Thursday, November 22, 2007

Simply Toussaint

I wish I could say Allen Toussaint doesn't need any introduction. But for some reason he still does. Despite his '98, long overdue, induction into the R&R Hall of Fame, most people were very much in the dark on who Allen was when Elvis Costello decided to record with him last year for "The River In Reverse". Allen Toussaint doesn't need any introduction amongst Soul fans, not even amongst the more casual admirer of the genre. But beyond that people hardly have a clue of who he is, hardly have a notion of the vastness of his legacy. With "The River in Reverse" a critical success, commercially even being relatively successful, there has been some new attention to the man. His albums have finally all been re released hopefully leading to more of a notion again of Allen Toussaint's influence on the development of popular music. On top of that, Costello's and Toussaint's successful tour has been released on DVD. Allowing people to see the man live in action. A rarity since Allen has always been an artist that preferred to be in the shadows of R&B's greatest.

Toussaint, at first glance, is a perfect example of how the influence of Black artists on R&R generally seem to be forgotten. The sense of importance fading over time. Allen Toussaint was essential in developing the sound of New Orleans. A sound that eventually spread out through artists like Dr. John, the Band and the Rolling Stones to a world wide audience. The brilliance of those acts is heralded, the origin of their brilliance a fading memory. In the case of Allen Toussaint this might not be so surprising. He mostly created behind the scenes. Allen wrote, produced, arranged and played for the greats of Soul music. At the age of 18 Allen was already a very accomplished piano player, mimicking the style of the great Professor Longhair. Soon Toussaint found himself filling in for no other than Fats Domino in the studio. Fats being mostly on the road, where the real money was, hardly had the time to record. Toussaint would play the piano on the studio track laid down in New Orleans for Fats, the instrumental would then be sent to a studio in the neighborhood of where Fats was on tour at that moment, and Domino would simply do the vocal. To this day it's uncertain on which tracks Fats played himself and what tracks Toussaint delivered for him . His studio work would eventually lead to an album of instrumentals under the name of Tousan for the RCA label. Although the album failed to chart and Toussaint was dropped from the label, it gave him enough clout to become a producer.

Toussaint's work at Minit records in the early sixties is an essential part of R&B history. Toussaint wrote numerous hits for the likes of Lee Dorsey ("Ya Ya"), Irma Thomas ("Ruler Of My Heart"), Chris Kenner ("Land Of A 1000 Dances"), Benny Spellman ("Lipstick Traces") or Aaron Neville ("Over You"). Meanwhile "Fortune Teller"recorded by Jessie Hill would become a staple for a great variety of British Invasion acts, such as The Who and the Rolling Stones. Minit and Toussaint defined the sound of New Orleans as much Stax did for Memphis or Motown for Detroit. Toussaint did as much to create what we now call Soul as those two labels did. It is therefore highly ironic that his biggest commercial success came when he let bubble gum cocktail Pop artist use his "Whipped Cream" on what would become one of the most successful albums of the sixties. Believe it or not, but at the time Herb Alpert and his Tijuana Brass Band outsold even the Beatles. The instrumental would go on to be used as the trailer for the immensely popular TV show "The Dating Game". The royalty checks of that one song must have softened the lack of commercial recognition for his own records later on down the road a bit.

After his service in the army Toussaint went on to produce a second string of impressive hits with his own production company Sansu, formed with partner Marshall Sehorn in the early sixties. At Sansu his sound would become decidedly funkier. Classics 45s like Lee Dorsey's "Ride Your Pony" or "Working In The Coal Mine" are floor fillers even today. On Sansu Allen also started his collaboration with the Meters, a funk band whose influence on the genre is trumped by James Brown only. Even though it is very possible that Toussaint's work with Dorsey and the Meters is where Brown found the raw material for his polyrhythmic revolution. Brown may claim otherwise, but nothing is born in a vacuum. Brown ants came crawling in his pants all the way down from New Orleans to Augusta Georgia. In turn the sound of the Meters was highly indebted to the earlier mentioned Professor Longhair, who created that mix of R&B and Rumba that became so typical for the New Orleans sound. The history of Funk originates in New Orleans and beyond. It was born out of a sweaty fusion of styles and Toussaint was one of its main ingredients.

Finally in 1968, after recording so many brilliant sides for others, Toussaint started to explore his own voice at Bell records with a string of three singles, amongst which the upbeat civil rights anthem "We The People" and his own version of the Lee Dorsey hit "Get Out My Life, Woman". Together with the album that followed those 45s, "Toussaint", these singles our now re-released on yet another great Kent records compilation, "What Is Success: The Scepter & Bell Recordings". "Toussaint" was somewhat of a mixed affair. It became a showcase of his talents. Mixing instrumentals with new materials and re-recordings of a few songs he had earlier produced for Lee Dorsey. Especially when you hear the latter you can't help but wonder why he didn't record for himself sooner than he did. Maybe it has something to do with his demeanor. Toussaint has always been a quiet force, lacking the gusto and bravura that is so common in the world of Soul. Allen is a man of a gentle smile sooner than a roaring laugh, more at ease in the back ground it seems. But as "Toussaint" demonstrates he has a voice to be reckoned with. Allen's delivery is gentle yet commanding, somewhat distant but simmering with contained emotion through out. Toussaint continuously sounds warm and gentle, even on his more confrontational songs.

"Toussaint" is filed with gems. There's the painful "From a Whisper To A Scream", after which the album would later be named when released in the UK. "From a Whisper" has emotions simmering to a boil. The song finds us looking into a relationship falling apart because of blindness. Subtle guitar work underscores the desperation of one of the partners as he franticly tries to make amends, yet we feel it all falling apart. "Whisper" would later be brilliantly covered by Esther Phillips. The instrument "Pickles" lightens things up a bit after that, smooth, seductive and sexy. But also a demonstration of Toussaint's forte as a pianist. Allen was never the musician to let it all hang out, always subtly supporting the songs he recorded for others, always in the service of. On "Pickles" we finally hear how great a pianist he really is. The re-cut of Dorsey's "Everything I Do Is Gonh Be Funky" is every bit as catchy as Lee's version. The album's center piece "What is Success" ask some very confrontational questions. It might be Toussaint's most personal song on the album. But it doesn't stay that way. "What is Success" is one of those songs that forces you to reevaluate your own life. The song is a mirror to your own Soul, questioning you on your own personal happiness. It is one of those songs that, to a willing ear, can kick start change in one's life.

For some reason Kent chose to mix up the playing order of the original album. Mixing the Bell singles with the album. This does take away some of the power the original album held. When "Toussaint" was originally released on Tiffany, "From a Whisper to a Scream" for example was followed by "Chocking Kind", adding to the claustrophobic feel relations can sometimes have. I'd like to advise using the program function on your CD player to restore the album to its original glory. Even though "Toussaint" failed to make a dent on the charts, it did take Allen's career to the next level. Bonnie Rait soon covered "What is Success" on her classic "Streetlights" album. Allen went on to produce for and with the Band, Doctor John, Paul Simon, Elvis Costello and Paul McCartney. Toussaint gained the recognition he deserved amongst his peers at least. "Toussaint" led to him being signed at the Warner subsidiary Reprise, where he recorded two of Soul's finest albums, "Life, Love and Faith" and "Southern Nights". Both albums were re-issued last year as well.

"What is Success"
"We The People"

1 comment:

Ray said...

I enjoyed the Toussaint/Costello video, but I wish Allen had done more in it. He only sang a couple back-up lines and his piano was barely audible. Nice writing though.