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Allen Toussaint

+ {Al Tousan} + {The Stokes}

The purveyor of a fresh style of funky, jazzy R&B, all the way from the city of New Orleans, ALLEN TOUSSAINT (born 14 January 1938, Gert Town, Louisiana) was one of the top names an artist would align to when in need of a songwriter, arranger, producer and piano-player. An all-round entertainer whose CV file stretched from FATS DOMINO and LEE DORSEY to The METERS and a latter-day collaboration with ELVIS COSTELLO, Allen always seemed to be in the “Right Place, Wrong Time” – as in the poignant words of his Night Tripper buddy, DR. JOHN.
Learning piano as a teenager, TOUSSAINT began his professional life in the mid-50s as a PROFESSOR LONGHAIR-influenced keyboardist for ace Crescent City producer/arranger Dave Bartholomew. If the FATS DOMINO mentor had defined the sound of New Orleans in the R&B-defined 50s, then TOUSSAINT updated and remoulded it for the new decade with a rolling, rollicking piano and horn-led sound.
In 1958, TOUSAN – as he was then named – released his THE WILD SOUND OF NEW ORLEANS {*7} for RCA Victor, an album that helped establish his reputation and, which furnished AL HIRT with a mid-60s million-selling single (`Java’). Produced by Danny Kessler and augmented by Alvin “Red” Taylor (baritone sax), and a handful of others, it boasted rare 45, `Whirlaway’, and the soulful `Up The Creek’.
TOUSSAINT really began making his mark on the scene after becoming A&R man for the Minit label at the dawn of the 60s; in his capacity as writer, producer, arranger and musician, he masterminded a string of hits including CHRIS KENNER’s `I Like It Like That’, JESSIE HILL’s `Ooh Poo Pah Doo’, IRMA THOMAS’ `Ruler Of My Heart’ and BARBARA GEORGE’s `I Know’, among many others. Even a spell in the army in 1963-65 couldn’t deter TOUSSAINT from recording, and he cut several sides for the Alon label as The STOKES.
The mid-60s also found him working with LEE DORSEY, whose TOUSSAINT-penned singles for the Amy imprint (`Ride Your Pony’, `Get Out Of My Life, Woman’, the Top 10 `Working In The Coal Mine’ and `Holy Cow’) made him one of the era’s best-loved soul artists.
The late 60s, meanwhile, saw TOUSSAINT working with New Orleans funkmeisters par excellence, The METERS. Hired as the in-house rhythm section for Sansu Enterprises (the operation Allen had set up with fellow New Orleans producer Marshall Sehorn), this bunch backed the likes of DORSEY and EARL KING, before becoming stars in their own right. With TOUSSAINT at the helm they alchemised some of the funkiest grooves ever committed to vinyl; i.e. `Sophisticated Cissy’, `Cissy Strut’, `Look Ka Py Py’, `Chicken Strut’, etc. Although the group subsequently signed to Reprise Records, TOUSSAINT remained as their producer and helped bring out their talents as backing musicians on early 70s albums by the likes of DR. JOHN, ROBERT PALMER and WINGS.
As well as helping invent the sound of southern funk, Mr. New Orleans had re-instigated his solo recording career with an eponymous 1971 album, ALLEN TOUSSAINT {*8}, for the Scepter label. At a time when Blaxploitation movie soundtracks wore out turntables of the many funk fans from the East to West Coast, TOUSSAINT had tamed his listener with an altogether different N’Orleans groove by way of versions of `Cast Your Fate To The Wind’, `From A Whisper To A Scream’ (its belated UK title) and his own `Working In The Coal Mine’.
He subsequently joined The METERS at Reprise, for whom he cut LIFE, LOVE AND FAITH (1972) {*6}, before moving to Warner Bros for 1975’s Marshall Sehorn-produced classic set, SOUTHERN NIGHTS {*8}. The gorgeous country-soul of the title track – GLEN CAMPBELL would later popularise the track while simultaneously butchering it beyond belief – still stands among TOUSSAINT’s finest compositions, yet, unfortunately, the record wasn’t afforded the same commercial attention as his hits for other artists.
Artists such as LaBELLE, for whom TOUSSAINT co-wrote and produced the massive 1975 No.1 funk/R&B classic, `Lady Marmalade’, was one of many that anchored his bulging CV; BONNIE RAITT, The BAND, LITTLE FEAT, BOZ SCAGGS, and The WILD TCHOUPITOULAS (a METERS off-shoot), all needed his guiding hand.
A further solo set, MOTION (1978) {*6}, again fell largely on deaf ears and TOUSSAINT increasingly withdrew from the music scene. Produced by Hollywood workhorse Jerry Wexler, even the inclusion of tested session players Larry Carlton (guitar), Jeff Porcaro (drums) and Chuck Rainey (bass), couldn’t give it the oomph needed to propel it chart-wise.
He subsequently surfaced on occasion with the likes of ALBERT KING, ETTA JAMES and JOE COCKER, while covers of his songs – DEVO’s hit version of his `Working In The Coal Mine’ a highlight – kept the wolf from the door. After appearing in a 1987 Broadway musical, Staggerlee (not forgetting the low-key LP MR. MARDI GRAS (I LOVE A CARNIVAL BALL) (1987) {*5}, and also touring in the mid-90s alongside fellow southern soul legends such as DAN PENN, TOUSSAINT was ready again to try out fresh material. Approaching 60 years of age, 1996’s CONNECTED {*7} was as easy-listening and plaintively soulful and catchy; much in the same way as NEVILLE BROTHERS/WILD TCHOUPITOULAS associate AARON NEVILLE.
While even most music buffs would be hard-pushed to put a face to his name, ALLEN TOUSSAINT’s influence over the course of popular music had remained as formidable as the stylistic range and quality of the artists who’d performed his compositions. Eager to maintain a foothold in a genre he loved so much, the well-named ALLEN TOUSSAINT’S JAZZITY PROJECT emerged in May 2005 with GOING PLACES {*5}. A celebrated but subdued collaboration with ELVIS COSTELLO (`The River In Reverse’: 2006) saw him reach the transatlantic pop charts for first time ever, although #103 in the US and No.97 in Britain was hardly an achievement worth shouting about. What was worth shouting about was the benefit concerts in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that transpired throughout the States; TOUSSAINT, himself, had to uproot from his homeland, relocating to New York City.
In 2009 and 2013, for Nonesuch and Rounder Records respectively, TOUSSAINT was in safer, familiar jazz Top 10 chart territory via THE BRIGHT MISSISSIPPI {*7} and SONGBOOK {*6} – the latter cut live at Joe’s Pub in NYC in 2009.
Sadly, Allen died while on tour in Madrid, Spain, on November 10, 2015. The distinguished artist was duly paid tribute by producer JOE HENRY, who pieced together several of TOUSSAINT’s “Bright Mississippi” outtakes for the posthumous AMERICAN TUNES (2016) {*7}. Named after the closing PAUL SIMON number, and showcasing works by Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, Fats Waller, et al, the celebrated pianist was in relaxed form on `Southern Nights’, in essence, unrecognisable from its GLEN CAMPBELL country hit cover.
© MC Strong 2000/GRD-BG // rev-up MCS Nov2015-Jun2016

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