Tuesday, November 10, 2015

It's raining

It's raining so hard 
Brings back memories 
Of the times 
When you were 
Here with me 
Counting every drop 
About to blow my top 
I wish this rain 
Would hurry up
And stop

In American pop culture, you could look at several moments -- several grief-stricken moments -- and think they were "the day the music died."

This is one of them.  Allen Toussaint --  the legendary New Orleans pianist, songwriter, singer , producer and recording artist -- died early this morning in Spain at 77. He was on tour, and an apparent heart attack felled him.

It's raining. And it brings back memories. Wonderful musical treasures from the times of our lives -- precious gifts for which we'll never be able to reciprocate, for which we'll never be able to properly thank  the great man.

It's raining so hard.

IN POPULAR CULTURE, you cannot have avoided the work of the man. From his recording debut in the 1950s as "Tousan" to his exit from the vale of tears (and, when listening to an Allen Toussaint song, tears of joy), his work has surrounded us all. There are songs you know and love that you didn't know were his compositions. There are songs that I've known and loved that I didn't know were Toussaint compositions.

Well, with all the posthumous plaudits and retrospectives, we're going to find out now.
Allen Toussaint, the gentlemanly Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame songwriter, producer, pianist and singer whose prolific, decades-long career cast him as the renaissance man of New Orleans music, of an apparent heart attack following a concert Monday night in Madrid, Spain. He was 77.

As a young man, Toussaint was the golden boy of the golden age of New Orleans rhythm & blues, writing and producing signature songs for multiple artists. His hundreds of credits include Ernie K-Doe’s “Mother-in-Law” and “A Certain Girl,” Irma Thomas’ “It’s Raining” and “Ruler of My Heart,” Benny Spellman’s “Lipstick Traces” and “Fortune Teller,” Art Neville’s “All These Things,” Lee Dorsey’s “Ride Your Pony,” and Chris Kenner’s “I Like It Like That,” as well as seminal recordings by Aaron Neviile, the Meters and Dr. John.

Acts that covered his compositions include the Rolling Stones, the Who, Bonnie Raitt, Boz Scaggs and Phish, among many others. In the years since his acclaimed post-Hurricane Katrina collaboration with fellow songwriter Elvis Costello, Toussaint enjoyed a late-career renaissance as a touring artist.

“He was an irreplaceable treasure of New Orleans, in the ‘immortal’ category with Jelly Roll Morton, Mahalia Jackson, Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino and Professor Longhair,” said Quint Davis, the producer/director of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. “He was a one-man Motown. He created an entire era of New Orleans rhythm and blues.”
In his songwriting and conversations, Toussaint could craft a turn of phrase with an elegance and economy that rendered it indelible. He once said that he “tries to remain as open as I can for inspiration all the time,” but preferred late-night composing. “I especially like the wee hours of the morning, like three. It’s quiet. The air is different. I like that time of night for anything.”

He was a familiar sight at functions and benefits around town, and a co-founder of the charitable New Orleans Artists Against Hunger and Homelessness. He had been slated to join Paul Simon at a high-dollar benefit concert for the organization on Dec. 8 at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre.

“Allen was never not at the height of something,” Davis said. “Everything he did was at such a high level his whole career.”

Toussaint was born in 1938. He grew up in the Gert Town neighborhood as the youngest of three children. He taught himself to play on the family’s upright piano, influenced heavily by the syncopated style of New Orleans legend Professor Longhair, and Ray Charles, whom he heard on the radio. Barely 13, he joined a rhythm and blues band called the Flamingos, which featured Snooks Eaglin on guitar.

He dropped out of high school to pursue a career in music. He became a fixture around local recording studios, where he was sometimes asked to mimic the style of Fats Domino and other pianists. He learned much about the art of crafting a song from Dave Bartholomew, Domino’s producer and co-writer.

His first recording under his own name was an instrumental album called “The Wild Sound of New Orleans,” released in 1958 by RCA Records. He was billed as “Tousan,” reportedly because the record label didn’t think consumers outside New Orleans could pronounce “Toussaint.”

Under the auspices of the Minit and Instant record labels, he soon discovered his true calling: as a songwriter, arranger, producer and accompanist for other artists. At the home he shared with his parents, Naomi and Clarence, and siblings Vincent and Joyce, he often hosted rehearsal and writing sessions that resulted in a remarkable run of regional and national hits. Irma Thomas once recalled that “It’s Raining” was “written in Allen Toussaint’s bathroom.”

Not even a two-year hitch in the Army — which began in 1963 — could stem his creativity. Backed by an Army band, he wrote and recorded a breezy instrumental called “Whipped Cream.” Trumpeter Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass turned “Whipped Cream” into a massive hit; their recording also served as the theme music for TV’s “The Dating Game.”

ALLEN TOUSSAINT was a giant of music and a prince of a man. To lose that presence is to find that words are inadequate to convey the loss.

Rather than blather on, maybe it's just time to allow a small fraction of his masterpieces to express what the mere words of a Louisiana-born blogger and radio guy cannot.

Rest in peace, sir. And thank you. Thank you so much.

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