January 17, 2008

From Tousan to Toussaint

On Monday, January 14, 2008, Allen Toussaint officially became a septuagenarian. Still the walking/talking/performing definition of a class act, he wears his 70 years extremely well. As I have said before here, an entire blog could be devoted to all the music he has been involved with over his 50+ year career. It is virtually impossible to discuss New Orleans popular music from the mid-1950s onward and not mention his name frequently, as I do here - just run a quick search of the blog sometime. Mardi Gras being upon us early this year, I'm only going feature a couple of Toussaint tunes for now, before pulling out some seasonal rarities; but, at some later date, I've got a bunch more of his songs in burning need of posting. Belated birthday best wishes go out to Mr. Toussaint, as we appreciate two choice cuts from his first two albums.

[Note 01/21/2008] Having earlier stood in the cold, windy streets of the Faubourg Marigny in New Orleans for the always entertaining Krewe du Vieux parade (more about that soon), my wife and I had the extreme pleasure of taking in Tipitina's30th Anniversary Party this past Saturday night, featuring Allen Toussaint and his band, with opening act Jon Cleary and the Absolute Monster Gentlemen. Always great to hear and see Jon and his fine, seriously funkin' group; but sorry to say there were soundboard issues throughout his set that kept it from being dynamic as it could have been. But, the problems were resolved by the time Toussaint took the stage to greet an adoring, pumped, hometown crowd. Although it wasn't as big a band as at his large venue concerts, the sextet made up for it with a non-stop, high energy set, plus two Professor Longhair inspired encores - fitting, since the club was started more or less because of Fess and bears the name of one of his most popular songs. Toussaint, who rarely plays local club gigs, gave no indication whatsoever that turning 70 has slowed him down and was definitely way into the show and feeling the love of the crowd. It was some damn awesome party alright.

I am many times fortunate to have gone to Tip's during the first year it was open, and countless times since, repeatedly hearing head-changing, booty loosing, sometimes life-altering music played like nowhere else. My wife and I didn't even know each other back then, living in different cities; yet, we each spent time at the club in the early days and onward. To be standing there again 30 years later, staring up at that big Fess portrait over the stage, with the one and only Allen Toussaint and band holding forth, letting it all move around and through us again, then ritually patting the bust of Fess' head on the way out the door, made for a gigantic, ecstatic, feedback loop of a night, connecting all the many experiences inside (and outside, when you couldn't get in, or it was too hot to breathe in there) those hallowed walls. Kudos and deep thanks to all who've kept it going. Like they say, only in New Orleans. The city is still alive and vibrant, people. You need to check it out! [now, on with the post....]

"Whirlaway" (Tyler-Toussaint-Matassa)
A. Tousan, RCA 47-7192, 1958

Recorded January 29, 1958 at Cosimo Mastassa's studio in New Orleans, and released soon thereafter by RCA, "Whirlaway" b/w "Happy Times" was Toussaint's first release as featured artist. Producer/talent scout, Danny Kessler, "simplified" the name to 'A. Tousan' in one of those all too frequent record company attempts to find a moniker that even the most tongue-tied, semi-literate radio DJ could read and pronounce, not to mention lowest common denominator record buyers thought to fear and loathe foreign sounding names with too many consonants. Kessler had been in New Orleans recording other artists, heard Toussaint playing at the sessions, and was impressed enough to ask him to get together some instrumentals to record on his own. Very soon they were back at Cosimo's cutting tracks, first for this single, and, then, a month later, laying down more material to complete an album, which RCA would release that year as The Wild Sound Of New Orleans by Tousan.

Although Toussaint worked up a number of the tunes ahead of the sessions, many tracks were improvised by the pianist and his collaborator on the project, baritone saxophonist Alvin 'Red' Tyler, who had long been a regular session man at Cosimo's and was well-versed in the art of creating quick head-arrangements on demand. "Whirlaway" is a prime example, as the 20 year old pianist cut loose with impressive variations on Professor Longhair riffs, played at a knuckle-busting pace. Tyler and the rest of the backing band were more than up to the task of accompanying him. Charles 'Hungry' Williams laid down an unstoppable, muscular parade shuffle, reinforced by the driving bass of another studio veteran, Frank Fields, and the rhythmic, almost banjo-esque guitar scratching of either Justin Adams or Roy Montrell. They also were the players of record on the other album cuts, with the addition of two legendary saxmen, Lee Allen and Nat Perrilliat, taking some solos. Toussaint did not have titles for many of the jams; so Kessler, a racetrack enthusiast, picked the names of well-known horses of the day, including Whirlaway, for several of the finished tracks.

In his excellent notes for the essential Bear Family CD
, The Complete 'Tousan' Sessions
, Rick Coleman quotes Toussaint as saying that RCA album had decent sales, but remarkably did not do well at home. Though he did not become a household name with the release, Toussaint did get recognition for the first time from people around, and even outside of, the country. So, late the next year, Kessler had Toussaint and Tyler work up and record more instrumentals, some of which were released as singles on the Seville label, but did not sell. At the time, Toussaint had just been hired to do artist development, composing, arranging and producing for Joe Banashak's new labels, where he would lend his talents to recordings by Chris Kenner, Ernie K-Doe, Aaron Neville, Irma Thomas, and Jessie Hill, among others. Always most comfortable in that role, working more or less behind the scenes, letting others take the spotlight, Toussaint never actively pursued the role of frontman, but could still shine with the best of them when given the opportunity.

"Sweet Touch Of Love" (Allen Toussaint)
Allen Toussaint, from Toussaint, Scepter, 1970

A dozen years after the release of his RCA LP, Toussaint got the opportunity to record his second album, simply called Toussaint. Very little information is available about the circumstances that brought this record about. At the time, Toussaint was busy in his usual role of developing artists and producing records, having had a string of hits with Lee Dorsey, and attempting to do the same with many others such as Betty Harris, Eldridge Holmes, Diamond Joe, Curly Moore, and, of course, the Meters, for the various labels run by Sansu Enterprises (his partnership with Marshall Sehorn) or other labels who leased their products.

I don't know what chain of events brought about this solo project; but, however it came to be, the tracks were recorded in Los Angeles at Dimension Sound Studio rather than Toussaint's home base. Since the only decent studio in New Orleans in those days, belonging to Cosimo Matassa, had been shut down by the IRS, who seized the assets for unpaid taxes, recording possibilities were limited. Sansu was having to take sessions for their artists to Macon and Atlanta, GA, and even North Carolina. Thus, a local venue was out of the question. Strangely, production credits shown on the sleeve of the 1970 Scepter album read "Allen Toussaint and Charles Greene for Sansu Enterprises, Inc." Now, regular readers may recall that Greene was Mac Rebennack/Dr. John's none too straight up wheeler-dealer manager in California at the time. Usually, Sansu credits always showed Toussaint and Sehorn. Because he was not a regular part of the Sansu operation, the extent of Greene's actual involvement in the entire process remains in question; and I would appreciate any enlightenment on it. What I do know is that Toussaint wrote all but two of the songs on the album and also arranged them all, as was his usual method of operation.

Oddly, the Meters, Sansu’s hot house band, who were just starting to have hits of their own, did not participate on Toussaint. Probably, a small recording budget kept them from being flown to LA. Still, Toussaint was well served by the musicians* lined up, many of whom were hometown players living and working out West: Rebennack on organ and guitar, along with his long-time drummer, Freddie Staehle, plus another legendary drummer Toussaint had worked with often in the early 1960s, John Boudreaux. Filling the horn section were some other greats from New Orleans, Clyde Kerr on trumpet, Fred Kemp on tenor sax, and Earl Turbinton on alto sax. Merry Clayton, who like Toussaint hailed from the Gert Town area of New Orleans, sang soulful backup along with Venetta Fields. Other players on hand, from parts unknown, were Terry Kellman on guitar, Eddie Hohner, bass, and Ed Greene, drums. No doubt the comfort level and musical chemistry was enhanced by all of those connections to home.

"Sweet Touch Of Love", always a favorite of mine, first appeared on Toussaint and is a pretty good indication of what this album has to offer: lean, effective arrangements, outstanding musicianship, and very respectable vocals from the man himself. From the funk in evidence throughout, my inclination is that Boudreaux was the drummer on this and the majority of tracks. On the breakdown towards the end of this song and continuing through the ride-out, listen to the serious syncopation coming from the kick drum, over which Toussaint lays the intense interplay of instruments and vocals. Another question that arises is who is playing congas on this song and all over the album? I don't have a clue if it is one of the other drummers I mentioned or somebody else, as specific credit is not given; but whoever it is deserves props for enhancing the grooves so well. [Red Kelly has kindly reminded me that an excellent candidate for the conga work here is Richard 'Didimus' Washington, New Orleans expatriate percussionist who frequently played in the studio and, for a time, on the road with his friend, Mac Rebennack, back in those days. Don't know why I spaced on that. Just another senior moment from the management here at HOTG.]

Besides "Sweet Touch Of Love", the standout tracks for me on Toussaint are "From A Whisper To A Scream" (famously covered the next year by Esther Phillips, and later still by Robert Palmer), "What Is Success" (also famously covered a few years on by Bonnie Raitt), Toussaint's funk-infused cover of "Chokin' Kind", and several of the quirky, earthy instrumental originals on side B, including "Either". In 1985, Kent Records in the UK re-issued the album on LP and CD as From A Whisper To A Scream, containing an unissued track, "Number Nine". Just last year, Kent again re-issued the album along with a number of Toussaint's singles for Bell on the CD What Is Success. How great it is to have all of that stuff in one place. Surely some of those tracks are available for download, if you’ll settle for the reduced sonic fidelity of mp3s. Anyhow, you really don't have any excuse not to start celebrating Toussaint's 70th year right now, the right way, with his music.

*[Note: The musician listings appeared on the 1985 Kent re-issues, and weren't shown on the original LP]


Blogger New Orleans Ladder said...

Goodness Gracious You Ain't Nothin'but a Home Run! What a great article. Hell yeah!!! You can check today's Ladder http://noladder.blogspot.com/ for Mr. Toussaint tomorrow night at Tip's 30th Anniversary Party!
Awe that is a fine article, ya'hear my mouf' talkin'?
Ho & Thank You,
editor~NO News Ladder

6:37 AM, January 18, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

one of my all-time top songs in by allen. 'don't get in too deep' is the title/first line. from a compilation somewhere along the line. funky as hell.

12:27 PM, January 19, 2008  
Blogger Lemoncat,, said...

very interesting post and a great read.. this is tops man. thanks for sharing this one.. superb

7:10 AM, January 22, 2008  
Blogger Red Kelly said...

Great post, bro... Happy Birthday Allen!!

On the conga question; how about the legendary "Didimus" (aka Richard Washington), who was a member of the Night Trippers at that point? I mean, if Mac brought along his drummer, maybe he brought his wild percussion guru (and junco podnah) too?

Just a thought...

12:46 PM, January 25, 2008  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

Red, your comment makes perfect sense. Guess that's why I didn't think of it!

Yes, Didimus was a runnin' partner and collaborator (and unindicted co-conspirator) with Mac on much, if not all, of what he did out in La La Land. That's the obvious choice, and the best one, for the conga work. Too bad he got no credit - hope there was a pay day, at least.

Thanks for showing me up, man.
Seriously, in case anybody had any doubts, not only do I not know everything (not even close), sometimes I do not even know what I know. Hooboy.

2:11 PM, January 25, 2008  
Blogger Red Kelly said...

On second thought, though... Toussaint himself is credited with playing the congas on the good doctor's 'Right Place Wrong Time' album...


and, dude, you have 'showed me up' more times than I can recall!

you da man!

7:24 AM, January 28, 2008  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

Hey, Red, don't talk yourself out of Didimus. I think you nailed that one - though you are right that Toussaint is credited with conga work on various recordings; but he used Uganda Roberts on congas for his own Life, Love and Faith, and Southern Nights. So I just think he'd sooner use a hot-shot percussionist, if one were available.

8:20 PM, January 28, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

there's a clear explanation of the genesis of the Toussaint album on the sleeve notes of the recent Kent reissue

6:37 AM, February 09, 2008  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

Thanks, Peter. I haven't bought that Kent CD yet. Glad to know that they have new information in the notes. Their first re-issue of the album didn't provide much. I'll get it on my next trip into NOLA so that I can update this post.

PS - A lot of information I rely on comes from liner notes to compilation LPs and CDs. Some of the better ones are fairly well-researched and informative. Mark that down as another reason to keep buying CDs.

10:11 AM, February 09, 2008  

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