January 11, 2007

Alive And Well: Toussaint Covers Toussaint

The seemingly ageless Allen Toussaint celebrates his 69th birthday this Sunday. So, it’s high time that I feature a cut from the man himself again, this one from his out of the ordinary, final LP for Warner Bros.

"Just A Kiss Away" (Allen Toussaint)
Allen Toussaint, from Motion, Warner Bros., 1978

As I have pointed out numerous times here, Toussaint micromanages the music he produces and arranges; and the approach has worked for him since he started taking charge of recording sessions in the late 1950s, allowing him to render many hit songs and classic recordings for the featured artists he worked behind. When he fully became a recording artist in his own name with the 1970 Scepter album, Toussaint, he naturally chose to handle the production duties himself and continued the process when he signed with the Warner Bros. group, delivering two excellent LPs, Life, Love and Faith (1972) and Southern Nights (1975). Unfortunately, those albums were not commercially successful, a result that even his fairly broad-minded record company considered problematic. So, when they contemplated the next try to turn the well-respected songwriter and producer of others into, if not a star, at least more than a tax write-off, the powers-that-were suggested a radical concept: a first rate outside producer to put the musical package together and make the decisions on material, musicians and performances. Surprisingly (at least to me), Toussaint agreed; and thus a somewhat new kind of energy was put into Motion.

That producer, legendary Atlantic Records force of nature,
Jerry Wexler, logically chose to make an album of songs, both old and new, written by Toussaint. While assuring high quality material, this judgment pretty much demanded that the songs be approached with a finesse similar to what the artist himself would apply. So, when you listen to Motion, the arrangements do not sound at all out of character for Toussaint. What gives the project a different feel more probably relates to the place the music was recorded and who is playing it. Setting up shop in Hollywood, Wexler hired some impressive musicians for the sessions: Jeff Porcaro, drums; Robert Popwell and Chuck Rainey, bass; Larry Carlton, guitar; Richard Tee, acoustic piano, Victor Feldman and Paulinho da Costa, percussion; with Etta James, Bonnie Raitt, and Venetta Fields, among others, singing background on selected cuts. Toussaint played electric piano on the sessions; but he cut his relaxed, assured vocals back in New Orleans at his Sea-Saint comfort zone.

Further adding his touch to some of the tracks, Toussaint also arranged the horns for “Just A Kiss Away” and two others. This song is a reworked and bettered version of “Mess Of Love” that appeared on John Mayall’s
Notice to Appear album from 1976 that Toussaint produced; and it surely gives good groove with a syncopated interplay of instruments and a funky strut from Porcaro that just flirts with the rampant disco of the era, but is far too gutsy to succumb. “Just A Kiss Away” is a wonderfully constructed piece of music and a prime example of Motion as a whole: extremely well-recorded, arranged, and played start to finish – slick actually, with any rough edges polished away, giving it that processed sheen and perfection never found outside studios and control rooms. The album up and cooks where necessary and lays back and emotes nicely on the balladry; but that intangible New Orleans thing that his regular stable of players could impart just isn’t there, making it seem . . . de-humidified. But for presenting Toussaint to the record buying public of 1978 in a commercially viable manner, I don’t think it could have been any better. Wexler delivered on his end.

And you know what? It flopped! Bit the big one and quickly hit the cut-out bins. So it goes in the world of record company wisdom; but, to cut them a bit of slack, Toussaint’s voice is a serviceable instrument, surely, but not really the stuff of wide mass appeal. Added to that, the man has never been comfortable in the limelight, anyway. Thus, it’s not hard to fathom why this was his last record for WB, as good as it is; and he did not record another serious album again until the late 1990’s with
Connected, getting full creative control with the NYNO label that was set up to utilize his production and songwriting talents. Guess he was just waiting for the right deal.

Happy birthday, Allen, and long may you continue to show the world what high class, down home New Orleans music is all about.

We’ll continue with more cover versions of Toussaint tunes soon. . . .


Blogger Tuwa said...

Toussaint has sort of an everyman quality to his voice that's sort of refreshing. It reminds me of a very competent DIYer somehow and rather heartening as a result.

2:38 PM, January 16, 2007  

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