New Orleans musician Allen Toussaint died Monday after a heart attack in Madrid, where he had just peformed. Toussaint was a highlight of the 2011 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (above). Patrick Semansky The Associated Press
New Orleans musician Allen Toussaint died Monday after a heart attack in Madrid, where he had just peformed. Toussaint was a highlight of the 2011 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (above). Patrick Semansky The Associated Press

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Timothy Finn blogs about Kansas City's music scene

Back to Rockville

Allen Toussaint’s legend was larger than his popularity

By Timothy Finn

tfinn@kcstar.com

November 12, 2015 03:27 PM

My introduction to Allen Toussaint came in 1973, the year Paul Simon released “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon.”

Toussaint’s name was among a long list of stellar musicians who contributed to the album, names like Quincy Jones, Barry Beckett, Grady Tate, Rick Marotta, the Dixie Hummingbirds.

Toussaint arranged the horns on “Tenderness,” one of the best tracks on a flawless album. “Tenderness” is a slow-moving jazzy soul ballad, one man’s plea for some sugar to help sweeten the truth being shoved down his throat: “You don’t have to lie to me / Just give me some tenderness.”

The horns arrive halfway through. They are subtle and discreet, but, like everything Toussaint laid his hands on, they embellish the arrangement and improve the song, embroidering it with the appropriate amount of satin and sass.

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I would encounter his name regularly in liner notes after that, including on Robert Palmer’s “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley” album (Toussaint wrote the title track) and on Warren Zevon’s “Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School,” which includes a cover of Toussaint’s “A Certain Girl.” Each encounter reaffirmed the influence and genius of the man.

“Toussaint was one of our most important American artists,” said Kansas City jazz trumpeter Hermon Mehari. “Like many other prolific musicians, there is a lot to his legacy that many don’t even know about.”

Toussaint died unexpectedly last week in Madrid. He was 77. His death stunned and saddened millions of fans, including some of the world’s best musicians and songwriters, many of whom Toussaint had worked with.

Art Neville, Paul Simon, Paul McCartney, Nicholas Payton, Dr. John, the Rolling Stones, Harry Connick Jr., Questlove, Patti LaBelle and Bonnie Raitt were among scores of friends, fans and peers who expressed their sorrow after Toussaint’s death. Nearly every one praised his modest and generous temperament as highly as his prodigious talents.

From Questlove, drummer for the Roots: “I don’t want y’all thinkin’ ‘This is just some old legend that passed away.’ Naw. This dude wrote some of your favorite music and you just didn’t know it. … That’s how you know how potent and effective your art is: when you quietly change the scene w/o proper acknowledgment. If someone had the right to have (Kanye West) brag-swag it was this man. But his humble, quiet disposition wouldn’t allow such a thing. His work will now speak for itself.”

Toussaint’s work spoke to local musicians and music fans as well. Chuck Haddix, director of the Marr Sound Archives at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and host of “Fish Fry” on KCUR (89.9 FM), said Toussaint was “the Renaissance man of New Orleans R&B.”

“Toussaint wrote the New Orleans songbook,” he said. “His music was distinguished by a catchy lyric and a funky beat. He wrote songs anyone could sing: ‘Working in a coal mine / Going down, down.’ He was also a sought-out producer. The recordings he produced were crisp and bright. … He was Mr. New Orleans, but his appeal was international.”

He was a master of many trades: a producer, arranger, songwriter and instrumentalist. Wyatt West, a Kansas City visual artist and musician, said Toussaint was a special kind of pianist, one affected by his other craft, songwriting.

“For me, Toussaint’s piano-playing style revolved more around songwriting than performance,” he said. “You can tell the difference between a musician who spends his days composing as opposed to one practicing scales and licks. Although he did not have the power and bravura of a James Booker or technical facility of a Dr. John, there was a feeling of intimacy in (Toussaint’s) performance that comes from someone singing their own songs.”

Like James Brown, Toussaint and his music found its way into hip-hop. Billboard magazine compiled a list of 10 Toussaint songs that have been sampled by producers.

“Toussaint’s productions formed the DNA of The Meters’ tight, Nola funk sound, which caught the ear of a slew of legendary hip-hop producers,” wrote Dan Rys, “everyone from DJ Premier, the RZA and Q-Tip to the Bomb Squad, Timbaland and Salaam Remi, Organized Noize, will.i.am and J Dilla have used pieces of Toussaint’s work through the years.”

Toussaint also was a revered live performer. He performed in Kansas City twice over the past six years, both times at the Folly Theater. Haddix remembers the January 2014 show glowingly.

“It was 10 degrees outside and 800 fans showed up,” he said. “That night, he put on one of the best shows I have ever seen, and I’ve been going to shows for a long time.”

In his account of that show, The Star’s reviewer Bill Brownlee encapsulated the legacy of a man whose popularity didn’t do justice to his influence.

“Few artists can tell more compelling stories than Toussaint. Along with Chuck Berry and Little Richard, Toussaint is one of the last surviving original architects of rock ’n’ roll and rhythm and blues.

“Yet because much of his most important work came in his capacity as a New Orleans-based songwriter and producer for artists including Irma Thomas and Lee Dorsey, Toussaint isn’t a household name.”

He is a household name in New Orleans, where a statue of Toussaint stands in a park not far off Bourbon Street. In response to Toussaint’s death, Mayor Mitch Landrieu said about one of his city’s most beloved native sons: “He was an inspiring, prolific songwriter and performer whose unmistakable sound has forever defined our city’s unique cultural heritage. … Allen went on to travel the world and perform with many of today’s great musicians, but he always remembered his roots.”

Toussaint blossomed from those roots at a time when music was composed, arranged, produced and performed by geniuses and virtuosos, pioneers and trailblazers. His death is a reminder of those times, an era captured in documentaries like “The Wrecking Crew,” “Muscle Shoals” and “Standing in the Shadows of Motown.”

As much as his impressive resume and deep influence upon music and fellow musicians, his death also illuminated Toussaint’s warm and generous heart.

“I was always touched by the humor and humanity in his songs,” Wyatt West said. “The universality of his themes. And the direct and natural lyric style. And of course, the rhythms.

“If his songs are any indication, he was a warm, caring human being, who brought a lot of joy to people through his music.

Timothy Finn: 816-234-4781, @phinnagain