To say that songwriter, pianist, producer and singer Allen Toussaint was prolific is an understatement. The gentlemanly giant of New Orleans R&B had a list of performing, composing and producing credits that’s almost hard to take in. If you grooved to an R&B song sometime in the past half-century, chances are good that Toussaint had a hand in it (often under the songwriting pseudonym “Naomi Neville,” a tribute to his mother). A partial list: Lee Dorsey’s “Working in the Coal Mine,” Ernie K. Doe’s “A Certain Girl,” Benny Spellman’s “Fortune Teller,” Irma Thomas’s “It’s Raining,” Chris Kenner’s “I Like It Like That,” the Pointer Sisters’ “Yes We Can Can,” Boz Scaggs’ “What Do You Want the Girl To Do?,” Robert Palmer’s “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley”. He wrote the rollicking “Whipped Cream,” which was recorded by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, and became the theme song for “The Dating Game.” He produced Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade,” as well as albums for Dr. John and the Meters. Glen Campbell had a huge hit with Toussaint’s song “Southern Nights.” Toussaint wrote the horn arrangements for the Band’s “Cahoots” and “Rock of Ages” albums. He produced and recorded a post-Katrina duo album with Elvis Costello, “The River in Reverse.”
And that’s only scratching the surface.
My first (unwitting) exposure to Toussaint came through the Dave Clark Five’s cover of “I Like It Like That” and Lee Dorsey’s version of “Working in the Coal Mine,” which I loved as a kid glued to my AM radio in the early ’60s. Later, I wore out the grooves to Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade” and the Pointer Sisters’ drop-dead funky “Yes We Can,” both released in 1974; I took enough notice of the album credits to connect Toussaint to both of these ferocious expressions of female political engagement, sexual and otherwise.
Toussaint wrote often about race and class divisions in songs unflinching (“Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further,” “What Is Success?,” “On the Way Down”), prayerful (“Freedom for the Stallion”) and uplifting; his inclusionary and triumphant “Yes We Can Can” was a movement in itself, even before it found its spiritual echo in the 2008 campaign that elected the first black President of the United States.
It’s only a small exaggeration to say that everyone covered Toussaint’s songs. Any decent record collection that includes a representative sampling of releases from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s will include songs written or produced by Toussaint. He brought New Orleans R&B to rock and country audiences. Listen to some of Toussaint’s solo recordings today and you can hear what other artists were referencing in their own classic songs: The whooshing, paranoid tremors of a guilty conscience that float through “From a Whisper to a Scream” are echoed on Hall and Oates’ “She’s Gone”; the easy-rolling baseline of “Soul Sister” turned up a year later on Steve Miller’s “The Joker.”
I’m tempted to say that Toussaint’s sudden passing at age 77 on Nov. 10 leaves a great void, except that his work is so pervasive, he’ll always be here, an essential flavor in the savory gumbo of American music he helped create.
Allen Touissaint performing “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further”
The Pointer Sisters on “Soul Train”, “Yes We Can Can”
Lee Dorsey, “Working in the Coalmine” (audio)
Elvis Costello and Allen Touissaint, “Freedom for the Stallion” (audio)
Labelle in full otherworldly attire, “Lady Marmalade”
©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015