Allen Toussaint

If you were to try and capture the sound of America using the music emanating from only one city, New Orleans would be the place. The birthplace of jazz as well as Cajun music, the town where country blues met brass bands, where African, Cuban, Caribbean, and Amerindian rhythms swirl and eddy and raise up all of it. It’s a sound impossible to boil down to a singular essence, but Allen Toussaint comes closest to embodying the entire musical gumbo. No one epitomized the many strains of the Crescent City like Toussaint. His vast songbook is sweet, vibrant, festive, and indelibly New Orleans. As a producer, A&R scout, arranger, songwriter, and reluctant artist himself, Toussaint exemplified every aspect of the city: its deep history, its Creolized musics, its rhythms (bouncing from the playground to the boudoir and back), its bright pageantry and country plainspokenness.

How influential is the man? Try to imagine an alternate – albeit far less joyously musical – universe, where Allen Toussaint is drafted into the US Army to serve in 1963, never ever to return to music-making. No more session work on the piano, no more sheet music bearing his penciled-in charts, no more songwriting credits. Even with that cut-off date, Toussaint’s fingerprints would still linger over American and British popular music. As penned by the young Toussaint in the early ‘60s, numbers like the punchline pop of Ernie K-Doe’s “Mother-In-Law,” Irma Thomas’s “It’s Raining,” and Lee Dorsey’s “Ya Ya” (as well as a two-sided doozy for singer Benny Spellman, “Lipstick Traces (On A Cigarette)” b/w “Fortune Teller”) kindled the imaginations of listeners on both sides of the pond and codified the sound of New Orleans for future generations. 

Thankfully, Toussaint was discharged in 1965 and got right back to it, his work ethic providing our universe with a veritable King Cake of wit, sophistication, funk, and elegance. In terms of inspiration and determination, it’d be hard to top the tune Toussaint penned for the great Lee Dorsey – a song later covered by the Pointer Sisters and then appropriated by a certain presidential campaign – “Yes We Can.” Then there’s the tongue-in-cheek raunch of “Ride Your Pony,” the strip joint anthem. Sure, the Band might have written “Life is a Carnival,” but it’s Toussaint’s horn charts that make it feel like you’re in the middle of one strutting through Bywater. 

Born in 1938 in Gert Town, the Mid-City district that the legend Buddy Bolden once called home, Toussaint’s father worked in the railroads and played trumpet, while his mother (whose maiden name, Naomi Neville, Toussaint would use as a songwriting pen name) got him piano lessons as a child. Post-war New Orleans was a boon for pianists, Professor Longhair’s heavily syncopated “second-line” style of playing exerting the biggest influence on a generation of musicians. By 17, Toussaint was gigging around town, at times subbing in for the likes of Fats Domino and Huey “Piano” Smith.

Toussaint (as “Al Tousan”) also cut his first album in 1958, a set of instrumentals titled The Wild Sound of New Orleans. It contained a jaunty little tune called “Java,” which would become a hit and Grammy Award for trumpeter Al Hirt six years later. (Six years after that, Jamaica’s Augustus Pablo voiced it through his melodica, making Toussaint’s “Java” into a keystone of dub reggae.) Joe Banashak of Minit Records tapped Toussaint as a Swiss Army knife for his label, Toussaint serving both as A&R man and producer. The likes of Ernie K-Doe, Spellman, Thomas Art and Aaron Neville, The Showmen, and Lee Dorsey all passed through those studio doors. 

After that army stint, Toussaint teamed up with business partner Marshall Sehorn. Together they formed both a record label and company named Sansu (as well as sub-labels like Tou-Sea and Deesu). The hits kept coming and Toussaint’s writing was at a peak. It didn’t hurt that he had cobbled together some local kids to serve as house band for these sessions. This group of New Orleans teens – keyboardist Art Neville, guitarist Leo Nocentelli, bassist George Porter Jr., and drummer Zigaboo Modeliste – would work in the studio by day and tear the roof off the clubs at night as the Meters. Loose, precise, righteous, moving from a simmer to full boil and back as they cooked up New Orleans funk every night. A band, as writer/poet Hanif Abdurraqib put it, “invested in wonder, in exuberance, in the kind of delightful childlike awe of finding a miracle around every corner.” They gave Toussaint and a rotating cast of singers the kind of unbridled power necessary for the years ahead, their funk serving as a template for all things New Orleans. 

Having reminded the world that New Orleans remained a musical world power, in 1973 Toussaint opened his own Sea-Saint Studios, which in addition to codifying locals like Dr. John and The Wild Tchoupitoulas in the national consciousness also welcomed outsiders like Paul McCartney and Wings. And like tufts of dandelion, Toussaint’s songs began to spread far and wide, becoming hits for the likes of Bonnie Raitt, the Judds, and Glen Campbell. What is “blue-eyed soul” without the Black man penning numbers soon covered by svelte white boys like Warren Zevon, Boz Scaggs, Van Dyke Parks, and Robert Palmer

Just because Toussaint could root down and get to the themes of the heart that effortlessly crossed the color line doesn’t mean he couldn’t also write  social critiques as astute as those penned by critically-revered peers like James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye or Gil Scott-Heron. First, there’s an anthem like Lee Dorsey’s “Yes We Can” (which would wind up first on the charts thanks to the Pointer Sisters and then as the theme to Barack Obama’s historic presidential campaign). And then the pointed and poignant “Freedom for the Stallion,” which cries out: “Lord, have mercy, what you gonna do/About the people who are praying to you? They got men making laws that destroy other men.” Has anyone ever utilized the cycling verse-chorus-verse to detail the brutal purgatory of blue collar work as well as “Working in a Coalmine” and yet remained as buoyant while doing it? Aaron Neville’s “Hercules” feels smooth and silky, at least until stinging lines like “If you’re not gonna help, don’t hurt/Just pass me by” start to land. 

In his later years, Toussaint himself came to embody the struggle of his city. His home and studio were destroyed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, putting the burden of his city on his shoulders as he began to perform in earnest. Intimate concerts at Joe’s Public, bigger concerts at Carnegie Hall as well as international tours, Toussaint soon became the face of New Orleans, his struggle doubling as the city’s struggle as both he and it attempted to rebuild from the floods. Even in the years after his passing, Toussaint remains the sound of New Orleans. You can start almost anywhere in his catalog and immediately hear a second line parade stir to life, capturing not just the joy but also the hurt and desperation that underpins the most ardent celebrations of the city.

The Wild Sound Of New Orleans By Tousan cover

Allen Toussaint’s recorded debut, cut on the backend of a studio date in which Toussaint was the hired hand on piano. Danny Kessler was so impressed by the young man’s rollicking piano style – heavily rooted in the popular Mardi Gras styling of legends like Professor Longhair and Fats Domino – that they laid down over a dozen sides that night. All instrumental, the album features uptempo blues, barrelhouse burners, and other party-starting NO numbers, along with the highly influential tune “Java.”

Finger Poppin' And Stompin' Feet: 20 Classic Allen Toussaint Productions For Minit Records cover

Like the opening line from doo-wop group The Showmen: “You take some music/sweet flowin’ music/some movin’ and groovin’…you see why it will stand,” these early Toussaint productions aren’t rocket science, but each of these twenty selections serves up the man’s deceptively simple formula for body-moving and party-starting, all serving to make the unpalatable parts of the human experience go down easy. There’s the timeless-as-“ya mama” joking of Ernie K-Doe’s “Mother-In-Law,” punctuated by crackling snare and Benny Spellman’s bullfrog backing vocal intoning the chorus. (And yes, Spellman’s iconic “Lipstick Traces (On A Cigarette)” b/w “Fortune Teller” is also here.) A svelte shuffle and smooth horns mask the simmering violence of Aaron Neville’s “Over You” and raindrops mask an ache as deep as a canyon on Irma Thomas’s “It’s Raining.”

Time Is on My Side cover

Need your heartache to be all encompassing? To have a gospel-strength voice convey that exact physical feeling of total despair? Do you want it all to feel so smooth and enticing that you wish to experience it all over again? That’s the speedball of emotions that Irma Thomas delivers when singing the songs of Allen Toussaint. Of the many special relationships the man fostered over the decades, Thomas was the muse that could elicit his most emotional writing. “He knew he could depend on me to sing it the way he wanted it sung,” as Thomas told the NY Times. “He knew my vocal ability and he would write a song that he knew would fit. And there was never a song he wrote that I turned down.” Toussaint pens about a third of the songs here, songs that can make you feel like you’re soaring and plummeting in equal measure.

Ya! Ya! cover

Kid Chocolate, a former WWII sailor-turned-lightweight, allegedly went undefeated on the boxing circuit up in the Pacific Northwest, before decamping back to his home of New Orleans. There, he was known by his birth name of Lee Dorsey and at the age of 35, embarked on two distinct new careers: auto repair and R&B singer. He immediately caught the ear of Toussaint, who found in Dorsey a distinct voice: “He had a happy voice and he wasn’t too cool to sing a humorous song.” They quickly topped the R&B charts with “Ya! Ya!” and other skip-a-rope chants readily turned into nightclub burners on his debut album. No doubt Dorsey had an ear tuned to the playgrounds for other frivolous yet jubilant tunes like “Do-Re-Me,” “Eenie Meenie Mini Mo,” and “Ixie Dixie Pixie Pie.”

Toussaint cover

Twelve years after his debut, Toussaint’s 1970 sophomore album found him in a curious position. He had already had a hand in turning British upstart bands into international rock’n’roll stars, from the Stones (“Pain in My Heart”) to the Who (“Fortune Teller”) to the Yardbirds (“A Certain Girl”), but he remained a reluctant performer himself. Ever the observant songwriter, he turned such scrutiny inward on “What is Success?” (later turned into a hit for a young Bonnie Raitt). The band assembled is an all-star cast, ranging from Dr. John on keys to Merry Clayton on backing vocals and the seasoned supporting cast susses out every emotional gradient in the man’s songwriting. Hits for Dorsey are recast here in more subtle shades, but even a laidback read of “Everything I Do Gonna’ Be Funky” remains undeniable. And even a cover of Vince Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” puts Toussaint’s melodic imagination on display.

The Meters cover

“Awwww yah!” With that intro to “Cissy Strut,” the Meters burst from backing band anonymity to funk gods. The paradigm shift they enacted on soul and funk was so profound that it continued to reverberate through hip-hop and R&B a decade or two on for good measure. House band for Toussaint and a generation of New Orleans belters and crooners, the band chucked off the lead singers and brass sections, streamlining their sound and stripping away anything that didn’t further the funk. Full of hairpin turns, with guitar and organ solos as tightly coiled as copperheads, the Meters could be sweet and stinging at once. Not bad for a band that for the most part was too young to legally belly up at any bar in New Orleans at the time of this recording.

Ernie K. Doe cover

Cursed to be a one-hit wonder thanks to the epochal 1960 smash of “Mother-In-Law,” it even overshadowed Ernie K-Doe’s work on this stellar 1971 soul album, an album nearly lost to time. Here the outsized New Orleans personality (and future radio eccentric) delivers a standout set of Allen Toussaint tunes, his voice revealing a pathos far beyond the punchlines and catchphrases. Yes, “Here Come the Girls” might conjure images of an all-nude revue, but it’s secretly one of Toussaint’s mightiest productions, flipping from a military march to triumphant second-line strut with nary a beat dropped, topped off by some of the man’s finest horn charts. And Doe’s reading of Toussaint classics like “A Place Where We Can Be Free” and “Who Ever’s Thrilling You (Is Killing Me)” are downright definitive. Who doesn’t admire that eloquent vision of freedom – defined by Toussaint– as being “where the sound of the music/and the sound of the strangers/all begin to form/one big jubilee”?

Yes We Can ...and Then Some cover

One of the great lost soul statements of the era, not the first (or the last) great New Orleans album to get lost to the vagaries of promotion and distribution in the post-Motown/Stax era. Toussaint poured his all into Dorsey’s album, creating an empowering, empathetic, deeply funky classic. The title track is an anthem, even without its appropriation for a certain presidential campaign in 2008. “I know we can make it work/I know we can make it if we try,” Dorsey sings. Even in the midst of the era’s upheaval, Lee Dorsey’s voice soothes while the bouncing beat, swells of organ, and triumphant horns (backed by the Meters, naturally) all reinforce the positive message without a hint of false hope or disbelief. Not that Dorsey or Toussaint are blinded by such optimism, as their take on Joe South’s “Games People Play” proves. But the natural buoyancy of Dorsey shines through, even in those turbulent times. Songs like “Riverboat” and “Occapella” lean on foundational themes of love and music respectively to weather such personal, societal, and spiritual storms.

Life, Love And Faith cover

His 1970 album a victim of woeful distribution and promotion, Toussaint wound up on Reprise Records, backed by the Meters for this crisp, far-ranging 1972 album. The end result was the same, but some of Toussaint’s nimblest tunes are here, packing wonderment and many moving parts into catchy tunes that speak their peace and fade out before the 3-minute mark. “She Once Belonged to Me” weds Philly soul elegance to a downhome New Orleans groove. Toussaint drops an anthem like “Victims of the Darkness”  while avoiding the easy platitudes of the era. And “Soul Sister” is an admiration of an Afro’d muse that feels righteous and innocent at once.

In the Right Place cover

If a Holy Trinity exists in New Orleans music, it’s all captured here. Toussaint is the Father, Mac Rebenack is the Son, and the Meters are the funky Holy Spirit and all are in the right place at the right time. Dr. John repurposed the title tune (penned for singer Ray J. earlier that same year), and the added punch of the Meters and Toussaint gave him his first hit song and record, all but assuring his legacy and inserting the man and the tune into American pop culture. The album balances between Saturday night party and Sunday morning repentance in equal measure. It also includes perhaps my favorite Toussaint tune of them all, “Life.”

Southern Nights cover

Forget about the pale and fluffy pop hit that Glen Campbell would take up the charts a few years on, the title track for Toussaint’s 1975 album is as dreamy, redolent, and hazy as a muggy bayou evening. It drifts in and out of focus across its ten songs. The psychedelic haze of the title track, as well as the phased sunburst horns that emerge on “Last Train,” stand apart from Toussaint’s other productions of the era. For good reason: Van Dyke Parks once told me he produced the album (and not Toussaint’s business partner, the credited Marshall Sehorn).

The Wild Tchoupitoulas cover

The Mardi Gras Indian tribes and their tropical bird-bright plumage signify hope and defiance during dark times. In the 1800s, the native tribes of New Orleans recognized kinship with enslaved African Americans, sheltering and abetting them on their paths to freedom. Ever so slowly, Caribbean Creole patois also began to infiltrate the Indians’ costumes, dance, and music. Locals might have grown accustomed to seeing such pageantry during Mardi Gras, but this 1976 New Orleans funk classic introduced such vivid sights to the rest of the country. The Wild Tchoupitoulas were helmed by George Landry (a/k/a Big Chief Jolly), whose nephews just happened to be Art, Charles, Aaron, and Cyril Neville, musical stars in their own right. With Toussaint at the controls, what resulted is a snapshot of deep New Orleans heritage, the chanted call-and-responses bolstered by a crack band. This is a Mardi Gras parade captured on tape.

Rolling with the Punches: The Allen Toussaint Songbook cover

Two dozen songs from the master as recorded by artists across three decades and from around the world. Solomon Burke’s ‘60s deep soul read of “Get Out of My Life Woman” works just fine next to the smoother sound of the Judds’ lowkey “Working in the Coalmine.” Toussaint’s songs were empathetic enough for singers like Bonnie Raitt, Millie Jackson, and Maria Muldaur. They’re also versatile enough to translate to a new generation of blue-eyed soul singers like Boz Scaggs and Robert Palmer, and sound right at home in the countrypolitan confines of Glen Campbell’s cotton candy take on “Southern Nights.” It’s the rare compilation that’s a deep dive even while just skimming the surface of this particular songbook.

Songbook cover

A reluctant performer for most of his career, Toussaint opened up in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Displaced from his home and studio, Toussaint decamped for New York City, at one point performing weekly at Joe’s Pub. This set, recorded there in 2009, finds the man stripped back to basic building blocks: his smooth, ageless voice and his piano. The early ‘70s swagger of “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further” gets stripped down and is all the more poignant for it. His way with the ivories is living history, alighting on ragtime, stride, and boogie-woogie, but wholly in the present, wowing a 21st century crowd.