When I was in high school I read a story or stories or stories and references to the legendary Allen Toussaint, who was a major figure in the sound of New Orleans. I remember going to the library and finding a couple of his albums, bringing them home and not getting at all what he was up to. The piano playing was accomplished, but the songs weren’t particularly rockin’ or tuneful. I returned the records, I have no idea which ones they were, and filed Toussaint under overrated.
It wasn’t too much later, however, that I came at New Orleans music from a different angle, a compilation album of tunes from the late 50s and early 60s. All of sudden, reading the fine print, I had the pleasure to discover Toussaint in a different context. Mother in Law and Working in the Coal Mine are novelty tunes, but glorious rockin’ ones at that. Here’s Ernie K Doe’s Mother in Law:
Here’s Devo covering Working in the Coal Mine, which was originally a hit for Lee Dorsey.
The fact is that Toussaint had a long career working with a broad swath of musical talent throughout not only New Orleans’ history but rock’s history as a whole. Alas, he died yesterday, from two heart attacks following a performance in Madrid. You can get more details about his life in this obit at Rolling Stone. A more complete obituary by Ben Sisario is in the New York Times.
I want to call attention to his hugely underrated collaboration with Elvis Costello called The River in Reverse, recorded after Hurricane Katrina devastated Toussaint’s home town. This is a live version of Ascension Day with lots of Toussaint on the piano.
I saw Toussaint in the park near my house a few years ago (turns out to be five). He’s a funny, talkative performer, who worked hard to please the crowd with a set of old hits and newer stuff. I must have been sitting right behind the guy with the camera here, by the way. Sit down!