A Toussaint Two-fer
Offbeat, which, despite the shaky state of things and the loss of most of their staff, continues to publish in New Orleans, will honor Allen Toussaint and Irma Thomas for lifetime achievements in music at the annual Best of the Beat awards show on January 21st at the French Quarter House of Blues. These artists, who did important work together early in their careers, are certainly deserving of praise for all they have added to the musical legacy of their hometown, as well as for the important work they continue to do to keep hope alive for the return of the music community there. For the first few weeks, at least, of Toussaint’s birth month, I thought I would feature some more music he has been involved in over the years. He is often a HOTG subject of interest for good reason; so, feel free to go back into the archives or hit the links and find out more. A little farther down the road, I’ll gather up some additional Irma magic to spread, too. But, right now, we’ll start 2006 off with two from Toussaint, who turns 68 on the 14th.
"Chico" (Allen Toussaint)
'Al Tousan', Seville 103, 1960
I think he left with Harpo
In early 1958, Allen Toussaint turned 20 and got the opportunity to record an album’s worth of original instrumentals (co-written with saxophonist Alvin ‘Red’ Tyler) that was released as The Wild Sounds of New Orleans by Tousan on RCA. While not commercially successful, that collection of songs has become legendary, showcasing the budding keyboard and compositional talents of the young man and containing the original version of “Java”, which Al Hirt had a hit with in 1962. Then, in late 1959, Danny Kessler, who produced Wild Sounds, asked Toussaint to record some more instrumental tracks to be shopped around. So, Toussaint hit the studio and, in just two days, recorded over a dozen songs on piano or organ, accompanied by Red Tyler on baritone sax, Nat Perilliat on tenor sax, Melvin Lastie on cornet, along with guitarist Justin Adams, bassist Frank Fields, and drummer Charles ‘Hungry’ Williams. Out of those takes, four singles were soon released by the Seville label in the name of Al Tousan, or as Al Tousan & His Piano. His first album plus all of the Seville session recordings are available on Bear Family’s The Complete ‘Tousan’ Sessions CD.
“Chico”, from the first Seville single (b/w “Sweetie Pie”), has a catchy, simple hook linked to some rhythmic, Professor Longhair-inspired piano runs over Hungry’s subtly funky second-line drum shuffle. Lastie and Tyler take solos on this one, which Toussaint has admitted was a trifle he wrote just for the project at hand. As with the other singles for the label, “Chico” was a sales dud; but, for a piece o’ fluff, it’s empty calories are pretty damn tasty. When the record was released in early 1960, Toussaint was already working for Joe Banashak’s Minit label, starting to write and/or produce/arrange a string of hits and New Orleans classics for Jessie Hill, Ernie K-Doe, Aaron Neville, and Irma Thomas, among others. His first solo recordings may have gone nowhere; but the man was beginning a serious roll behind the scenes.
And roll on through the 1960’s he did, continuing on the production and songwriting side to change the face of popular Crescenty City music, mainly with other artists, the most successful being Lee Dorsey. While in the service just after his stint with Minit,Toussaint formed the Stokes, and recorded a number of instrumental sides on Alon; but he released very few records in his own name until his second album, Toussaint, came out on Scepter in 1970. It was a mixed bag of a project, recorded in Los Angeles, featuring two outstanding new songs, “From A Whisper To A Scream” and “What Is Success” (to be covered by Robert Palmer and Bonnie Raitt, respectively), a decent take on ”Chokin’ Kind”, uninspired re-workings of two of his Lee Dorsey hits, and four instrumentals. While the LA session players (see below) on the LP were mainly fine New Orleans musicians working on the West Coast at the time, not having the Meters along for the ride (for reasons unknown) definitely makes this album less satisfying overall than the next two solo albums done with them.
"Number Nine" (Allen Toussaint)
Allen Toussaint, c. 1970
Although “Number Nine” was written and recorded around the same time as the songs selected for Toussaint, it did not make it onto the album and remained unknown until it showed up on the 1985 Kent (UK) reissue CD, re-titled From A Whisper To A Scream, probably discovered in with the masters. This song fits in well with the album’s other instrumentals and should have replaced the “Cast Your Fate To The Wind” cover that somehow made the cut (the peril of producing your own record). Toussaint’s dynamic, propulsive overdubbed dual pianos on “Number Nine” drive the song's masterful arrangement. I especially like his use of an acoustic guitar, which shows up on various of his productions during this period. Neither this number nor “Chico" have ever gotten much attention and deserve some props. You can see across the ten years between these tunes the increasing sophistication of Toussaint's talents, with even better things to come.
Toussaint session lineup:
Allen Toussaint - Piano, Keyboards, Vocals
Mac Rebennack - Organ, Guitar
Terry Kellman - Guitar
Eddie Hohner - Bass
John Boudreaux – Drums
Fred Staehle – Drums
Ed Greene - Drums
Earl Turbinton - Sax (Alto)
Clyde Kerr - Trumpet
Fredric Kemp - Sax (Tenor)
Merry Clayton - Vocals (Background)
Venetta Fields - Vocals (Background)