Anyone who has even the vaguest awareness of American popular music from the late 1950s onward will have heard an Allen Toussaint song, but they may have never heard his name. This is one artist who actually is underrated since relatively few have heard of him beyond his hometown of New Orleans, with the exception of some savvy music fans and musicians. However, his compositions characterized American music for half a century. Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass had a big hit with Toussaint’s “Whipped Cream,” which was the theme song for television’s “The Dating Game.” “Working in the Coal Mine” became a hit for Lee Dorsey in 1966 and for Devo in 1981. Toussaint wrote, produced, and played piano on the song “Mother-in-Law,” which was a hit for Ernie K-Doe in 1961. There are at least a dozen popular covers of “Fortune Teller” (which Toussaint published under his mother’s name, “Naomi Neville”), including ones by the Who and the Rolling Stones. “Southern Nights” became one of Glen Campbell’s best-selling songs. There are more accolades, but you get the picture. Allen Toussaint was a giant of a songwriter, but he was also a producer, arranger, pianist, and singer.
I’m unaware of any biographical book about Toussaint and I really wish that one existed. This inconceivable gap is partially filled by an excellent BBC documentary about him. In short, he was born in New Orleans in 1938 and began learning piano as a child, first informally and then through lessons with a neighbor. He began performing publicly in his late teens, and by his late twenties had earned success writing and producing. Toussaint wrote, produced and arranged for a slew of artists from 1957 through the early 2000s, including Irma Thomas, Ernie K-Doe, Lee Dorsey, the Meters, Dr. John, B.J. Thomas, Sandy Denny, Solomon Burke, Robert Palmer, the Band, and Bonnie Raitt. His home and studio were destroyed in the flood that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005, so he temporarily moved to New York where he performed regularly at Joe’s Pub. This seems to have invigorated his career, providing greater exposure and recognition, and leading to collaborations. For example, it was during this time that he began recording with Elvis Costello, leading to their album “The River Runs in Reverse” in 2006. He was bestowed with a number of honors in the 2000s, including the National Medal of Honor in 2013.
The story of Toussaint’s artistic and cultural significance is also, in part, the story of New Orleans as a musical wellspring. It’s truly amazing to think of the disproportionate effect that this one city has had on jazz, rock, and soul. From the rhythms of Congo Square to the second-line syncopations of the Mardi Gras brass bands, New Orleans’ distinctive sounds have been carried on by and expressed in the music of the city’s musical giants: Buddy Bolden, Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, Professor Longhair, Huey “Piano” Smith, Tuts Washington, Fats Domino, etc. (not an exclusive list, by any means). As a writer, producer, and arranger for artists from and outside of New Orleans, Toussaint helped to incorporate the Crescent City’s sounds into the American musical landscape. For example, the average viewer of “The Dating Game” was likely unaware that they were tapping their foot to a New Orleans rhythm and, to this day, many Herb Alpert fans don’t know that at least a portion of his success was thanks to Allen Toussaint and the Stokes’ song that the Tijuana Brass covered almost note-for-note.
If you’re looking to add some of Toussaint’s albums to your collection, I suggest starting with “Southern Nights,” which is probably his most popular. Released in 1975, the album does not sound dated. In general, Toussaint’s discography largely spares us from trends. “Southern Nights” benefits from rich textures and melodic arrangements that include complex, multilayered horns. My favorite tracks are “Back in Baby’s Arms,” with its relaxed groove, and “What Do You Want the Girl to Do?,” which was covered by Bonnie Raitt, Lowell George, and Boz Scaggs. The melody of the song “Southern Nights” is introduced toward the end of side A, and the title song launches the second side. Toussaint’s vocals on the song were modified to sound nostalgic, as if they’re coming from a Victrola’s speaker. I’m not too fond of the effect, and prefer his later, live versions of it as well as his instrumental version on “American Tunes.” However, there’s really not a track on this album that I dislike. I’m not the only one, as original pressings of “Southern Nights” are pricey. Fortunately, reissues are available.
A good overview of Toussaint’s early work can be had on “Everything I Do Gohn Be Funky,” released in 2014 on the German “Charly” label. Listening to this album, your friends and family will exclaim, “Oh, I know this song!” One can hear the heavy New Orleans influences in much of his early work, like “Java” (made famous by Al Hirt). The album includes songs that were written and performed by Toussaint as well as songs that he wrote and/or produced for other artists, like Benny Spellman who sang “Fortune Teller.” (You might notice that the Who’s “Magic Bus” borrows heavily from this song.)
“American Tunes” was the last album that Toussaint recorded, and it was released in 2016 – the year after his death. As compared to the digital version, the double vinyl album includes three extra songs – “Her Mind is Gone,” “Moon River,” and “Bald Head.” “American Tunes” was produced by Joe Henry, and is comprised of songs written by members of the American pantheon of composers, including Billy Strayhorn (“Lotus Blossom”) and Duke Ellington (“Rocks in My Bed” and “Come Sunday”). The album highlights Toussaint’s virtuosity on piano. The only vocals are on the two Ellington compositions (sung by Rhiannon Giddens), and on Paul Simon’s “American Tune,” a moving version of the song in which Toussaint’s vocals are accompanied only by his piano and a gut-stringed guitar played by Adam Levy. Two of the songs are his own compositions – “Delores’ Boyfriend” and “Southern Nights.” He revisits the latter as an instrumental. Those familiar with the song might find it nearly impossible to listen to the instrumental version without mentally filling-in the lyrics, but Toussaint’s piano alone masterfully evokes images of fireflies and the big, mossy oaks of the Deep South.
A dive into his catalog, especially if done chronologically, will give the listener more than an understanding of Toussaint’s artistry. It will deepen one’s understanding of American music’s history.
In my collection: “The Wild Sound of New Orleans by Tousan” (1958), “Toussaint” (1970), “Life, Love and Faith” (1972), “Southern Nights” (1975), “Motion” (1978), “The Allen Toussaint Collection” (1991), “The River in Reverse” with Elvis Costello (2006), “The Bright Mississippi” (2009), “Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky” (2011), “American Tunes” (2016), “Live in Philadelphia 1975” (2016), “Live in Portland July 3rd, 2005” (2017; Unofficial)