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Toussaint at Cambridge Folk Festival 2008

Toussaint at Cambridge Folk Festival 2008

I have long been an admirer of Allen Toussaint who died suddenly on Monday of a heart attack after a performance in Madrid.  He was 77.  He was an extraordinarily gifted musician, composer, songwriter, and piano player whose lyrical style and complex musical language was rich in jubilant New Orleans syncopation.

If you know him by name, then you know Toussaint as one of the countless New Orleans born musicians who claim a particular connection to the city’s musical traditions, especially after Katrina in 2005.  But Toussaint stood above the crowd for his support for and influence on NOLA musicians.  He was beloved and revered by all

Toussaint with Dr John and the Original Meters

Toussaint with Dr John and the Original Meters

who made music in New Orleans.  Though primarily identified with New Orleans-style R&B, Toussaint felt equally at home playing jazz.  Because the musical language of New Orleans includes everything from Dixieland to blues to Zydeco to Gospel and more, he was well-versed in all types of New Orleans music. It’s an overused metaphor to compare New Orleans musical traditions to a Gumbo, but it’s an apt comparison anyway. New Orleans has always been culturally diverse, and somehow, like a Gumbo, it all works together.

If you don’t know Allen Toussaint by name, then, most assuredly, you will know him by the many well-known songs he has written for other artists. Here’s a brief sampling of a few of the better-known ones:

Ernie K-Doe (Ernest Kador, Jr.) had one of the biggest hits in the history of New Orleans R&B with “Mother-in-Law” in 1961.

In 1964, The Yardbirds recorded “A Certain Girl” (originally by Ernie K-Doe) which was the B-side of their first single release from the album Five LiveYarbirds.

Herb Alpert’s 1965 album Whipped Cream & Other Delights on A&M records was the #1 album of 1965 for five weeks. Here’s Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass playing Allen’s “Whipped Cream” which you may or may not recognize as the theme song from the Dating Game. It was pointed out to me that this song has a real New Orleans’ cakewalk feel to it.

In 1975 Allen released his album Southern Nights on Reprise records which included a very psychedelic-sounding (think Sergeant Pepper) version of his song “Southern Nights,” very different from Glen Campbell’s version which became a no. 1 hit in 1977 on the country music singles chart. Here’s Campbell’s version:

Lee Dorsey had a monster hit with Allen’s “Working in the Coal Mine” in 1966. Ironically, neither Lee Dorsey nor Allen Toussaint had ever been in a coal mine.

The Rolling Stones recorded Allen’s “Fortune Teller” in 1963, but it wasn’t released until it appeared in 1966 on their Got Live if You Want It album. Since “Fortune Teller” was not recorded live, London records had the song overdubbed with the sounds of screaming girls. The Stones, of course, disowned the album, claiming the record was not their true live debut. However, in 1972 the Stones released their second greatest hits compilation More Hot Rocks (Big Hits & Fazed Cookies), which fortunately included a version of “Fortune Teller” sans screaming girls. Here’s that version:

Marc Meyers published a remarkable interview he did with Toussaint for the Wall Street Journal in 2013 that is a narrative from Allen’s point of view and reveals the positive influences of his family, especially his father, and his neighborhood. It’s worth reading.

Allen Toussaint

Allen Toussaint in front of the home on College Court (note license plate) where he and his family lived in the Gert Town section of New Orleans. The house now bears a plaque recognizing its role in music history. Rush Jagoe for The Wall Street Journal

 

 

 

 

 

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