, Toussaint was one of the most public faces of his beloved city in the aftermath of Katrina yet rather than focusing on himself, the writer of such anthemic, empathetic songs as “Freedom for the Stallion” and “Victims of the Darkness” tirelessly crusaded for the welfare of others. Compassion was deeply ingrained in Toussaint’s sophisticated yet piercingly direct and accessible songwriting; so was a firm spirituality. He was keenly aware of the world around him yet his lyrics were as graceful as his pianistic style. “What happened to the Liberty Bell, I heard so much about?” he inquired in “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further?” “Did it really ding-dong? It must have dinged wrong, it didn’t ding long…”
Humor was part of the Toussaint equation, too, whether with the irreverent ode to “the worst person I know,” “Mother-in-Law,” or the joyous instrumental (and Dating Game cue) “Whipped Cream.” Who but Toussaint could have made the harsh realities described in “Working in the Coal Mine” sound so melodically irresistible? Even his earthiest music such as that Lee Dorsey hit had his lighter-than-air touch. When artists from Paul McCartney to The Band wanted to add authenticity and electricity to their songs, they called Toussaint. And when Labelle recorded a steamy anthem for the disco generation and beyond with Bob Crewe and Kenny Nolan’s “Lady Marmalade,” it was in Allen Toussaint’s indelibly enticing production and arrangement.
In 2008, Allen Toussaint’s “Yes We Can Can” became associated with Barack Obama’s Presidential campaign. The song’s triumphant spirit of positivity and togetherness could have defined its author. In true New Orleans style, today shouldn’t be a day to mourn, but rather to celebrate. Cue up “Lady Marmalade” or “Southern Nights” or “Occapella” or “Holy Cow.” Another famous Toussaint song admonished, “Play Something Sweet.” He couldn’t play it any other way.
Essential Allen Toussaint Listening: