On Monday evening, waiting for Allen Toussaint to begin his solo set at Ronnie Scott’s, I recalled the times in the early sixties when I would lie in bed listening to songs like ‘Working in a Coalmine’, ‘Mother in Law’ and ‘Fortune Teller’ on Radio Luxembourg. Although I was not aware of the fact at the time, all these hit singles had been written and produced by Toussaint.
It was only in the 1970s, when reading the liner notes of albums by Bonnie Raitt, Little Feat and Lowell George, that I discovered that songs such as ‘What is Success’, ‘On Your Way Down’ and ‘What Do You Want the Girl To Do’ were authored by Toussaint – and that this was the same man who had been responsible for those hits by Lee Dorsey, Ernie K Doe and Benny Spellman I had enjoyed a decade earlier.
Last year I bought Songbook, recorded live at Joe’s Pub in New York where Allen Toussaint had started to play regular solo gigs after Hurricane Katrina had forced him to leave his hometown. Songbook features Toussaint alone at the piano running through songs he’s written over the decades, plus a few New Orleans standards and the occasional autobiographical reminiscence by way of introduction to a particular song (most notably ‘Southern Nights’). So when I saw that Toussaint was making a rare appearance in the UK doing one of these solo shows I knew I had to be there.
It had been the hottest day of summer so far in London, and when Allen came out to the grand piano he began by exclaiming ‘You people certainly know how to hang!’, talking about how much he’d enjoyed seeing people on the pavements, sitting outside bars and cafes. Straight away he launched into a piano blues medley before introducing ‘Night People’, a song he wrote for the late Lee Dorsey for whom, Toussaint said, he still writes, even though nearly 30 years have passed since Dorsey’s death.
While the day world is sleeping
Night people are creeping, hanging out
Looking at each other
When the day world stops moving
Night people start grooving, hanging out
Looking at each other
When the day bees stop buzzing
Night people start coming, hanging out
Waiting for something to happen
That was the first of several songs penned for Lee Dorsey that he included in the set, including ‘Working in a Coal Mine’, ‘Holy Cow’, ‘Get Out Of My Life, Woman’ and ‘Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky From Now On’. Early in the set he stormed through a medley of those hit singles I’d listen to in the sixties: ‘A Certain Girl’ (during which he traded it’s question-and-answer lyric – ‘What’s her name? I can’t tell you’ – with the crowd), ‘Fortune Teller’, ‘Working in a Coal Mine’, and ‘Mother-in-Law’.
Toussaint’s songs are drenched in the musical traditions and street life of New Orleans, but some that he featured in this performance are overt tributes to his hometown – such as ‘Big Chief’, and ‘It’s A New Orleans Thing’:
Anywhere I am, there’s a bit of Tipitina –
Anyone from New Orleans knows exactly what I mean
Anywhere I go, something goes along with me
It’s the charm of the Crescent City in me…
Another song that celebrated the musical riches of the American South was Toussaint’s tribute to BB King, ‘Beale Street to Broadway’. This was a song that I hadn’t heard before, and I wondered whether it had been written in response to BB King’s death in May. It’s a very fine song, during which Toussaint’s piano somehow echoed the sound of King’s guitar, reinforcing the evocative lyric:
From Beale Street to Broadway and far beyond
Any place he travelled, the blues was right at home.
From dirt roads to highways, and skyways around the world
The guitar case is an oyster, and inside lies a pearl.
Then there was Allen’s haunting account of ‘St James’ Infirmary’ – the highlight for me of his post-Katrina Bright Mississippi album. Here it is as recorded with accompaniment on that album:
And here’s a live version with guitar and drums, recorded at a Toronto Jazz Festival in 2012:
Calling out for requests, Toussaint took up the suggestion of ‘Sneaking Sally Through the Alley’, first recorded by Lee Dorsey then, famously, by Robert Palmer. He dug deep into his own back catalogue for ‘Motion’, the title track from the 1978 record that also featured ‘Night People’. It’s a gorgeous song, dreamlike and sensuous:
There’s motion in the ocean
Much like the motion in my mind
Just loving you
Sends me rolling over, sails up and riding
Rolling over in the morning
When you’re waking …
It’s so good listening to old records
And thinking about you
‘Old Records’ is one of those happy/sad songs in which some guy mixes himself a scotch and soda, turns on the stereo ‘with the volume a lonely low’, and decides it’s good listening to old records ‘and thinking about you’. Despite everything, he accepts that ‘you did the right thing leaving me’. This is another of those songs gifted by Toussaint to another artist to make of it a classic – in this case Irma Thomas:
Toussaint varied the mood effectively, leavening the romanticism of these ballads with piano workouts such as the Lee Dorsey hit ‘Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky’ and ‘(Play Something Sweet) Brickyard Blues’, the number he wrote (as he recalled from the piano stool) for Frankie Miller, the R&B singer from Colvend Street, Glasgow, who – unlikely as it may seem – impressed Toussaint as ‘the most soulful guy I ever heard in my life’. The pair formed a bond (despite Frankie’s liking for warm beer) and Allen produced Frankie’s album High Life which featured this song:
Somewhere around here in the set Toussaint asked, were there were any piano players in the house? After a little reluctance a volunteer stepped up to join Allen at the piano stool, and the pair jammed on some thundering boogie woogie.
A You Tube clip suggests that this item is a regular feature of Toussaint’s shows:
Toussaint ended a memorable show with an upbeat rendition of ‘Southern Nights’ before returning for a brief encore in which he reprised the boogie workout with the pianist from the audience and concluded with a short return to ‘Southern Nights’.
I left the club elated with the show, but just a little disappointed that Toussaint had not regaled us with as many anecdotes and childhood memories for which these solo shows are renowned. More of that sort of thing can be heard on the Songbook album (which also includes a DVD of his solo show), most especially in the dreamlike introduction to ‘Souther Nights’, a childhood reverie about visiting his Creole relatives in the Louisiana countryside, where evenings were spent sitting as a group on his country relatives’ front-porch looking out into the inky black Louisiana evening, far from the New Orleans’ city lights.
It was wonderful, because I knew that everything important in the whole world was on this porch. As the daylight would give into the night, there were no street lights, so the moon would really show off. I’d look at the trees, and the leaves that were facing the moon would have this silver light on them. And as the wind would blow, those lights would twinkle on and off.
That song was a total inspiration. It felt like a soft clear white flower settled above my head and caressed me. I really felt highly, highly inspired and very spiritual doing that song. It’s the only one I felt that much about. Some others have been inspired highly, but not as high as that one.
The first of these two You Tube clips includes Toussaint’s spoken intro to ‘Southern Nights’:
Writing in the Chicago Tribune, Greg Kot summed up Allen Toussaint’s stage manner in these solo performances:
Toussaint’s modesty belies the brilliance of his solo performances. Accompanying himself on piano, where he develops counterpoint melodies and cross-currents of rhythm that suggest three people are sitting at the instrument instead of just one, Toussaint sings in a high, mellifluous voice that epitomizes New Orleans soul.
Finally, here’s a documentary about Allen Toussaint from You Tube, first shown on BBC 4:
The support band weren’t bad either: guitarist Nigel Price, accompanied by and Vasilis Xenopoulos on sax, bassist Mark Rose and drummer Chris Nickolls. This was my first encounter with guitarist Nigel Price who spoke of Wes Montgomery as being one of his major influences. That certainly became apparent as he and Vasilis worked their way through the main part of their set – a tribute to great partnerships in jazz between sax and guitar. Working their way through recreations of duets between Stanley Turrentine and Kenny Burrell, Kenny Barron and Stan Getz (‘Sunshower’) and Jim Hall and Sonny Rollins (‘Without a Song’ from Rollins’ album The Bridge), their playing was Dinner Jazz sublime.
- Allen Toussaint, reluctant solo star (Chicago Tribune)