Liverpool had the Beatles, Memphis had Elvis, but no musician every personified a city the way that Allen Toussaint was New Orleans.
From the 1950s until his death on November 10 while on tour in Europe, Toussaint was the Crescent City's ambassador to the world.
Think of the songs he gave us: "Yes We Can Can," "Mother-In-Law," "Working In The Coal Mine," "Southern Nights." Beauty, humor, pride, sadness. Everything Allen Toussaint wrote was filled with humanity.
For most of his career he stayed in New Orleans and let the music radiate out. In the Sixties he made funny, funky unforgettable hits with Ernie K-Doe, Lee Dorsey and Jessie Hill. In England, Toussaint's songs were covered by The Who, The Yardbirds, and The Rolling Stones.
He even wrote the Tijuana Brass hit, "Whipped Cream," which became even more famous as the theme from "The Dating Game."
In the Seventies Paul Simon, The Band and Paul McCartney sought him out as a collaborator. As a record producer he put Louisiana funk on Top 40 radio: "Right Place, Wrong Time" by Doctor John; "Yes We Can Can" by the Pointer Sisters; "Lady Marmalade" by LaBelle.
There was a moment when it seemed like everybody was recording Allen Toussaint songs. Robert Palmer did "Sneaking Sally Through The Alley," Little Feat cut "On The Way Down," Boz Scaggs took Toussaint's "What Do You Want The Girl To Do" to #2, and Glen Campbell took "Southern Nights" to #1.
By the turn of the century Toussaint's star had faded a bit. He played in New Orleans and he stayed in New Orleans. Then, when he was 67 years old, Hurricane Katrina turned his world upside down. His home was hit. Decades of musical scores -- his life's work -- were destroyed.
Toussaint landed in New York and started over. He appeared at Katrina benefits. He began playing small shows, sometimes on Sunday afternoons at Joe's Pub in Greenwich Village. He started to tour, first in the U.S.A. and then, as a new audience discovered him, around the world. He made an album with his friend Elvis Costello, "The River In Reverse," about the aftermath of Katrina and the spirit of his home town.
I once tried to express sympathy to Allen for all he lost in the hurricane. He would not hear of it. He just said, "Those things served me well."
As he turned 70 Allen Toussaint enjoyed a renaissance. Old fans reconnected with him and a new generation discovered him.
In his last decade Allen brought New Orleans to the whole world. He was already in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. In 2013 President Obama awarded him the National Medal of Arts. The President made a point of thanking Allen for going back to New Orleans after the waters receded. When locals saw him back in town, cruising through the French Quarter is his Rolls-Royce, they knew the soul of the Big Easy was alive.
For 60 years New Orleans, Louisiana, and all of American music was served very well by Allen Toussaint.
For more info:
- allentoussaint.com (Official site)
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