“Oh, um,” I told Allen Toussaint. The greatest songwriter in the history of New Orleans music wanted more time to play. “You can play as long as you like!”
He nodded and walked back to the piano. The 40th birthday party for the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities was underway, but Toussaint had yet to perform. As he walked away, I tried to play it cool.
I’d done a decent job when he first arrived in sandals and an immaculate purple suit to test out the baby grand Yahama we’d rented for the evening. Here you are, sir, please let us know that it works. The truth was that a sound check with Allen Toussaint left me fulfilled for the night, the year, my lifetime. And perhaps in my overawed state, I’d failed to clarify the run of show. It happens sometimes, when cake is being delivered, the ice is missing, board members are on the way, media attention is uncertain—you assume everyone understands the details of your intentions. The fact that I’d booked Allen Toussaint was a certainty that I’d already crowed about to anyone who’d listen. I guess I forgot the most important thing for a producer, the most meticulous of artists: the timeframe.
Guests filled in the room, an introduction was made, and Toussaint settled into the bench. He ran his fingers down the keys, made a few gestures toward Professor Longhair’s memory, and then the opening chords of “Southern Nights” emerged. Very soon, a spell descended on the audience.
We cannot lose many more masters. Folks in New Orleans say this all the time. The final straw seems ever closer, whether it’s the passing of Clyde Kerr, Jr., or the loss of Coco Robicheaux. I feel lucky to count among my musical memories a few great performances by Eddie Bo, Gatemouth Brown, Ernie K-Doe, and Snooks Eaglin, all gone now. A generation is passing, the sources of that definitive New Orleans R&B/funk that began at the Dew Drop Inn and gave meaning to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Their collective sound eventually reached the airways worldwide, but there is something about that music that is deeply rooted in the neighborhoods of New Orleans. Daily life is the source of the inside jokes (“Who Shot the LaLa?” “I Peeped Your Hole Card”) and playful syllables (“Ya Ya”, “Te-Ta-Te-Ta-Ta) that resounded with audiences far, far from Gert Town (where Toussaint was born). People didn’t need to know the whole story—it just sounded so cool (and still does).
Toussaint channeled this infinite hipness, the clever pop quality of local accents and idioms, to craft catchy lyrics for neighborhood guys like K-Doe, Lee Dorsey, and Benny Spellman. Beneath the wordplay he constructed a funk sensibility extracted from Fess’s left hand, that thickness of bass so often imitated, bass lines that would find diehard apostles in reggae and hip-hop. In the 1970’s, his influence attracted artists as diverse as Paul McCartney and LaBelle to New Orleans. We’re fortunate that writers and filmmakers continue to explore the worlds of Dave Bartholomew, Fats Domino, and Cosimo Matassa, and the genesis of rock n’ roll at the J&M Studio on Rampart Street. But more, please about 1970’s New Orleans and Toussaint’s Sea-Saint Studio. What birthed, for example, the glamorous, political tone of LaBelle’s Night Birds album?
What a sound. What a mind. What a place.
In recent years, you saw him about town more often, I heard tell, than before Katrina. Whether the suit was purple or plaid, he emanated a sense of benevolent royalty. Not ostentatious or imperial, but a master in his realm who entered and departed with grace, generosity and control. Here was the greatest of them all, smiling and observing. Numerous people have stories of Toussaint appearing at their humble gigs just to listen. Amid the seemingly constant reinvention of all things New Orleans, here was the real thing.
“We didn’t care about the philosophy, but we liked the ride.”
This was not simply “Southern Nights.” Allen Toussaint was telling us a story. What unfolded that night at the Humanities Center was a performance he’d done before and would repeat (I heard it again at the 2015 Tennessee Williams Festival), but one I’ll never forget. We were on a journey with a great storyteller. He told of his father’s philosophy: children should visit their country relatives to understand their family’s roots. Inside the car with us: his sister Joyce, brother Vincent, mother Naomi, and father Clarence. He talked of the shotgun houses with battered siding and porches, his sense that, “they were never new, they must have been built old.” He dropped jokes into his descriptions of the cows, horses, and chickens, sly comments on race and imitations of country accents. He kept playing as he paused, the breaks building the anticipation like turns of pages in a book you don’t want to end.
We reached the family home, and Toussaint remembered the crushing embraces of his aunts, the tall tales of his uncles, and a sense of security. “I knew then that everything important in life was on that porch,” he purred. “There was someone on that porch who could do something about everything.”
When the thirty-minute set concluded, the applause was thunderous. I looked across the room at WWOZ’s David Kunian and knew that, yes, that had happened, and yes, it was that amazing. As partiers munched on cake, Toussaint moved through the crowd like a statesmen, taking photos with all who asked, and I accepted congratulations I did not deserve. Because, really, what is our job but to provide our geniuses with the space, microphone, fair pay and–don’t forget—the time to take us with them?
As we do in New Orleans, we will spend the coming days showing our thanks and our joy. All of us are fortunate that Allen Toussaint was here.