Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Allen Toussaint RIP

He was the godfather of New Orleans R and B. The death of Allen Toussaint, suddenly at the age of 77 following a concert in Madrid, is a terrible shock and hard to take in. Despite the dispiriting deluge of deaths of other New Orleans greats over the last few years, including that of Frankie Ford only a few weeks ago, Allen Toussaint seemed to be the great survivor. Always looking dapper and fit, and consistently putting on a superb show, he seemed indestructible. But now he's gone, just a few days before he was due to perform once again in London.
As a songwriter, pianist, producer and performer he represented all that was so great about New Orleans and its music and it was his songs that really attracted me to the music right from the beginning in the early sixties and led to me being a regular visitor. He wrote, often under his pen name Naomi Neville, and played on nearly all the classic New Orleans records of the sixties by Ernie K-Doe, Benny Spellman, Lee Dorsey, Chris Kenner, Irma Thomas, Art and Aaron Neville and many others. His influence on the city's music was second to none and even when that first phase of joyful R and B fell out of favour he kept the spirit of New Orleans music alive by moving into the funkier sounds of the Meters and others and producing many fine records in the late sixties and seventies.
I was lucky enough to catch Allen Toussaint performing on many occasions, both in New Orleans, including at Jazzfest and the Ponderosa Stomp, and in London. His voice was more than adequate and it was brilliant piano playing, his wonderful songs and his personality that made him such an engaging entertainer. Who can forget songs like A Certain Girl, Get Out Of My Life Woman, Lipstick Traces and Do Re Mi, to name but a few? As a recording artist he had success with Southern Nights and From A Whisper To A Scream, but it was his songwriting, musicianship and influence that really counted.
Allen was not quite the last great artist from the classic New Orleans era - Dr John, the Nevilles and Irma Thomas are still around thankfully - but he was without doubt one of the greatest in terms of the musical heritage of the Big Easy.
Top photo shows Allen at the Ponderosa Stomp in 2011. Dave Bartholomew was scheduled to appear but was unwell so Allen played a double set - sheer brilliance throughout. Photo below shows him making a surprise appearance at Irma Thomas's Lion's Den club in New Orleans in 1991.
Here's a blog entry I wrote following a show at the Jazz Cafe in July, 2009.

If anyone can be called a living legend of New Orleans music then Allen Toussaint must surely be that person. He produced, composed and played brilliant piano on numerous New Orleans R and B classics in the late 50s and 60s by the likes of Lee Dorsey, Ernie K-Doe, Benny Spellman, Irma Thomas and Chris Kenner, moved on to be the godfather of N'Awlins funk in the late 60s and early 70s, and made his mark as a solo performer, along with numerous later collaborations with the likes of Frankie Miller and, a couple of years ago, Elvis Costello.
Now 71, and looking fit and smart (despite wearing sandals and socks), Allen's one man show at the Jazz Cafe last night showed just how good he was, and still is. New Orleans has produced many great piano players over the years, from Archibald to Professor Longhair to James Booker, but Allen showed that he's every bit as good as any of them. He kicked off with a selection of his classic New Orleans hits - from Ernie K-Doe's A Certain Girl, to Benny Spellman's Fortune Teller to Lee Dorsey's Working In a Coal Mine - and played several jazz standards from his new album The Bright Mississippi, including one originally by Django Reinhardt (he pronounced it D-Jango). Along the way he played a superb medley of just about every musical style you could think of, including R and B, jazz, country, boogie woogie - even a touch of the classics, all done with a virtuosity that made it all seem so simple. He slipped in one or two of his more obscure R and B compositions, including Art Neville's All These Things (made before the Nevilles realised that they were the Neville Brothers, he said) and Chris Kenner's Packing Up, and included Lee Dorsey's Get Out Of My Life Woman which, he said, rather surprisingly, was his most covered song. The whole show was done in an easy going, laid back manner with amusing asides and tales of his childhood. Naturally he finished off with Southern Nights, his best known solo recording. It's a long way to the Big Easy, but Allen Toussant made it feel as though it was just round the corner.
Here he is embracing Dr John at Jazzfest in the mid 1990s.

RIP Allen. You will be missed.


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