Allen Toussaint, the great songwriter and New Orleans gentleman musician, has passed from our midst. Growing up I did not know who he was or even that he was the artist who wrote the songs that I loved and listened to.
It was only later that I realized his sounds and songs really supplied part of the soundtrack of my early life, along with the Beatles and artists of the 60s.
The Great New Orleans Musician Allen Toussaint Passes From Our Midst
But one thing about New Orleans music that the Beatles and the rest could never capture was this mysterious essence that Toussaint knew how to bring forth. The song that really encapsulates this is “Ruler of My Heart” first sung by Irma Thomas and covered by artists from Linda Rondstadt to Norah Jones. But nobody can do this song like Irma.
(This video is a live version with Thomas at the mike and Toussaint at the piano. Watching Irma sing this gives me chills.)
The song is magical and the arrangement is simple. But it’s that arrangement that is so mysterious, brooding, moody and just seems to echo from the streets, homes, trees, river, the air and life of the Crescent City. Perhaps if you are not from here you might not get this.
The thing that really grabs this reflection of the essence of the city is the background chorus, something sweet and at the same time sad and moaning. Sad maybe is not even the right word, no, it’s the wind, the breeze that comes off the river, comes from the swamps, perhaps oozes its way into our world from the spirits.
Toussaint was able to capture this.
And when I think of him and what he has done for the music of the city of New Orleans Ruler of My Heart is the song I think of. For I feel it really captures the essence of what he was all about.
His songs have been covered by many artists including the Rolling Stones, Glenn Campbell who had a hit with “Southern Nights,” and the Tijuana Brass who recorded “Whipped Cream” which appeared on their Whipped Cream and Other Delights, the number pop album of 1965.
Toussaint made a lot of money off these hits and he had two Rolls Royces to prove it. Here was a kid who grew up in a shotgun house in Gert Town and rose to worldwide fame and garnered admiration and respect from world-renowned contemporary artists.
I met him three times in the last ten years. The first was at the 2009 Jazz Fest in the Economy Hall tent when he just showed up in the back by the dance floor. I recognized him and went up and shook his hand. I could immediately tell that here was someone of uncommon character, someone with such warmth and grace.
Few people there knew who he was and they probably wondered why there was a small line of people coming up to get a photo with this nattily-dressed man. (This was in the days before the selfie was all the rage, not many years ago.)
What impressed me was he was so gracious and self-possessed, and appeared to not be in a hurry to get outta there as other celebrities probably would have been. No, he just stood there calmly and welcomed whoever wanted to come up and get a photo with him.
It was then I realized that here was a true gentleman, something that I think is not only rare in our world but rare in the entertainment industry. He just exuded this incredible warmth. And I just stood there watching how he interacted with people. It was quite a lesson in grace.
I saw him once again at the Neutral Ground Coffee House where I was told that he would appear occasionally after having a meal at Geatreaux’s which is right around the corner. He snuck in quietly, sat and listened to the act that was up at the mike.
And of course he was gracious again when folks came up to shake his hand. He was in no hurry to leave.
The last time I saw him was again at the Neutral Ground when I was the one up at the mike singing. He came in toward the end of my set and probably was there for the last ten minutes of it. He sat on the couch and listened attentively.
No one bothered him or came up to him. I ended my set with my song “I Love New Orleans” and when I was done walked over to him and shook his hand. This is what I was hoping: I was thinking he would say “Hey, I love that song. Let’s talk about you coming in and recording it for me,” or “Gee that’s a great song. I’d love to record that.”
But that didn’t happen, in fact, I don’t think he even commented on my music or my singing. But he was gracious as ever and after shaking a few hands he and the woman he was with left. So I can honestly say that Allen Toussaint has heard me play. (Ha, ha.)
With his passing we have lost an amazing artist and gifted New Orleanian. I think musical genius is not too strong a word to use for his talents and what he has added to the pantheon of New Orleans music.
I think he’s right up there with Louis Armstrong and all the other musical greats that this city has produced. Allen Toussaint will be missed but he lives on in all his great and enduring songs and how he touched the lives of so many people in New Orleans and the world.