The MOJO flag is at half mast as we learn of the passing of Allen Toussaint, in Spain on Monday, November 9. Your correspondent spoke to the New Orleans music legend only a month ago, an interview in support of his friend and collaborator Elvis Costello which he conducted in his familiarly generous and thoughtful manner. It was early morning LA time and the 77-year-old was preparing for a day in the studio before setting out for the tour of Europe he was fated not to finish. He sounded spry and twinkly as we discussed his shows and recordings with Costello, and became particularly animated when the topic strayed onto Scots soul man Frankie Miller’s 1974 album, High Life, which he produced. “I love Frankie,” said Allen. “He’s a real singer.”
And Toussaint should know, having produced some real singers in his time, and provided them with can’t-fail songs including Freedom For The Stallion, Get Out Of My Life, Woman, Ride Your Pony, Fortune Teller (a ’60s UK beat boom staple) and Working In A Coal Mine.
His words – combining sophisticated social comment and a knowing, earthy wit in the New Orleans tradition – seemed always apt, whether coming from the pugnacious mechanic/boxer Lee Dorsey, whose best work he helmed, or Elvis Costello. He was a modern classic, Cole Porter combined with Leiber & Stoller, with lashings of tumbling funk and soul dripping from his piano keys or oozing out of his fantastic arrangements.
Hurricane Katrina drove him from his home town in 2005 and for a while he was an exile, playing benefits in New York and elsewhere for his fellow flood victims. When he returned, to record the album he made with Costello, The River In Reverse, it was to find his house and his studio washed away. His reaction attests to the durability every music lifer needs.
“I remember making a decision in the moment that it was all right,” he told me in October. “Those things had all served me very well.”
Revisit MOJO for a full tribute in due course. Meanwhile, take in the wistful brilliance of Toussaint’s Freedom For The Stallion, as sung by Lee Dorsey in 1971.