The Legacy of Allen Toussaint
The late legend’s songs, like “Southern Nights,” are classics that will always be played.
Last month the band I was a part of in the early to mid 80’s, the R&B Cadets, played its very first date at Shank Hall. Our band had split before that formidable and sturdy venue appeared on the scene, you see. The band, which featured Paul Cebar and Robin Pluer and myself on lead vocals, was all about the dance floor. I wrote most of what I sang, but Paul and Robin drew from a pretty deep well of Soul, Blues and R&B. Where the line on those genres is drawn, if there even is one, is hard to say. But one of the guiding lights and a point of true inspiration to the Cadets, Allen Toussaint, straddled them all brilliantly, along with a handful of other styles. He died last month at age 77 — what he left behind cannot be overrated.
It was Paul’s job to deliver a lot of what Toussaint wrote for the irresistibly sweet voice of Lee Dorsey. Those songs alone would be enough to put Toussaint in the Hall of Fame. But Toussaint also provided what seemed like half of the great New Orleans hits from the late 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. He was adopted by other hitmakers outside The Crescent City, too. Everyone seems to have done at least one of his songs. Barack Obama, who doesn’t miss much, missed a real opportunity when he passed on my telepathic message to use Toussaint’s song “Yes We Can Can” as his campaign theme.
The beauty of Toussaint’s music lies in his perfect balance of words and music. You would be hard pressed to say he does one better than the other, and he does both so well it seems almost supernatural. Listen to the opening lines of “On Your Way Down” and try to imagine a more haunting combination of truth telling lyrics and melody. You almost don’t know which to talk about first, he is so formidable at both — but let’s start with the music.
Toussaint started on piano at age seven and nothing I’ve read since his death talks of any formal education. In a town that rich in music education, I have to assume he learned to read. His work a little later in life, as a writer, producer and arranger indicates wide musical knowledge. Either way, his sparkling talent for memorable horn lines was heard everywhere for a long stretch of time; a sterling example can be found in his work on The Band’s Last Waltz.
In one of the best live performances I’ve ever seen, Toussaint played the catchy little motif from “Southern Nights,” a huge hit for Glen Campbell, languidly across many keys as he related a story from his childhood. This prelude lasted for minutes as talked about a drive through the country with his mother as a child and the world passing before him as he peered out the back window. When he finally arrived at the song, you felt as if you had been with him on that steamy morning. Here is one long version that is a little different than the one I saw. With better audio, but less narrative, here’s a shorter version.
Have you ever felt a southern night?
Free as a breeze
not to mention the trees
Whistling tunes that you know and love so.
just as good even when closed your eyes.
I apologize to anyone who can truly say
That he has found a better way
Feel so good
feel so good
Wish I could,
stop this world from fighting.
La da da da da da la da da da da da da da da
have you ever noticed southern skies?
It’s precious beauty lies just beyond the eye.
It goes running through your soul
Like the stories told of old
he and his dog that walked the old land
Ev’ry flower touched his cold cold hand.
As he slowly walked by
Would cry for joy
like this and many others in the trees
Blow in the night
in the southern skies
© Allen Toussaint
It was almost impossible to choose just one song to write about. This performance, tossed off as if anyone could do it, is amazing. But don’t let it stop you from going down that Youtube rabbit hole. There is plenty of Toussaint and others playing his vast catalog. So much of it is good, simply because he was on hand to produce it. When you come up for air, you will have undoubtedly become a member of his fan club.
There was plenty of wit in Toussaint’s earlier writing, songs like Mother-In-Law attest to that. Truth is, his wit never went away, he just added a layer of indescribable beauty to it, and this song is among the many touching examples of the sweeping emotion that informs his later work. The ability to ride a wave of feeling that is constantly cresting, without being overwhelmed, or to pursue that metaphor a little further, without wiping out, is rare. Toussaint had it, and rode that wave like a pro endlessly through his long career. He won’t go away any sooner than that little riff in Southern Nights does. It’s been in my brain from the first time I heard it, taking up residence with hundreds of other images and sounds planted there by one of the great masters of American music. Thank you Maestro.