I was a teenager living far from New Orleans when I first heard a song written by Allen Toussaint, the esteemed and iconic songwriter and producer who passed away on Tuesday, November 10, 2015 in Madrid, Spain. The song was “Fortune Teller” and the Rolling Stones were playing it over a boom box in my suburban bedroom. It grabbed me so hard I still know all the words and get goose bumps whenever I hear the closing line, “now I get my fortune told for free.”
Several years later, I was living in New Orleans, but like so many of my peers I wasn’t really aware of the man who wrote so many of the classic songs, which were ubiquitous in the Crescent City and across the globe. We were immersing ourselves in the music scene of the city and quickly discovered so many other incredible tunes by the likes of the Meters, Lee Dorsey, Irma Thomas, Ernie K-Doe, and numerous others. He wrote them all.
As we dug deeper, a musical fingerprint and a name emerged—Allen Toussaint—but the face, which is so beloved that it virtually took over social media since his passing, was much less visible. Because he labored behind the scenes as a songwriter and a producer, Toussaint was very well-known to musicians and the music industry, but not to the general public.
And, it wasn’t just the musicians in New Orleans who revered him and his work; it was musicians all across the planet with bold face names, the biggest of whom were the Stones and the Beatles.
Slowly, at a pace that doesn’t exist anymore in this world of near-universal access to all the music ever recorded, we learned more and more about this man. We acquired as much of his music as we could in whatever format we could find it. Much was out of print (for younger readers this means you couldn’t buy it, much less even know about it, unless you stumbled across a person with a great record collection or dug through crates in stores selling old records).
I have dozens of songs written and produced by Toussaint and recorded by dozens of players on cassette tapes, which I painstakingly recorded from old vinyl albums I borrowed. This is how it was.
You would hear a song on the radio or a jukebox or in a club (or in an art gallery as was the case for me with “Riverboat” by King Biscuit Boy) and know it was Toussaint. And you would have to own it.
Once a year he would emerge and perform live at the New Orleans Jazz Fest. Perhaps he played other shows, but they certainly weren’t on my radar. These sets were highly anticipated and, sorry to burst anyone’s bubble, but were often underwhelming. The great man wasn’t much of a showman. He usually had a big band and always let the spotlight shine on his singers and instrumentalists. He wasn’t big on taking credit.
I went to all of these performances and the magnificent songs with their literate lyrics and sly musical changes shined through even though it sometimes seemed like he wished he were somewhere else—perhaps in a studio creating magic or writing another gem.
In 1985, Allen Toussaint co-founded New Orleans Artists Against Hunger and Homelessness with Aaron Neville, a great singer and singular artist whose early career was made possible by Toussaint. A grand gala was planned and Toussaint was set to perform with a cast of luminaries. Somewhere a recording exists of that first night.
In 1989, the gala featured Rita Coolidge reprising the Rickie Lee Jones part of her duet with Dr. John on “Makin’ Whoopee.” During Toussaint’s set he brought Coolidge, Irma Thomas, and Boz Scaggs on stage. In his inimitable style, he had his backing vocalists sing each star’s name. He glowed outside of the spotlight.
Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Toussaint made infrequent appearances besides his annual Jazz Fest shows. Most of them were benefits for causes he supported including the Free School, an annual fundraiser at Lafayette Elementary School, a benefit for the great music journalist Robert Palmer and another for the wonderful New Orleans vocalist Tricia “Sista Teedy” Boutte. Sometimes he played with his revue; sometimes the appearances were solo. With the creation of his new label, NYNO Records, he began appearing around town more and more. I attended virtually every performance.
Much has already been written about the changes in his life and music after the flooding from Hurricane Katrina destroyed his home. For me, his set with Elvis Costello at the 2006 Jazz Fest was the turning point in his transition into a magnetic performer. At the end of the set, which was as powerful as Bruce Springsteen’s “Seeger Sessions” performance that followed, Toussaint reprised his latter-day hit, “There’s A Party Goin’ On.” He stepped out from the keyboard, moved to the lip of the stage and began chanting, “everybody come home” as he reeled off the names of places and musicians.
Since then, Toussaint has toured the world. A man who was our little secret, at least as a performer, was writ large. He earned numerous honors. Yet, he still played around town including a transcendental set at the 2014 French Quarter Fest and a turn with the Funky Meters and his longtime muse Irma Thomas at the Blues and BBQ Fest a month ago. My parents, sister and brother-in-law and their musically inclined son saw him with the Preservation Hall Band at a theater in New Jersey. They were all so taken with the performance that my normally technologically reticent father filmed him tossing Mardi Gras beads to the crowd from the edge of the stage.
A man so comfortable and talented behind the scenes was now out front where he belonged all along.