Caught by the River

Caught by the Reaper – Allen Toussaint

Tim Tooher | 27th November 2015

Allen Toussaint died on 10 November, aged 77. Tim Tooher pays tribute:

The world lost something last week. Allen Toussaint left it. Nowadays, when famous musicians die, Facebook gets filled with YouTube clips posted in tribute. Two weeks ago, Allen Toussaint died after a concert in Spain and my timeline was filled with videos of Allen’s songs sung by the man himself, as well as by artists he produced. This time though, there was something a little different about it all. This time, the loss somehow seemed to be personal. It wasn’t just that a musical hero was gone, but almost like people had lost a friend. I even received a few messages from people telling me how sad they were and how they were seeking consolation in Allen’s music.

I’ve been thinking about why that might be and I think it’s because of the nature of the man and his music. In 1971, Lee Dorsey recorded and released one of Allen’s finest, most beautiful songs, “Freedom for the Stallion”. Listen to that song and you’ll know why Allen Toussaint meant so much to people. It’s a record that is heavy with humanity. It’s a song that aches with empathy for those who suffer. A song that tells us so much about Allen Toussaint. That humanity seemed to be at the heart of all his music. His music touches the listener.

Some of that comes from having grown up in New Orleans and being surrounded by its very particular musical identity. There’s nowhere in the world, that I know of, that has one quite as distinctive. Its geography and its history conspired to produce music that has a character and charm which is indisputably all its own. And this all formed part of Allen’s education. Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Domino, Professor Longhair. All these were ingredients that went into Allen Toussaint’s music. Growing up, his house was a refuge for local musicians, which only served to hone his musical education. Classical music too, as his mum only played classical music at home on Sundays. Classical music and boogie woogie. It all went in the pot.

The biggest influence on him, though, was Professor Longhair, who didn’t sound like anything else Allen had ever heard. So, somewhere between Bach and Professor Longhair, we get the piano sound of Allen Toussaint, and maybe its grace and rambunctious joy. That’s New Orleans through and through, anyway. Different ingredients mixed together to make something new.

While still a boy, he was playing in The Flamingos with the inimitable Snooks Eaglin and piano player nonpareil James Booker. Before long he fell in with the musicians who recorded with Dave Bartholomew, producer of the Imperial Records hits that came out of New Orleans by the likes of Fats Domino, Smiley Lewis, Chris Kenner, Earl King and T-Bone Walker. If he’d learnt a lot as a boy, now he was getting an Ivy League education.

In 1960, he was hired as an A&R man and producer by Minit Records and that’s when the hits started coming. He produced Chris Kenner’s “I Like It LIke that” and Jessie Hill’s “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” and wrote and produced Ernie-K-Doe’s “Mother-in-Law”. Once the hits started, they poured out of him. Benny Spellman’s “Lipstick Traces (On a Cigarette)” and “Fortune Teller” and Irma Thomas’s “Ruler of my Heart” and “It’s Raining” are records that sound as vital today as they did fifty years ago.

Around this time, Allen entered into perhaps the most important musical relationship of his life, when he started producing and writing for Lee Dorsey. There can’t have been many more perfect musical partnerships than that between these two men. Dorsey had a great smile of a voice and Allen was the man to write for it.

Dorsey and Toussaint made several albums together and a handful of immense singles, including “Get Out Of My Life Woman”, “Working in the Coalmine” and “Ride Your Pony”, but, for me, the pinnacle of their partnership was the material recorded for Polydor at the start of the seventies. Backed by the Meters, the masters of New Orleans funk, Lee and Allen produced a funkier, happier, more strutting version of Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield’s protest soul of the same period.

Both concerned with social issues and loaded with sheer joie de vivre, Lee’s 1970 album “Yes We Can” is one of the pinnacles of New Orleans music. The title track is an anthem of positivity, with Lee singing,“Make this land a better land than the world in which we live, and make each man a better man with the kindness that you give…”. It’s such a positive and defiant song. “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further?” is a warped swamp funk vortex with the killer lines, “What happened to the Liberty Bell I heard so much about? Did it really ding dong? It must have dinged wrong. It didn’t ding long.” Has there ever been a shorter and funkier dismissal of the lie of American freedom?

The high point of their Polydor collaborations wasn’t on the album. Instead, it came out as a 45 in 1971. It’s the song I talked about in the second paragraph here. “Freedom for the Stallion” is not just one of the finest moments in New Orleans music. I’d say it’s one of the finest moments in all music. It’s possessed of such grace and humility. Whenever I hear it, the world stops moving for three minutes. The sound of the record is unmistakably New Orleans, funereal parade band drums, over a collapsing piano riff, but the feel of the song is universal. It might be about slavery and civil rights, but the nakedness of its humanity makes it about injustice the world over.

It’s a protest song that is weary and almost resigned, yet utterly uplifting in its kindness. Kind. That´s a good word for Allen Toussaint’s music. Kind. It’s not a word you associate much with popular music but it’s the right one here. Last week, at a concert in New Orleans to celebrate Allen’s life, his pastor riffed on the word “sweet” to describe both Allen the man and Allen’s music. Kind, sweet. The world needs more kindness and sweetness.

In the seventies, Allen had success as a producer, writer and artist. He produced great albums by Dr John, The Meters, Frankie Miller, Labelle and the Wild Tchoupitoulas. Betty Wright had a hit with “Shoorah Shoorah”, Aaron Neville with “Hercules” and Esther Phillips with “From A Whisper To A Scream”. His own albums were little wonders: the highlight being 1975’s “Southern Nights”. Once the seventies were over, Allen continued making music, though a little further out of the spotlight. After Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, Allen was forced to leave the city and take up temporary residence in New York. He became something of an ambassador for his hometown and started to tour the world and record again for major labels, recording “The River in Reverse” with Elvis Costello, the deep New Orleans jazz of “The Bright Mississippi”, and “Songbook”, a live run-through of some of his hits. He never stopped playing, he never stopped working, he never stopped writing.

Talking to the Sodajerker podcast last year, Allen finished the interview by giving advice to aspiring songwriters, “Be as honest as possible, not just writing songs, but just to walk on the planet. Surround yourself with good thoughts and positive attitude and whatever’s negative, try and discard it and sidestep it as soon as possible so it won’t take root in your reservoir.”

“Because we write out of our reservoir, what we collect, it becomes a part of us, we’re reflections. Surround yourself also with good people, if you can, but mostly good thoughts and look around wherever you are and be inspired by the environment, cos there’s environment on every corner and every turn that you make, it’s inspiring. Just notice it all and don’t let moments and scenes pass you by without noticing.”

“Enjoy the journey on the way there and look at, at a red light, rather than wait for the light to change, look around and see what’s going on here. Once you leave here, this is gone, it may have offered you something that if you would’ve just been waiting and looking at the light, you’d have missed it. You might have seen two people standing up on the corner and kiss quickly. There you are, they kissed on the corner. You don’t want to miss that. Of course, that’s a very simplified way of saying it, but I think to look around at life as it’s going by and try not to miss it.”

You don’t need to be a songwriter to get something from that. It’s about sweetness and kindness again. Allen Toussaint might be gone, but he left us a whole load of sweetness and kindness. For years to come, there’ll be people smiling, laughing, crying, dreaming and dancing as they listen to his music. So…

“Play somethin’ sweet, play somethin’ mellow

Play somethin’ I can sink my teeth in like Jello

Play something I can understand

Play me some Brickyard Blues

Play somethin’ sweet and make it funky

Just let me lay back and grin like a monkey

Play something I can understand

Play me some Brickyard Blues”

Allen Toussaint, January 14, 1938 – November 10, 2015.