Allen Toussaint, R.I.P.

Allen Toussaint died on Monday, November 9, at age 77. A heart attack claimed his life shortly after he’d completed a concert in Madrid. The news of his passing hit me hard Tuesday morning, and that night as I presented a few sets of music in his memory, I struggled to maintain my composure. I’ve hosted scores of memorial tributes over nearly forty years in radio, but few have been so challenging. The unanticipated suddenness of his death has something to do with it, but I think it has more to do with the respect he so gracefully commanded. As Dr. John put it, he was a prince of a man, and that’s made the loss feel all the more grievous.

The New Orleans-born pianist was less well known than his songs, and that his life was spent mostly behind the scenes of an extraordinarily successful songwriting, record-producing, and hit-making enterprise. The license plates on the pair of Rolls-Royces he owned spelled out his two greatest skills: SONGS and PIANO. There were two distinct patterns to his sartorial style as well: fine suits and colorful sports jackets over fisherman’s sandals. Toussaint was confidently plain-spoken about his achievement, but was unduly modest about his vocal abilities, casting himself as a singer who demoed songs for persons better equipped to put them over. “He shied away from being the front artist,” is how his friend Irma Thomas saw it. So it was left to her and Lee Dorsey, Ernie K-Doe, Jesse Hill, Lloyd Price, Art Neville, Herb Alpert, Al Hirt, Dr. John, The Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt, Patti LaBelle, The Neville Brothers, Elvis Costello, and many others to give expression to his vision.

Toussaint said his appreciation for the musical world of his hometown began at the age of consciousness. He “fell in love at first touch with the piano,” an experience that gave him a sense of “instant gratification.” His family home had a piano, and while their economic status was modest (his father spent 40 years working as a mechanic on the L&N railroad), he said his mother thought of herself as “pretty upper crust.” Classical music was prominent in the household on Sundays, and while he had ears for everything and even enjoyed playing waltzes (a decidedly unhip music in the ‘hood), his first love was boogie-woogie.

Professor Longhair became his idol. “I didn’t want to be like him, I wanted to be him,” he admits. He was 16 when he saw Fess for the first time playing “a humble little spinet” at a record hop. A few years later at a record shop on Rampart Street, he discovered the man he revered as “the Bach of rock” working as a backroom stock clerk. He was so taken by the sight of him that the anomaly of Fess working a day job didn’t cross his mind till later on. Toussaint discusses Fess extensively in the interview and documentary below, but here’s a short primer on some of Fess’s “inventions” that impressed him. I love the scene of him rolling his shoulders as describes the image he saw through Fess’s rhythms “of the krewes…the Mardi Gras Indians coming down the street.”

Among Toussaint’s best known songs is “Southern Nights,” which Glen Campbell rode to the top of the charts, but at too brisk a tempo. This sweet song that he described as “a little movie of my life as a child,” was truly meant to be sung by the composer himself. At the Joe’s Pub performance of “Southern Nights” that’s heard on his 2013 release, Songbook, he breaks away from the tune for several minutes to recall the extended-family gatherings that inspired the song. “This [was] before children owned the world…Out there in the country, on the porch, old folks was talkin’…I knew that everything that was important in the whole world was on this porch.” I played the Joe’s Pub version last night and tonight, and a listener in Vermont just e-mailed to say, “Hearing it last night made me flat-out cry, I’m not ashamed to say…and now hearing ‘Southern Nights’ again tonight makes me realize I could hear you play this every single night of every single show you ever do again at NEPR, and it would never be too much. It’s just so beautiful with that incredible narration.”

In 1938, Alan Lomax famously recorded Jelly Roll Morton at the Library of Congress, Over the course of a few days, the pianist, in the service of his claim that he was the “inventor” of jazz, played numerous examples of how he saw the music develop in New Orleans. Toussaint provides a more compact perspective on the Crescent City’s music in this 38-minute-long interview with the LOC’s Larry Appelbaum. Toussaint was part of the New Orleans diaspora by the time this was filmed in 2007. Hurricane Katrina had destroyed his home and studio, and he spent most of the last ten years of his life residing in New York. The interview concludes with him playing out his feelings for his hometown, not with one of his own elegiac songs, but a poignant standard.

David Simon, the creator of the HBO series Treme in which Toussaint appeared and performed music, posted this eulogy on his blog site, The Audacity of Despair. He joins the chorus of people who recognized in Toussaint “a great and good man.” Simon says, “He understood our intentions and purpose immediately and made himself available not only to honor his own artistic contributions — which are vast and enduring — but those of other artists, for whom he arranged live, on-camera performances and then accompanied with his requisite precision at the piano. He gave himself over to these moments easily and warmly.” Read the entire tribute for a great story involving the actor Wendell Pierce and Toussaint’s firm, no-nonsense orientation to his music.

Allen Toussaint, 2012
Allen Toussaint, 2012

This picture of Toussaint was taken at his 2012 concert at Onondaga Community College in Syracuse, NY. Photographer John Herr says, “He made a symphony orchestra out of the piano, told stories, sang, reminisced about his youth in New Orleans, and held the packed house enthralled.”

Here’s the program for the Allen Toussaint memorial tribute at the Orpheum Theater in New Orleans on November 20.

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