Allen Toussiant: Defining Success In the !970s
On Friday, January 14th, Allen Toussaint turned 73; and, though I’m late as usual, I want to wish him all the best for the year to come and many more after that. I note that he had a working birthday, playing a jazz concert in Chicago, and hope it was a joyous one. The last five years have been a career renaissance for him; and his creativity and productivity have once again soared along with public recognition and appreciation. Without a doubt, the most gracious Mr. Toussaint deserves all the accolades heaped upon him.
Had his career ended with the 1960s, he would still be remembered as one of the great writers, pianists, arrangers, and producers - a classic behind the scenes, go-to guy for making great records happen - mostly for others. Fortunately, although he faced some career setbacks at that time, he forged ahead, going through a transformation that took his studio savvy and songcraft to a higher level, allowing him to continue to thrive in the control room, while also becoming a reluctant but well-respected recording artist in his own right.
This time around, I am focusing on a song each from the four major label LPs he had the opportunity to record in the 1970s, just to give a taste of the music he composed during the period, although it can’t begin to touch the extent of his work. I’m expecting the tunes with be at least somewhat familiar to many of you. If you are serious about New Orleans music, or American popular music in general, these albums, or at least some of the songs on them, should be a part of your collection in one format or another.
What. What. What. What it is, success?
Is it doin’ your own thing, or to join the rest?
Or, if you truly believe, should you try over and over again,
and live in hopes that someday you’ll be in with the winners?
- Allen Toussaint, “What Is Success”
1969 was a transitional time for Toussaint and Sansu Enterprises, his New Orleans production company partnership with Marshall Sehorn. The prior four years since its formation had been busy, with Toussaint writing, arranging, producing singles for around two dozen artists on the roster. Many came out on one of the company’s in-house labels: Sansu, Deesu, or Tou-sea, while others were leased to national companies. In the case of their first and biggest seller during the period, Lee Dorsey, Amy Records, based in New York, was releasing all his output.
But, by late in the decade, things were not going well for Sansu’s own labels, due to the consistent lack of any strong sellers outside of the New Orleans area. Their national distributor in New York, Bell Records, which also owned Amy, seems never to have seriously promoted those releases; and that did not improve when the company absorbed its Amy and Mala imprints and was bought out by Columbia Pictures in 1969, which kept the Bell name and also took in the catalog of Colgems, a primarily pop label whose biggest sellers had been the Monkees, a fabricated pseudo-band with their own TV show.
In the face of Bell’s new structure and retreat from R&B, Toussaint and Sehorn decided it was time to cut their losses, close their labels and let go many of the artists. Even Dorsey’s sales had slackened; and he would only have one dead-end single released on Bell (see last month’s post, Three Bells). In fact, the only Sansu artists having consistent success were their house band, the Meters. They pretty much wrote and arranged their own material, mainly instrumental funk singles, issued via a Sehorn deal with another New York label, Josie, which were getting noticed and selling well. Thus, Toussaint was left to work on a diminishing number of projects; and needed a game-changer.
As discussed in the Bell post, he had cut a few records of his own for Bell in 1968; but they were unfocused, mainly instrumentals, and went nowhere with no promotion. Surely this downturn not only gave the usually active, hit-oriented Toussaint pause, and cause to reflect on the business and his musical direction, but afforded him time to develop some higher quality new material that pushed the boundaries. So, when offered the chance to record an album on his own, he was receptive, even though he had never sought the spotlight and, as he told Jeff Hannusch in I Hear You Knockin’, never saw a solo career as his destiny.
There has not been much clarity about the exact circumstances that gave rise to his recording a solo project in 1969; but, it seems to have come about quickly. Over the past few years, I’ve found a bit more information on the subject, some of which came via Tony Rounce’s notes to the fine 2007 Kent Soul CD compilation on Toussaint, What Is Success, The Scepter and Bell Recordings.
While Rounce does not provide exact details of the business decisions and agreements that led to the project, it is clear that in 1969 Sansu was approached by a new California-based label, Tiffany Records, which had a national distribution deal with Scepter Records. They either directly proposed to cut an album on Toussaint, or solicited an artist for such a project, to which Toussaint responded.
As Rounce reveals, Tiffany was run by Charles Greene and Brian Stone, a team who have been both dissed and discussed in Dr. John’s autobiography, Under A Hoodoo Moon, and Harold Battiste’s vital new memoir, Unfinished Blues. They were two music business hustlers from New York who were working in LA primarily in artist management, having handled acts including Sonny and Cher, Buffalo Springfield, and Dr. John (see his book for tales of their treachery). No doubt the short-lived record label was set up to be some sort of scam, probably to get a pile of advance money out of Scepter; but, to their credit, Green and Stone did contract with Toussaint and Sansu to make an album; and, make it they did, running the sessions at Dimension Sound in Los Angeles that year.
The resulting LP was briefly issued on Tiffany #014; but, almost immediately, the company went out of business. At that point, Scepter stepped in, attempting to recoup at least some of the money already invested in the venture, and released the album themselves.
“What Is Success” (Allen Toussaint)
Allen Tousssaint, from Toussaint, Scepter 24003, 1970
Toussaint must have been asking himself this a lot in those days. Lyrically, the song, one of three outstanding tracks on the album, is a succession of questions surrounding the kicker assessment, “It’s a sad thing. It’s a bad thing, but so necessary that this cold world force your values to become monetary.” As poetic justice alone, the LP should certainly have been named after this minor-key meditation on doing what it takes to reach the big time. Instead it was simply called Toussaint,
Working without the Meters, who probably did not make the trip due to Greene and Stone’s monetary values, Toussaint summoned up a languid, undulating, multi-rhythmic funk groove from the musicians on hand, who fortunately included a number of hometown expatriates: Mac Rebennack (Dr. John) on guitar, Freddie Staehle or John Boudreaux (likely doing this tune) on drums, trumpeter Clyde Kerr, alto saxophonist, Earl Turbinton, Fred Kemp on tenor sax, and Merry Clayton singing backup. Their strong support surely helped ease his continual uncertainty about his vocal abilities - allowing him to sound relaxed, confident, and convincing throughout.
Besides “What Is Success”, which would later be soulfully and faithfully covered by Bonnie Raitt, the other standout originals on the LP are the moody, evocative “From A Whisper To A Scream”, which Esther Phillips interpreted impressively in 1972, as did Robert Palmer two years later, and “Sweet Touch of Love”, a rousing, tightly arranged classic (featured here two years back), which Irma Thomas gave her own touch in 1992.
By comparison, the rest of the material might seem more like filler, though certainly the high class variety, including funked-up covers of “The Chokin’ Kind” and two of Toussaint’s own songs originally done by Dorsey, “Working In A Coal Mine” and “Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky”. There were also several of his enjoyable but not too substantial instrumentals. The finale, a cover of the seriously non-funky and certainly out-of-place easy-listener “Cast You Fate To the Wind”, showed that Toussaint, as on his Bell recordings, was not yet sure exactly how he wanted to be taken as a solo artist. Still, his best songs proved that he could be a contender; and the LP, though not a commercial winner, was a monumental step into the light for him and showed that he could manage the tricky demands of making his own full-length artistic statement, a far more complex undertaking than was his all instrumental first LP as 'Tousan' for RCA in 1958, The Wild Sound of New Orleans.
Gettin’ Down to the Get Down
Experienced in the ups, downs and constant slim odds gambles of making records,Toussaint seemed to take in stride the less than stellar showing of his Tiffany/Scepter album. Surely it helped that he was soon busy again at home and in various recording studios around the South, working mainly on album projects for local and national artists, including the Meters, Lee Dorsey, Ernie K-Doe, Earl King, Mylon LeFevre, and Lou Johnson. In Dorsey’s case, after losing Bell, Sehorn brokered a deal for him with Polydor, which resulted in the acclaimed Yes We Can LP in 1970, chock full of Toussint’s choice tunes and quirky, attention-grabbing arrangements, tracked mainly by the Meters. But Sehorn, the business end of Sansu, who likely never in his life stopped to reflect on the nature of success, would soon score an even bigger coup.
In 1970, Jubilee Records, which owned the Josie imprint, was bought-out by a large corporation; and, by the next year, the label the Meters had been on since their first single was gone, leaving the group, which had been fairly hot in the market, unsigned. With his in-born salesmanship, Sehorn went to work and soon got them a contract with the respected Reprise label, a division of Warner Brothers Records, with Sansu as their production company. Primarily focused on rock/pop acts at that point, the West Coast companies had virtually no R&B on the roster, let alone an outrageously funky band from exotic New Orleans.
But the WB-Reprise management were open to taking calculated risks, believing that having some creative, hip (translation: low-selling) artists on the label(s) would encourage more commercial acts to sign with them, too. Maybe at least some bigwigs at the label were true-believers; or maybe they just wanted to foster the illusion that they cared more about the music than the bottom line, a ploy I think grifters call the bait and switch. While we’re not really here to plumb the depths of music business methods, it’s an interesting insight into how things used to be done. Try to find a major label (corporate conglomerate, actually) today willing to entertain such an alien concept.
But back to the deal at hand. As icing on the cake, Sehorn leveraged a recording contract for Toussaint, as well, which also gave WB a piece of his song publishing on new material, as I understand it, and actually proved to be a wise move for both sides. Thus, this hard to classify man of many talents too became a token WB artist in residence, so to speak, whose impressive credentials with music insiders made him another attractive addition for the brand. Commendably, WB stuck with both the Meters and Toussaint for multiple albums through most of the 1970s, but never could find a way to sell their records in significant numbers.
In 1972, Reprise issued its initial albums on both the Meters (Cabbage Alley) and Toussaint. The Life, Love and Faith sessions combined the new signees, with all the Meters but Art backing Toussaint on a strong new batch of songs that turned heads and loosed booty among musical cognoscenti, but not the public at large.
“Goin’ Down” (Allen Tossaint)
Allen Toussaint, from Life, Love and Faith, Reprise 2062, 1972
The sizzle you sense on this track is not just from the well-worn vinyl. It’s the sound of deep-fried funk, Southern-style. Definitely the hottest, greasiest groove on the album, “Goin’ Down” has some strong gospel influences at work, too, especially a Staple Singers kind of vibe (listen to the treble-y vibrato on the lead guitar lines). It’s a killer song they should have covered; but, instead, the Pointer Sisters and producer David Rubinson had their way with it in 1975, a nearly 8 minute dynamo LP cut I posted in 2006 and will finally make available soon on the webcast stream. You can also hear Claudia Lennear tear into her own 1973 take (on Warner Brothers) there, as well.
The core rhythm section for the sessions consisted of Zig Modeliste on drums, George Porter, Jr. on bass ,and guitarist Leo Nocentelli, supplemented by conga players Alfred ‘Uganda’ Roberts and Cyril ‘Squirrel’ Neville, alternate bassist Walter Payton and drummer, Joe Lambert, plus hot sax soloist Gary Brown and a fine horn ensemble. Using them well, Toussaint turned out his Reprise debut as primarily a funky affair throughout, augmented by elements of rock and soul. Just a few of the songs were of lesser stature, but even those were not run of the mill. To my mind, the best of this record besides :Goin’ Down” are “Victims of the Darkness”, “Am I Expecting too Much”, “Gone Too Far” and, of course, the deep soul-funk of “On Your Way Down”, one of the Toussaint’s career best, which he first had Lee Dorsey try out on Yes We Can. While the songwriter’s own take is certainly worthy, nothing can compare with what Lowell George and Little Feat did with the song in 1973 on Dixie Chicken, simply making it their own for all time.
Life, Love and Faith was recorded at Jazz City Studio in New Orleans, which had been owned by Cosimo Matassa until the IRS closed him down several years prior. As the story goes, Toussaint and Sehorn bought up much of Matassa’s recording gear at auction and sold or leased it to the new owner of the studio, audio engineer Skip Godwin. They used the facility briefly for several projects before negotiating to build their own studio in the Gentilly section of the city. Both Godwin and Cos himself captured the audio on Life, Love and Faith, and would go on to engineer for Sansu at Sea-Saint when it opened later the next year.
One important thing that kept Toussaint’s solo career from advancing was his purposeful unwillingness to tour to support his records; but his live performance phobia was a minor consideration due to the overwhelming success he was having with songwriting, arranging and production. With WB making his material available to their own and other national acts, the songs were getting higher profile covers, and he was ramping up production for a growing number of outside artists at the newly opened Sea-Saint studios. Sehorn had contracted with WB for some of their artists to record there, too. That kept Toussaint so busy that he did not release his next LP until 1975.
The High Art of Southern Nights
In my always highly subjective opinion (abandon hope, all you expecting scholarship here), Southern Nights, Toussaint’s third album for Reprise, is a masterpiece of composition, production, arrangement, and execution - pure, potent pop music, distilled beyond categorization. Yet some listeners don’t seem to get it, or can’t get totally into it, for that very reason.
For a little professional insight into this contradiction, I’ll paraphrase what one of R&B’s great producers, the late Jerry Wexler said in an interview. Unlike folk/roots music and jazz, in the broad pop idiom, the production is part of the package and goes beyond just rolling the tape and capturing what happens in front of the microphones. That’s important to remember not only here, but assessing any pop record. The concept and artifice that go into creating the overall sound, feel or personality, if you will, of a record are important parts of the experience that producer and artist collaborate to convey. Of course, in Toussaint’s case, as his own producer (Sehorn’s creative role was minimal at best), he was in charge of all aspects of the process.
There was a time, back when I was less familiar with his work, that I discounted Southern Nights as “not funky enough”. What took me a while to realize about Toussaint is that he really can’t be stylistically pinned down to a particular genre, as he has a unique palette full of styles and influences which he combines by design and/or intuition to suit his songs. Funk is just one of many he can express as needed. That is what makes him a quintessential pop producer.
What drove this home even more for me was hearing the entirety of this album reproduced as close to the original tapes as I will probably ever get, remastered and digitized for Rhino’s superb 2003 limited edition (a mere 2,500 copies - long sold out) Toussaint CD compilation, The Complete Warner Recordings, part of their Handmade series. I was blown away to be able to hear into the sound so deeply and feel the perfect flow of the music, the rich tonality, fine detail, and exquisite playing. I use it as my reference on all of his WB recordings now (plus it has a rare 1975 live concert on it, too). But this being a blog about the vinyl....
Lets come back down to what’s in the grooves and hear the record itself, more or less, given 35 years of wear in between and, of course, the miracle of mp3 digital lossy compression (as in, it’s a miracle it sounds like anything resembling music!). It’s hard to pick a track to represent the whole. But this one is revealing of what Toussaint was up to.
“Last Train” (Allen Toussaint)
Allen Toussaint, from Southern Nights, Reprise 2196, 1975
Recorded at Sea-Saint in 1975 with all the Meters on board, plus Charles Moore on second guitar, ‘Uganda’ Roberts on congas, and the house horns with Gary Brown soloing on sax, “Last Train” has a palpable, appropriate locomotive rhythmic dynamic. The syncopated interplay of the instruments and voices seems three-dimensional, even sourced from this old record. I’m sure Toussaint’s always exacting standards for his players were even more so on this project. Considering the exceedingly tight tolerances involved, nothing less than consummate musicianship from all was required to pull it off.
His mastery of multi-instrument, poly-rhythmic arrangement is on full display on this lead-off track of the album, as well as throughout the subsequent tracks; and his deft sonic mix of each element brings about an exceptional, mind-altering synergy. Perhaps the only fly in the pie on the record might be the five interludes (which are helpfully shown as “filler” on the record labels) between or after certain tracks,. They last from 17 seconds to a minute or so and contain either a bit of musical noodling, or snippets of one of the other songs, such as the title track, intended to link the songs together in at least a few cases. While these may seem to be minor distractions to the flow of the album, back in the day one could have looked at them as artful reminders that it was time to reload the bong....
In comparison to his first two albums, I find Toussaint’s singing on Southern Nights exceptional, as well. There is an ease, extended range and liveliness to it that was only infrequently achieved on his earlier efforts; and, thus, this seems like a breakthrough for a guy who never liked the sound of own voice. Notably, 1975 was also the year he finally began doing concert performances on a very limited basis. On ”Last Train”, his vocal is so engaging that it takes a while to realize the lyrics are near nonsense, as their sound is more important that their meaning - a pop concept worthy of Steely Dan.
Masterpiece or not (we can debate that over beers anytime), the ingenuity and fine craftmanship of Southern Nights failed to connect with a significant portion of the public (let’s hear if for the insignificant!), but inspired some notable covers, with Rita Coolidge taking on the Southern rock feel of “Basic Lady”, and Bonnie Raitt, Lowell George. and Boz Scaggs putting their separate stamps on the soulful classic “What Do You Want the Girl (Boy) To Do” - although the original can’t be topped. By far the biggest charter was Glen Campbell’s re-invention of “Southern Nights”, the writer’s trippy, dream-like tone-poem, as a razzle-dazzle, vaudevillesque country number on uppers, which, of course, made it a #1 record. Toussaint surely appreciated the rich irony as he drove his Rolls to the bank to cash the checks.
An Almost Imperceptible Motion
For his final album for Warner Brothers in 1978, Motion, Toussaint was lured away from his many production projects by the clout of the outside producer assigned to make it happen, Jerry Wexler, and was not offended in the least to be removed from shot-calling on his own record. As he told Hannusch back in the 1980s, “I’d have to say I prefer someone else to produce my records. They can see things more objectively.” And, while that may have reduced the load somewhat for Toussaint, it certainly was no guarantee of the ultimate success of the project.
Although Sea-Saint was a first rate facility with plenty of great musicians on hand, Wexler obviously thought Toussaint needed things done to a "higher" industry standard and set up operations at Cherokee Recording in Hollywood to track the music, calling in some of the best studio players from both coasts (including several Crusaders and Steely Dan champs). Toussaint played electric piano on the sessions, with the outstanding Richard Tee on acoustic, and arranged the horns on our featured number and two others. For material, Wexler and Toussaint chose mostly recent originals and one overlooked tune from early in his career, “Lover of Love”, originally recorded by Lee Dorsey in 1958, as well as by Art Neville, a bit later. The vocals were done separately at Sea-Saint.
“Viva la Money” (Allen Toussaint)
Allen Toussaint, from Motion, Warner Brothers, 1978
This is a perfect bookend for “What Is Success”, which had been recorded in LA almost a decade earlier. Whereas that song expressed a rather brooding uncertainty about how far one should go to make it big, “Viva la Money” is cynical, flip and sarcastic about the way the world works - with the happy fat-cat chorus generating biting irony against the keepin’ it real verses.
The backing band nails the funk strut groove (Jeff Procaro on drums, ‘Pops’ Popwell or Chuck Rainey on bass, Larry Carlton on guitar); and Toussaint again sings with great finesse here and throughout the album. The sublime backing singers by the way were Bonnie Raitt, Etta James, and Rosemary Butler. Nice touch, Jerry.
But, Motion quickly stiffed, becomming Toussaint’s forgotten LP of the 1970s. I have a number of copies of it and have seen many more, and nearly all are either promos or cutouts. It seems the only push it got from WB was off the cliff. I guess they knew that Toussaint wasn’t going to tour in support of it, either. So, why bother - just another tax write-off for the bean counters. It was his last project for the label.
Sure it has that ultra-slick LA studio shine to it; but Motion is what it set out to be: a fairly hip, contemporary commercial record aimed at least in the general direction of the mainstream, not really something intended for the hometown crowd hanging out at Tip’s. While I still enjoy listening to the album, I admit I skip three of the four ballads, which are well rendered but unexceptional. That fourth, “With You In Mind” is one of my faves; and it’s a great version by the man himself; but I’d have to give the nod for definitive to Aaron Neville’s sublime take on Warm Your Heart, with Etta James taking runner-up on her Changes LP, produced by Toussaint in 1980 (maybe we can get to that one of these days).
Not only was Motion where the major label train stopped for Toussaint, but 1978 was the end of the line for the Meters, whose group implosion took place right after they finished work on what would be their final WB LP, New Directions, produced not by Sansu, but by David Rubinson in San Francisco.
Not only did Sansu lose these contracts, but Warner Brothers would no longer use Sea-Saint for recording projects. Toussaint had enough producing work to last well into the 1980s, before business decline began to take its toll on the partnership. Hard to believe, but he would not release a significant new album for almost 20 years (I don’t really count Mr. Mardi Gras, featured a few weeks back, as too serious an effort), until Connected came out on NYNO in 1996. Interestingly, he told Hannusch that he had recorded his own gospel album along the way, too - whatever happened to that? But, as I said starting out, his solo career was not really reborn until after the flood. I think we all want to see him take it as far as he can this time.
If there is an ultimate answer to his own nagging question - What is success? - I’d have to say he’s living it. To follow his musical growth and observe how well he used his manifold gifts over many years, developing as an renowned performing artist himself despite plenty of self-doubt, is to know exactly what it is. Whether he realizes it yet or not, Allen Toussaint has long been, and will always be, in with the winners.