A colleague was visiting New Orleans for the first time, and for the second time in a week I found myself extolling the virtues of Allen Toussaint, who was the beating heart of much New Orleans music until his death last year. I was lucky enough to see him play solo at Ronnie Scott’s shortly before he died. He had [turned to performing] relatively late in life, after losing much of what he owned in Hurricane Katrina, after years in the studio as a writer and a producer.
After Katrina, he co-wrote a record with Elvis Costello and toured with him.
Long before the collaboration with Elvis Costello, he had worked with everyone who was anyone in the New Orleans scene, from the Neville Brothers to Lee Dorsey to Betty Harris, and one of the reasons for this was that he had a wide range as a song writer, from an affectionate tongue-in-cheek song such as Fortune Teller, to danceable R and B such as Ride Your Pony or Working in the Coalmine, to a political song such as Freedom for the Stallion.
He learned from Professor Longhair, whose distinctive piano style had lit up the Crescent City in the 1960s, but the reason he got his first break, as a teenager, was that he was a fine technical player who was able to imitate the piano style of Fats Domino. At a time when Fats was on the road a lot, and most recording was done two-track, he’d play the piano part in the studio in New Orleans, and the tape would be sent to wherever Fats Domino was touring so he could add his inimitable vocal.
It happens that there was a final record in the works when he died, released earlier this year and which I stumbled across a few weeks ago.
American Tunes (Nonesuch Records) is produced by Joe Henry, which is usually a mark of quality. The songs are played solo or with some fine collaborators, including Bill Frisell and Van Dyke Parks. The title is well-chosen: this an American songbook, but inflected with a New Orleans sensibility. As well as his own songs, he plays songs by Professor Longhair, Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, Billy Strayhorn and Fats Waller, as well as the (almost) title track by Paul Simon.
As Joe Henry says in the sleevenotes, written after Toussaint died,
Allen was a quiet radical, musically speaking, and a prince of sublime humility, national royalty, if this troubled country has ever known any such thing… American Tunes is visceral and earthy. The repertoire spans the structural foundation of all that we understand to be American music… Today, in the dim light of his untimely departure, it sounds like the promise made good on all the work he might still undertake.
Five to look up on youtube:
Southern Nights: the title track of best known full length record as a performer.
With Elvis Costello.
Get Out of My Life Woman, his 1968 single.
On Your Way Down, covered by Little Feat.
Toussaint plays Lipstick Traces, which gave its name to Greil Marcus’ book.
If you want to know more there’s a long interview on Quietus, done shortly before he died, which explores pretty much his whole carrer. Richard Williams’ post on The Blue Moment blog after Toussaint’s death is, as ever, succinct but rich.