Allen Toussaint and Irma Thomas at the 2007 Big Easy Awards.
photo by Pat Jolly
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I’m in New Orleans preparing for the CHADD conference I wrote about in Coconut Times last month. The last thing I do at night and first thing I do upon waking is turn on WWOZ; the best radio station ever. This morning I heard just the first few words of a poem and thought to myself, “Gee – that sounds like Allen Toussaint’s voice and his piano playing in the background.” His talk about growing up and visiting with his country relatives and sitting on their porch at night with no electricity yet feeling so safe and loved – This is what inspired him to write the beautiful song “Southern Nights” recorded by Glen Campbell.
I was thinking that Mr. Toussaint had popped into WWOZ to help with their fundraising drive and was shocked to hear the show host announce that Allen had died just hours before from a heart attack while touring in Madrid, Spain. What a tremendous loss to this city and music lovers around the world. This most kind, soft spoken southern gentleman has left us with a legacy that will live on as long as music is cherished!
I grew up listening to his songs such as “Mother-In-Law” sung be Ernie K-Doe, “Lipstick Traces” sung by Benny Spellman, silly songs like “Splish Splash I was Taking a Bath,” the most beautiful “Tell It like It Is” sung by Aaron Neville, “Get Out of My Life Woman” recorded by many including Jerry Garcia and the Doors, “Working In The Coal Mine” recorded by Lee Dorsey, “Lady Marmalade” (Patti LaBelle), “Yes I Can Can,” “Ride Your Pony,” “Fortune Teller,” “Sneakin Sally Through the Alley,” and the list just goes on and on.
In more recent years I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing both Allen Toussaint and Irma Thomas. Irma has recorded many of Allen’s songs including my favorite entitled “It’s Raining.” I saw them both perform this song last spring at French Quarter Fest and Jazz Fest. As a matter of fact, this was the only song Irma sang at the French Quarter Fest as it was her opening song and the heavens just opened up with a tremendous thunder storm. Irma also introduced us to Allen’s “Ruler of My Heart” which Nora Jones just sang on OZ. Allen produced, along with Elvis Costello, the first CD to be recorded in NOLA after hurricane Katrina entitled “River in Reverse.” I’m certainly feeling his “Tears, Tears and More Tears” and “Where is the Love” from that Grammy-nominated album.
I’m not going to tell my Allen stories today but next time remind me to at least tell you about the first time I saw him driving his Rolls down Frenchman Street – really funny. I would like to share the conversation I just had with Charmaine Neville. She is forever “firing” on stage her long time piano player and band leader, Amasa Miller. Charmaine told me that whenever she did a benefit with Allen Toussaint, he’d tease her by saying, “have you fired Amasa yet? Cause I’d really like to be in your band.” Charmaine told me that her bass player was touring with Allen and had called her at 3:30am from Spain to tell her the sad news. Charmaine says, “Well, that big band up in heaven just got even better.”
Pat Jolly (photographer and Night Mayor of New Orleans Scene) wrote the following to me this morning – “Allen was our greatest New Orleans musical hero and one of the world's most amazingly talented and beloved musicians of our century. He had so many cherished qualities of being what it really means to be a human being. He touched so many people's lives in such a personal way. He was kind, caring, gave of himself to others smilingly, and was always graciously exemplifying the definition of being a true gentlemen.”
Throughout his life Mr. Toussaint kept R & B alive in the tradition and continually took us to new places with his soul and funk. WWOZ is playing “Everything I Do Is Going to Be Funky From Now On” as I write this tribute. New Orleans celebrates both life and one’s home going and I’m sure I’ll be second lining for Allen later this week. Thanks for letting me share!