Playlist Of The Day 11/11/2015: Allen Toussaint

Quarterly Covers Report – One of the first singles I absconded with from my sisters’ stack of 45’s and took great pains to never return was “Working In the Coal Mine” by Lee Dorsey. Plenty of points about this record spoke to the kid I was: the occupational theme, the repeated “down, down, down” in the chorus, the spoken break in the middle. As I matured I realized what really hooked me about the record – the drum part.

It starts off like it's going to be a nice, normal 4/4, kick drum on the downbeat, snare on the up. But towards the second half of the bar the flow is interrupted: the snare stutters and almost collapses into the final quatrain, and the whole sequence ends with a couple of isolated cymbal crashes. There’s your first lesson in funk. Devo’s laff-a-minute cover of the song in the ’80s flattened everything out, making you realize in comparison how loose the original was, how pendulously the rhythm teetered and how strongly it pulled back. Written, produced and arranged by Allen Toussaint.

LaBelle’s “Lady Marmalade” made the drummer do another pattern that’s a little off. The snare hits the upbeats in the first half just fine, but in the second half it hits on beats 2 and 3 and leads into the next phrase with a high-hat. It’s like a drunken john trying to tango. Another disruption, just the barest jerk to make the segues and transitions exciting. Arranged and produced by Allen Toussaint.

Toussaint’s original version of “Southern Nights,” a hit in an inoffensive but straightened version by Glen Campbell, does entirely different things. There’s no drum set on it. Instead Toussaint takes the simple, nearly juvenile trick of playing only the black keys on his piano in the introduction. Every kid who ever got near a piano and just wanted to do something did this if they hadn’t properly learned “Heart and Soul” yet; it sounded tuneful. Toussaint then seemingly told his recording engineer to take a few days off and had a sentient ghost record his lead vocals – all low frequencies cut off, flange factor +100, tremolo turned way out of whack. If you tried recording that way today you’d be quarantined. But Toussaint made the song float like an ash-edged banner, a very old-time movie, and it’s spellbinding. That Campbell’s people heard this version and heard a hit, instead of a SMiLE-like curio, says a lot about the song that shone through. Written, arranged, produced and performed by Allen Toussaint.

Allen Toussaint was the greatest R&B songwriter in the history of New Orleans music – and although New Orleans was a smallish place to begin with that got sadly smaller about ten years ago, without its music history we’d still be listening to gaily regaled etudes from the pages of The Well-Tempered Clavier at the hands of your insufferable nephew. For a city defined by its outsized personalities and displays (and is, and should be, the only town that gets away with it), Toussaint was resolute and down to earth, I suppose because somebody had to be. His canon grounded everyone who touched it in the art of the song, but he never stopped anyone from bringing their own personalities on board.

He was the bridge from the New Orleans of the ’50s – rolling through the seismography of rock, still giving the blues a place at the table – to that of the ’60s and ‘70s. New Orleans’ response to the new sounds emerging at the time was to take the parts of them that everyone liked and toss them with the flourishes and relish no other place could come up with. Toussaint’s early songs were motivational in the sense of rhythm, and found new places for New Orleans traditionalism to go. Not everyone who went to the House of the Rising Sun had as lousy a time as Eric Burdon did.

Toussaint’s songs were even flexible enough to keep up with the slicker soul music of the ’70s. “What Do You Want the Girl To Do” – one of my personal Toussaint favorites, covered by Boz Scaggs and Lowell George – could have been done by almost any R&B group of the era. But nobody else could have written that major sixth chord into the verse, or teased you into thinking it was about to become a gospel song, except the greatest songwriter in New Orleans.

Toussaint made some records under his own name in the ’70s, and you can hear in his voice why he was content to be a force in the shadows for most of his career. Not that his voice was bad, not at all. It was modest. Probably the same kind of modesty that kept him afloat in the over-stimulation of New Orleans. Songs he sang himself were more thoughtful in their message, their sense of going somewhere, finding solutions and hope for his community. Maybe it didn’t play on American Bandstand, but I certainly keep turning back to his own records.

In an interview republished yesterday by Something Else, Toussaint explained it best when discussing the differences between his original version of “Southern Nights” and Campbell’s crossover hit version – which Toussaint loved: “Glen Campbell decided he would make a person dance. And also, I think his version is so much more entertaining, because there’s music and there’s the story, where mine was mostly about the story, and the music almost stayed out of the way. I set it into a mode just to live that moment, as if talking the tune. I just love what folks bring to my songs, because everybody has their own signature. They all have something to say, as well.”

Hurricane Katrina forced Toussaint off the sidelines and back into performing, setting him up for more exposure in what coincidentally began the last decade of his life. Katrina destroyed all his possessions, and although he meant to stick the storm out, he retreated to New York to begin the rebuilding process from afar. His studio was eventually reconstructed, but his public self emerged anew as he began performing in benefit shows. He collaborated on an album with Elvis Costello, covered his own personal favorite jazz songs on The Bright Mississippi, made a wry and enlivening cameo appearance on the great HBO show Treme, and closed out his recording career with a solo album featuring just him and his songs at his piano.

It might sound unjust that the great man died unexpectedly in Madrid, overseas, away from the town that identifies with him as much as any other artist. But I suppose without really trying, and maybe without even knowing, Allen Toussaint became part of the whole world. And made everybody else in that world wish they were in New Orleans. Especially now, where I know they're sending his spirit off on its safe travels in the way only they can.

Today’s playlist is made up of songs Toussaint wrote or co-wrote, from as wide a selection of styles and musicians as possible. Some are the original versions that were the best-known cuts, others are later versions from outside his immediate circle. But it's hard to say how small that circle is -- the man let as many in as he could.

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