I woke up to the terrible news that Allen Toussaint was gone.
I thought back to the years I worked at Warner Bros. where he was signed to the label. I had done my homework in those pre-Wiki days and knew he had written and produced a slew of songs for the likes of Lee Dorsey, Ernie K-Doe, Benny Spellman, Earl King, the Meters, Irma Thomas, Betty Harris and lots of others. I asked him how he felt when he found out that the Rolling Stones had covered “Fortune Teller” and he confessed that he hadn’t been aware of them at that time. It was on the Rolling Stones’ “Got Live If You Want It!” album that had been released in ’66 but Allen didn’t know about that at the time. the Stones weren’t from New Orleans so he was, in essence, oblivious to their existence. That speaks to the fact that Allen, the most significant New Orleans-based musician of the second half of the 20th century, lived in his own NOLA-centric world and was all the better for it.
I got to visit him at a session — I think it was for the Meters — at his SeaSaint Studio on funky Clematis Street in New Orleans’ Gentilly neighborhood. As always, he padded around in sandals and spoke quietly. Some friends — namely Earl King and Benny Spellman — crashed the session but didn’t play on the tracks. In hindsight, I think they were there for the catering that had arrived during a break. A neighbor lady provided a multi course Creole dinner nightly and it’s a wonder that anybody was able to return to the session. But return they did and made it funky. Allen had long before written a song for Lee Dorsey titled “Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky (From Now On).” How’s that for a motto?
I went on the road with Allen when he was part of a package tour that was headlined by Bonnie Raitt and Little Feat. Both of those acts covered his songs; Bonnie sang “What Do You Want The Girl To Do” and Little Feat did a version of “On Your Way Down.” Allen had really been discovered by that time, even though he had been responsible for more than a decade’s worth of hits prior. Before the gig in Boston on that tour he absented himself and asked his driver to take him to a park so he could walk around and experience a bit of nature. The rest of us were freaking out since he was supposed to open the show but he arrived just in time, a calm aura about him, and went into the theater and did his stuff. He was a Zen cat if ever there was.
I worked at RCA for a brief interlude in the mid-’70s and discovered they had an entire Toussaint album in the vault. It was cut in 1957 when he was still in his teens and released as The Wild Sound of New Orleans, the artist credit going to “Tousan,” the thought being, one assumes, that “Toussaint” was too exotic a name for the average LP buyer. It was an all instrumental set and included “Java,” the same song that had been a hit for Al Hirt. I convinced my boss that we needed to re-release it and set out for Miami to interview Allen for the liner notes. He was there to produce Dr. John‘s In The Right Place album for Atlantic.
We spent a very nice afternoon together at the famous Castaways Hotel that had been built by the teamsters some years earlier. We encountered Dr. John in the lobby and he came off looking like a tropical bird, what with his feathers and multi-colored cloak and scarves. At the end of our conversation I snapped a photo of Allen. That trip might have been for naught as RCA didn’t want to foot the bill to pay to set type for my scholarly liner notes and the reissue was scrapped. But the photo found its way, like me, back to Warner Bros. where it was used on the back of Allen’s Southern Night album. Glen Campbell soon covered the title song and had one of the biggest hits of his career. Allen actually knew who he was.
Yes, Allen was really a Zen master. He wrote songs, produced, arranged and lived music. That’s typically a peripatetic existence but Allen had a wonderful calm about him. He was actually a great conversationalist but his preferred mode of communication was through piano key and, if pressed, a microphone. He composed “Brickyard Blues,” the lyric for which encapsulated his basic needs: “Play somethin’ sweet, play somethin’ mellow, play somethin’ I can sink my teeth in like Jell-O… play somethin’ I can understand — play me some brickyard blues.” You can’t say he wasn’t self-aware.
I hadn’t seen Allen in a while but I was comforted to know he was out there being funky and sinking his teeth into Jell-O. Hard and soft… a walking contradiction but, always, in sandals.
I miss Allen a lot today and probably will miss him even more tomorrow but, in his honor, I’m going to try to keep it funky (from now on).
Bob Merlis is a music industry veteran long associated with Warner Bros. Records, where he worked for almost 30 years, ultimately as senior vice president, worldwide corporate communications. He is now principal of M.f.h. (Merlis for hire), a public relations and consulting business.