A poet in time
jeffrey johnston photograph
Allen Toussaint’s death on Nov. 10 was startling. Was he really 77? He looked way younger with that elegant verve and easy wit, a guy as cool as the other side of the pillow.
Behind the polished persona was an anti-celebrity. Before Hurricane Katrina, his skills as a composer and arranger drew a trail of artists – including Paul McCartney and Paul Simon – to record with him in New Orleans. After the hurricane, when he lost his studio, the grand piano at home and most of his belongings, he went to New York City. In playing concerts and relief events he became a performer, a rejuvenated recording artist and fabled native son. He moved back, a prince of the city yet with a reserve, evincing little hunger for the limelight.
Toussaint got his start in the 1950s, playing a piano from his grandmother at the family home on tiny College Circle in Gert Town. He was mostly self-taught, absorbing the rhythm-and-blues of Fats Domino and Little Richard, learning the licks by ear and lots of practice. At 22 he was a fixture at Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Studio and for Minit Records.
The family had moved to Earhart Boulevard when Toussaint filled the living room with rehearsal sessions for Irma Thomas, a teenage mom struggling for a break; a tall swaying songster named Benny Spellman; the flamboyant force of nature in Ernie K-Doe; and a muscular stevedore tattooed with a dagger, Aaron Neville.
They were discovering the sounds that made kids across the racial line get up and dance; Toussaint’s lyrics stemmed from a singularly poetic imagination. Two generations of us would dance to Irma, singing: “It’s raining so hard/ Looks like it’s gonna rain all night/ This is the time/ I’d love to be holding you tight/ I guess I’ll have to accept/ The fact that you’re not here/ I wish tonight would hurry up and end, my dear.”
Before the New Orleans Saints existed, Art Neville could steam up a room as a young, mellow crooner, singing Toussaint’s lines: “The touch of your lips/ Next to mine/ Gets me excited/ Makes me feel fine/ The touch of your hand, your sweet hello/ The fire inside you when you’re holding me close/ Your love so warm and tender / The thrill is so divine/ It is all these things/ That make you mine.”
A night with the Rolling Stones rocking the Superdome was great, but I’d trade it in a heartbeat to see Benny Spellman again, singing Toussaint: “Your pretty brown eyes/ Your wavy hair/ I won’t go home no more/ ’Cause you’re not there./ I’m telling you now/ Like I told you before/ I’m so in love with you/ Don’t leave me no more./ Lipstick traces on a cigarette/ Every memory lingers with me yet.”
The two albums he recorded in his twilight years, Bright Mississippi and Allen Toussaint’s Songbook rank with the all-time classics of New Orleans. Bright Mississippi is a collection of jazz standards, hardly his main fare, but hearing Allen do “Saint James Infirmary” made me wish he had recorded many more of the early Louis Armstrong Hot Five and Hot Seven sessions. Songbook was done live at Joe’s Pub in New York City. In revisiting those songs first recorded by Thomas and Spellmen and Art Neville, Toussaint’s phrasing is full of surprises. The showstopper is the last cut, a sublime version of “Southern Nights” with a long, sweet monologue of the singer recalling his family trips as a boy to see old folk in the country – a milieu of love evoked with a tenderness that printed words cannot convey.
He did his composing after dinner, typically working until 4 a.m. “The night time is my very best time to work,” he told me in 1996. “Because it’s so quiet. The night air, for one thing – even if you’re inside, the hum of the city is down to a minimum, whereas in daytime you can hear that between B and B-flat hum of the city.”
In love with that line, I repeated it back to him: New Orleans has a B-flat hum.
“Oh, absolutely,” he replied, and said when he drove in from the airport, heading down the Earhart overpass past a transformer the hum of the grid welled up around him. “The city is B flat all the way,” said Toussaint, a current of his own flowing through that B flat hum, now and forever.