Saturday, January 14, 2012

Allen Toussaint

I am an unabashed fan of songwriters. It's been a lifelong interest: as a kid, I was already an avid reader of liner notes, and I always carefully studied who wrote the songs I enjoyed.

Today is the 74th birthday of Allen Toussaint, a living legend for anyone who cherishes joyful music that's firmly rooted in a musical tradition.

You can open up my links to read his biography. You'll be astounded by his songs that became monstrous hits for others: "Southern Nights" (Glen Campbell,1977); "Yes We Can Can " (Pointer Sisters, 1973); and "Working in a Coal Mine" (Lee Dorsey, 1966). You will also note how ubiquitous Toussaint has been throughout his career as a producer and supporting player for projects by many popular artists.

I first encountered Toussaint in the 1970s because I greatly enjoyed two songs of his that Bonnie Raitt and Geoff Muldaur had recorded. Raitt rendered "What Do You Want the Boy to Do? on 1975's Home Plate and Muldaur recorded 3 Toussaint numbers on 1976's Motion: the title cut, "Southern Nights", and "What Do You Want the Girl to Do?"

Turned out that Toussaint toiled for Warner/Reprise at the same time as both Raitt and Muldaur. Motion, his 1978 release produced by Jerry Wexler, is a treasure. It's with this album that you learn the Toussaint style: joyful numbers (like "Happiness", a song that never fails to lift me) mingled with smooth and seductive ballads ("With You in Mind"; "To Be With You"). Raitt and Etta James provide backup vocals for many of the tracks here.

Why Toussaint never made a name for himself as a singer is perplexing to me. But he didn't, and he was cast off Warners along with Van Morrison and Arlo Guthrie at the dawn of the 1980s. I fell out of touch with him then, not only due to his not releasing anything but because I was consumed with learning the Great American Songbook (courtesy largely of Sinatra and Fitzgerald).

In 1994 I spied his name on Crescent City Gold, a lovely collection in which he chipped in half a dozen songs. Then there was 1996's Connected - which gave me a chance to introduce my wife to his artistry. She liked it mostly, even though I enjoyed torturing her with these lyrics from "Computer Lady":

I met this lady while surfin' on-line
I believe she's a lady
she created that image in my mind
She came through as if she knew exactly what I needed
When she described herself to me my floppy overheated

She said she'd like the man who is so inclined
to had a strong imagination such as mine
and we could trip off when she could be free
to share some of her software with much of me

Computer lady (c'mon)
make my night
drive me crazy
with your megabytes
I don't know if you're real
but until I do
Keep my modem hot, computer baby
Keep my modem hot, computer lady

Soon as I get inside, the very first thing I do
is boot up my you-know-what
and I look for you-know-who
and - whoo! - there she is just filling up the screen
with all sorts of sweet talk, just a little bit short of obscene
Saying things that we can do when face to face someday
or maybe some night based on the games we play

Just for a moment I sat back to breathe
and thought about how far we'd come from Adam and Eve


Computer lady, computer lady
visit without hesitation
Computer lady, computer lady
We've got a major situation


Keep it hot
keep it burnin'
keep it on fire
keep it hot
(repeat and fade)

Listening to this track again, I'm swinging along, feeling the happiness, and I'm also gently amused by his humor. Another reason I love Allen Toussaint is that he reminds me of a musician I knew in Chicago, a piano bar entertainer who was a beautiful player like Toussaint and who'd have surely performed this eye-rolling number. Your spirit lives, Les!

Around that time Lisa and I went to hear Allen Toussaint perform at a free concert at the bandshell in Boston. I recall sitting and waiting for the show to start and observing Allen walking alone along the Charles River. I could have easily approached him, but I thought better of it. The image will stick with me, though. Hey, it's better than the memory of saying something stupid!

Another quiet decade ensued, but then Toussaint's cherished city was leveled by a flood in 2005 and ever since then he's been working tirelessly. Prominent efforts include a collaboration with Elvis Costello (2006's River in Reverse) and actor Hugh Laurie (2011's Let Them Talk). He has subbed for Paul Schaeffer on Letterman and performed in residence at Joe's Pub in New York.

Allen Toussaint is your classic songwriter. He's little-known outside of serious musical circles, but his contributions to the field are deeply appreciated by any serious listener or player. You are in for a treat if you haven't heard of him. Come dip into some of my links and then keep your eyes out for his next project or when he sails through your hometown!

Here's Allen performing "What Do You Want the Girl to Do?". His opening remark about Bonnie Raitt will make you chuckle!

Here are the Pointer Sisters singing "Yes We Can Can". I know we can make it! Yeah!

Amazing photography in this YouTube video of "Working in the Coal Mine"

Great to have a clip of Allen singing "Southern Nights" on You Tube!

Irma Thomas had a hit with Toussaint's "It's Raining".

Are you a Robert Palmer fan? Enjoy this photo montage of him as he sings "Night People" by Allen Toussaint.