Allen Toussaint was a stylish and elegant man, from his demeanor and attire to his chord changes and melodies, all awash in tradition and guaranteed to tug on heartstrings. With his death in Spain following a performance last night, we all lost a giant, possibly the greatest ambassador of New Orleans music of all time.
Consider the reach of his compositions. From the 1964 instrumental hit “Java” by Al Hirt to his 2007 collaboration with Elvis Costello,The River in Reverse, Toussaint’s presence has been as a fixture in popular music for more than five decades. Songs like “Southern Nights” by Glen Campbell, “Working in the Coal Mine” by Lee Dorsey, “Yes We Can Can” by the Pointer Sisters and his production of “Lady Marmalade” by Labelle testify to Toussaint’s versatility as a songwriter and his ability to cross arbitrary musical boundaries in pursuit of a hit sound. His work as an arranger on The Band’s Cahoots, Rock of Ages and The Last Waltz added the sweet soul dressing to Robbie Robertson’s classic Americana, brightly complementing the rhythm-and-blues element of Robertson’s songwriting.
I was fortunate enough to have two close encounters with Toussaint, neither of which he would’ve remembered, but both of which affected me greatly. In 1984, The dB’s were filmed as musical guests along with Toussaint for a crazy NBC show called The Funniest Man in the World (Or at Least the World’s Fair) that was filmed in New Orleans during the 1984 World’s Fair. We were led up to the rotating stage after he’d finished his sound check and filming. I had watched and listened to him and his small band, marveling at what was coming from his piano, wondering how he made being suave look so easy. I stood transfixed in front of his gold-plated Shure SM58 microphone, thinking, “If anyone on Earth deserves a gold mic, surely it must be Allen Toussaint.”
The other time I ran into him was September 7, 2005, when Hootie was filming The Late Show With David Letterman. Toussaint was guesting with the band, having endured Hurricane Katrina from the Astor Crowne Plaza hotel on Canal Street in New Orleans, then moving to New York shortly thereafter. I saw him get off the tiny elevator on the stage level of the theater, and the pain and sadness was writ large on his face. I could only try to imagine the depth of his sorrow as he joined Paul Shaffer and his group onstage. It was a feeling all New Orleans residents past and present carried with us, but for a New Orleans native with deep roots to the community, it was particularly heavy. I caught his eye and nodded, and he nodded back, confirming without knowing my own story that he was indeed aching for his home.
It is a small comfort to know Allen Toussaint was performing when the end came for him. I would like to believe it was the way he would have wanted to go, having filled a room with his sweet songs. He will be missed.