It is with very heavy heart that I report the passing on November 10 of Allen Toussaint, a legendary figure in New Orleans music.
I have been a fan of his music for many decades but I only just met Allen two and a half weeks ago on the 25th Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise. We chatted several times during the 8-day cruise. Allen had an encyclopedic knowledge of New Orleans music (as he worked with just about every musician who came out of New Orleans) and rhythm & blues and pop music in general.
A lucky fan gets to meet Allen Toussaint.
If you don’t recognize his name, you know his songs. Here are just some of the hits that he either wrote, produced, performed and/or arranged:
“Fortune Teller” (Benny Spellman; The Rolling Stones; The Who; Robert Plant & Alison Krauss); “A Certain Girl” (Ernie K-Doe; The Yardbirds; Warren Zevon); “Lipstick Traces (On a Cigarette)” (Benny Spellman; Ringo Starr); “Mother-in-Law” (Ernie K-Doe); “Ya-Ya” (Lee Dorsey; Lee Michaels); “Get Out of My Life Woman” (Paul Butterfield Blues Band; Iron Butterfly; The Leaves; Spirit); “Ride Your Pony” (The Meters); “Working in the Coal Mine” (Lee Dorsey; Devo); “Ruler of My Heart” (Irma Thomas); “It’s Raining” (Irma Thomas); “Ooh Ooh Pah Doo” (Ike & Tina Turner; Paul Revere & The Raiders); “Over You” (Aaron Neville; Small Faces); “I Like It Like That” (Chris Kenner; Dave Clark 5); “Java” (Al Hirt); “Whipped Cream” (Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass; this became The Dating Game theme); “Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky” (Lee Dorsey; Don Covay); “Occapella” (Lee Dorsey; Van Dyke Parks; Ringo Starr); “Riverboat” (Van Dyke Parks; Robert Palmer); “Right Place, Wrong Time” (Dr. John); “Holy Cow” (Lee Dorsey; The Band); “On Your Way Down” (Little Feat); “Yes We Can Can” (Lee Dorsey; The Pointer Sisters); “Lady Marmalade” (LaBelle); “What Do You Want the Girl to Do” (Lowell George; Boz Scaggs; Bonnie Raitt); “Freedom for the Stallion” (Boz Scaggs; Three Dog Night); “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley” (Robert Palmer); “Sophisticated Cissy” (The Meters); “Hercules” (Boz Scaggs; Paul Weller); “Southern Nights” (Glen Campbell). Allen also was heavily involved in Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello projects.
And that’s just the tip of the Allen Toussaint iceberg.
I caught his first and subsequent sets aboard ship. A true gentleman, Mr. Toussaint radiated warmth, class and refinement. That first evening his snow white hair was matched by his glittery white evening jacket. His band, not surprisingly, were all musicians of the highest order. They performed the finest arrangement I have ever heard of the New Orleans blues classic “St. James Infirmary”. Their instrumental version reminded me of the musical journey I take every time I listen to Jimi Hendrix’s “1983…(A Merman I Should Turn to Be)”.
I gave Mr. Toussaint a copy of my book Legends of the Blues. He began to slowly go through each page. “I worked with him; he was very talented. Oh, she was a wonderful singer to work with; I produced several albums for this fine man. Chuck Berry…now he chose a different path, didn’t he?” and so on, all through the book.
The Good Reverend Billy C. Wirtz
On board ship I became friends with one of the performers, the Reverend Billy C. Wirtz. Billy has an amazing show. He plays all kinds of boogie and barrelhouse piano with a strong Jerry Lee Lewis influence. His songs are funny (“What I Used to Do All Night Long Now Take Me All Night Long to Do”) and his performance is peppered with rapid-fire humor. I saw him effortlessly breeze through a two and a half hour show with only one five minute break.
Billy also has an encyclopedic knowledge of gospel, R & B, blues and wrestling (he used to manage professional wrestlers).
After one of his shows we were walking towards the dining room with a late dinner in mind when we ran into Allen Toussaint. I introduced Billy to Allen and then just stood back for the lively history lesson. Mr. Toussaint was delighted with Billy’s vast musical knowledge. Billy would mention an obscure player and Allen would light up.
“I thought I was the only person who still remembered him!”
I wasn’t able to stand in line for Mr. Toussaint’s autographs during the cruise’s autograph sessions as I was signing myself. I gave my wife the CDs and booklets I wanted to have Allen sign, then she patiently took her place in Mr. Toussaint’s line. When she presented him with the CDs and booklets, she apologized.
“I’m sorry; I know that there’s a three item limit but my husband gave me four things for you to sign.”
Mr. Toussaint gave her a big smile and replied, “I’ll be happy to sign anything you put in front of me.”
Each signature, by the way, was elegant and elaborate (For a great overview of Allen Toussaint’s career, I highly recommend the above collection).
The elegant Mr. Toussaint and her majesty, the Soul Queen of New Orleans, Irma Thomas
On one morning of the cruise there was a Q & A with Allen Toussaint and Irma Thomas. The many tales and remembrances of these two musical giants had me riveted.
When asked about Hurricane Katrina, Allen surprised everyone when he said in some ways Katrina was a blessing.
“All of the musicians were forced to evacuate the city. They spread north. Suddenly, they got all the work they could handle, as promoters no longer had to figure in travel expenses for the musicians; they were already living in town. I’ve never seen so much work for New Orleans musicians in my life.”
I was surprised to learn that Mr. Toussaint was uneasy in the spotlight of being a headliner. He felt much more at ease and at home working behind the scenes in the studio. One of the final questions asked was “Is there any unfulfilled dream or project that you would like to do?”
“I’d love to produce another album by Irma Thomas.”
Irma was completely taken by surprise.
Sadly, we’ll never get to hear that final collaboration. The 77 years of Allen Toussaint’s life, however, has left us with a vast musical treasury that can be loved and appreciated forever.
Rest In Peace, kind sir. Thank you for gracing and enhancing our lives with your presence, your spirit and your music.