Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Thoughts on Allen Toussaint

Guest correspondent Stefan Ian Muir sitting in on the keys this mournful evening. . .

The gumbo in New Orleans, Louisiana is like none other. A catalytic mix of French Imperialist, African Slave, Acadian Exile, Choctaw Indian, Irish and German Immigrant, plus the Spaniard,  más Cubano, plus the Greek, the Jew, and every gypsy wanderer on bottom or top, too. It is a sunken, Creole, port city brew. It is the birth of jazz in Congo Square. It is Professor Longhair. It is both the most and least American place in the Americas. And if you are with rhythm, nowhere in the world matters more.

In early 1938, just as Duke Ellington was making the leap from jazz composer to sponsor of what he called “American Music”, Allen Toussaint was brought to Gert Town (LA) and dropped into the NOLA musical stew. He studied at the syncopated feet of the aforementioned Longhair and bore witness to the birth of the funk, even if we knew not what to call it for decades still.

Toussaint was a rhythm and blues cornerstone for about 60 years and stood in the heart center of the NOLA sound. Earlier this week, he was taken from us in the best way I can see, shortly after he exited stage left at the Teatro Lara in Madrid. By all known accounts, he was in fine form.

It is a foolhardy quest to capture precisely how many melodious pies the man had his fingers inside, so let us not try. Instead, rest assured that if you find your foot transitioning from a subtle tap to a full scale rock and roll, Toussaint is in there somewhere. And while we are within that pocket, let us meditate a bit on just a smattering of his highlights.

Cissy Strut” (1969) and REJUVENATION (1974)

The studio band that Toussaint led through his string of 1960’s hit singles was composed of Art Neville on keyboards, George Porter Jr. on bass, Leo Nocentelli on guitar, and Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste on drums. They are collectively known as the Meters and they took the second line sound to the world at large. Rejuventation is possibly the funkiest record of 1974 and this is a year that included albums like Damn Right I Am Somebody, Inspiration Information, Up for the Down Stroke, and Standing on the Verge of Getting It On. It was nothing less than a feast for future hip hop samplers with acts such as the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy bearing witness. “Cissy Strut” is an unmistakable early evening smoker featuring the rhythm section of Porter Jr and Modeliste in all their nasty glory. It has brought ample bottom to turntables everywhere.

Rock of Ages: The Band in Concert (1972)

Rock of Ages is a bit of a glorious mess and represents a moment when The Band was exploding for better and worse. It is also precisely that joyfoul carnival ride due in no small part to the horn arrangements provide by Mr. Toussaint, who first collaborated with Robertson et al on the above track off of Cahoots (1971). Levon Helm, drummer of The Band, was a particularly natural collaborator for Allen Toussaint, as he was born on the immediate opposite side of the Muddy from the Mississippi Crossroads and carried the Delta sounds in his soul. The two would remain friends until Helm’s passing. As the story goes, Toussaint’s arrangements for Rock of Ages were lost along with his luggage and had to be rewritten on the fly after his arrival in New York. The hotshot, big city horn section hired for the New Year’s Eve gig balked at the sheet music laid before them, insisting that the arrangements were written in error. In response, one member of the group (Robertson?) gently suggested that they just play the goddamn notes.


Toussaint is paradoxically best known and least remembered for a long string of hot ones handed off to other artists. “A Certain Girl” was penned in the early 60’s, passed on to Ernie K-Doe, covered by the Yardbirds, then later charted by Zevon some sixteen or so years forward. Toussaint will be fondly recalled by many for his graceful nature; this was on no better display than when he would acknowledge the wonderful magic that others spun with his work. In short, he was as generous with praise as he was with singles.


Of all the devastation that Hurricane Katrina wrought, perhaps the lone blessing it provided was a powerful second act for Allen Toussaint. He playfully referred to the storm as his “booking agent”, as the aftermath forced him out of his NOLA home and back on the road. As the world’s thoughts were turned towards New Orleans, their ears inevitably followed, and interest in Toussaint’s catalog was on the rise just as the levy waters receded. Toussaint’s collaboration with Elvis Costello would become the most powerful artistic statement directed at that American tragedy and one of the finest records of the young 21st century. Toussaint’s songbook was reopened and he spent the next nine years carrying it across the globe.


“Freedom for the Stallion” was originally recorded by frequent Toussaint collaborator Lee Dorsey and was a centerpiece on the River in Reverse album. Toussaint was a brilliant pop music composer and many of his songs are best loved for their infectious R&B bounce. However, he was not without his heavy moments, both subtly (“Working in the Coal Mine”) and directly. “Freedom for the Stallion” is one of the finest examples of the latter. Allen Toussaint carried with him a sincere appreciation for both the beauty and the pain associated with our American melting pot, perhaps because he was born into the funkiest of those various kettles. If you are still with me, I invite you to spend some time with Toussaint’s Steinway, for that was where he was at his apex. However, if you choose instead to linger on his lyrics, you can do no better than these:

Some sing a sad song
Some got to moan the blues
Trying to make the best of a home
That the man didn't even get to choose

Lord, have mercy, how you gonna be?
With people like John and me?
They've got men building fences to keep other men out
Ignore him if he whispers and kill him if he shouts

Oh, Lord, you got to help us find a way

May it someday be so. And to our friend Allen Toussaint, may he find that blessed truth inside and lay in restful peace. Laissez les bons temps rouler.

Allen Toussaint (1938 – 2015)

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