What It Is
"What Is Success" (Allen Toussaint)
Allen Toussaint, from Toussaint, Scepter, 1971
Sometimes it's knowing when to quit
Last night, I saw the documentary film, Make It Funky!, as I mentioned earlier, and will give you more details in a later post. But, briefly, it is a very good attempt to get at the essence of the New Orleans musical experience using those insiders (and some notable outsiders) who are still around to tell the tales and play the tunes. There is a lot of live performance footage from a six hour concert in New Orleans featuring many of the artists who are interviewed and/or are subjects of the film.
One of the performances has Allen Toussaint on piano and Bonnie Raitt on vocal, doing a moving version of “What Is Success”, which originally appeared on the Toussaint album (as well as a single) in 1971, and which Bonnie covered convincingly in 1974 on her fine Streetlights LP. As I watched and listened, I was reminded how much I’ve always liked this song and what it says. And, maybe because I’ve just started working again (after taking nearly nine blissful months off), due to those old monetary necessities, I found myself relating to the lyrics anew, after all these years.
The insightful, questioning lyrics of “What Is Success” display the philosophical side of Toussaint’s songwriting, while the music reveals his deft skills of composition and arrangement. The simple drums (of either HOTG certified John Boudreaux or Fred Staehle, or Ed Greene) are played pretty straight, allowing the bass, horns and composer’s piano to provide spare, syncopated interplay, push-pulling, slip-sliding under the almost solemn vocal. Others joining him on the album tracks are Mac Rebennack (organ and guitar), hometown horn men Clyde Kerr (trumpet), Earl Turbinton (alto sax) and Fred Kemp (tenor sax), Terry Kellman (guitar), Eddie Hohner (bass), and Merry Clayton and Venetta Fields on background vocals.
Recorded in Los Angeles, Toussaint was his first solo album since the legendary Wild Sound of New Orleans LP of the late 1950’s; and, while it is not his best, it is a good record with some great cuts, as our feature proves, and shows how far he had come as an artist in a little over a decade. It’s well worth owning. Kent in the UK released it on CD over ten years ago with an extra track; but I think that is now deleted. So, if you seek the album out in either form, I wish you success.