Allen Toussaint has died. He was 77. His influence on the music we love and know and feel is incalculable – there’s every chance he put the wiggle in your stride. Maybe you didn’t even know it was him. But he did it. He was all at once the spirit of New Orleans and the heart and soul of jazz and rock’n’roll too. He helmed the melting pot. As a songwriter, producer and arranger he was Gershwin and Cole Porter, he was Lieber and Stoller too. He was Dr. John. For he helped invent Dr. John. And that would have been enough to ensure him a place among the musical greats. But Toussaint did far more than just that…
And if you don’t know Toussaint’s own records – Southern Nights and Toussaint and From A Whisper To A Scream, Motion and Life, Love and Faith are all musts – you know so many of the songs he shaped, and the artists he shaped; through his songs, his feel, his touch.
The list of artists Toussaint worked with is something – absolutely. It’s incredible in fact. But you run off a list and it doesn’t quite mean what you want it to actually say. What means something is that Toussaint wrote R’n’B staples like Fortune Teller and Pain In My Heart (aka Ruler of My Heart) and Working in the Coal Mine and Ride Your Pony and A Certain Girl and Lipstick Traces (On A Cigarette) and Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky.
What means something is that Toussaint shaped such incredible acts as The Meters and Dr. John and Lee Dorsey, writing with them and for them, producing, playing on the records too – he was a sonic architect. And these structures he created have endured, will endure. We’ll hear his music forever.
What means something is that while Toussaint was seemingly everywhere – he was always humble. (And so dapper, impeccably dressed). A musician’s musician. Just one of the greatest. No limelight-stealer this guy, he casually launched his own career in the 70s – but continued to arrange horns for The Band, play on records by Wings and John Mayall, produce acts such as Willy DeVille and Boz Scaggs and Solomon Burke.
Okay, so let’s run some of that list then.
Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello, Irma Thomas, Otis Redding, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Etta James, The Nevilles/The Meters, Merry Clayton, Bonnie Raitt, Elkie Brooks, Earl King, Frankie Miller, Glen Campbell…
This list goes on. And then on. People and bands – legends – touched by Toussaint’s genius, either covering his songs or learning by playing alongside him, having him make them sound so great.
And yet, that list is incomplete. It’s just a fraction of what he did. There are other great songs he wrote – Sneaking Sally Through The Alley, Get Out Of My Life Woman, Night People. There are incredible must-hear albums he worked on, shaped, made – Dr. John’s Destively Bonnaroo, Woman Overboard by Linda Lewis, anything by The Meters – that end up somewhere down the list of achievements in Toussaint’s life. You get the feeling he saw them all – equally – as achievements. But filed them all away, always, as what they were too: pieces of work. For he was a working musician. This is what he did. That we hear it and know he was harnessing magic – well that’s just proof he had the touch. He knew where soul was hiding and just how to smoke out funk.
When Hurricane Katrina forced Toussaint from his hometown he went on the road. He made a record with Elvis Costello that was an important announcement. Toussaint wasn’t going away. He wasn’t stopping. He wasn’t broken. In fact he returned to New Orleans – he wouldn’t be driven (forever) from his home. Nor would he ever stop playing. He died, aged 77, on tour in Europe.
There’s every chance he was one of the very greatest. And even more of a chance he never – for a second – thought that he was close. For he knew it was not about that at all.
But you have Allen Toussaint in your record collection – even if you didn’t know it. And you have his songs in your hearts and minds. And if you’ve read this far and need to know more there’ll be other – better – tributes about of course. But also this recent documentary is a worthwhile watch/re-watch.