Paul McCartney, per a 2013 Rolling Stone cover story by Jonah Weiner, revels in creating personal “moments” for fans via brief, unscripted interactions. By that measure, Allen Toussaint was the Paul McCartney of New Orleans.
Toussaint gave countless fans and admirers their moment. Taking a picture with him was a New Orleans rite of passage, as evidenced by the many Facebook profile picture updates since a heart attack felled him following a Nov. 9 concert in Madrid.
Encountering him was easy, as he was seemingly everywhere: enjoying local restaurants. Popping up wherever a piano was present. Strolling the Fair Grounds during the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, sweat-free and immaculate regardless of the temperature. He was remarkably accessible for someone of his status. When both McCartney and the Rolling Stones mourn your passing via social media — along with the Foo Fighters, My Morning Jacket, Lenny Kravitz, etc. — you are operating at a very high level indeed.
Especially in the 1960s and ’70s, Toussaint conjured a special kind of musical alchemy, distilling melody and lyric into gold records. Irma Thomas, Ernie K-Doe, Art Neville, Aaron Neville, Lee Dorsey, Chris Kenner, Benny Spellman, Dr. John, Labelle, McCartney, Robert Palmer — all benefited from his composition and/or production skills. Everyone from the Rolling Stones to Glen Campbell to the Pointer Sisters to Devo to Al Hirt has successfully, and profitably, covered his songs.
And his own recordings are a joy: funk-soul outings from the mid-1970s; piano excursions that placed him in the lineage of Professor Longhair; such latter-day triumphs as his 2006 collaboration with Elvis Costello, “The River in Reverse”; and his Grammy-nominated 2009 jazz album, “The Bright Mississippi.” They will be listened to as long as people listen to New Orleans music.
In recent days, social media has been flooded with testimonials about “Toussaint moments.” My professional proximity to him for two-plus decades yielded more than my share. He inevitably asked about my kids. After I wrote a lengthy profile that he claimed “changed (his) life,” he referred to me as “sweet, like Spera-mint,” from the stage at Tipitina’s — probably the most memorable “thank you” I’ve received in 25 years of writing about musicians. In 2011, he agreed to attend a reading for my book “Groove Interrupted: Loss, Renewal and the Music of New Orleans,” which contains a chapter about him. He not only regaled the capacity crowd at Octavia Books with stories but stuck around to sign books with me. Not surprisingly, his carefully crafted autograph, with its regal curlicues and interwoven treble clef, looked like something lifted from the Declaration of Independence, had the Founding Fathers been more musically inclined.
One dreary afternoon in December 2005, I visited Toussaint and Costello, each as dapper as the other, as they worked on “The River in Reverse” at Piety Street Recording in the Bywater. At one point, Toussaint laid his hands upon a grand piano and unspooled a spooky, minor-key variation of the Professor Longhair classic “Tipitina” titled “Ascension Day.” As the final notes drifted away, a long, pregnant pause followed. Costello finally broke the silence with, “That was pretty, wasn’t it?
Toussaint simply smiled. He didn’t need to say anything more — he knew when to let the music speak for itself.
Granted, someone who rolls around town in a two-tone Rolls-Royce bearing the vanity plate “Piano” while wearing a Technicolor swirl of an ensemble is not exactly shying away from attention. But neither did he crave it. He did his thing, moving through life with ease. People just were naturally drawn to him. Serenity surrounded him. He always seemed to be in good spirits. No one else looked as cool in socks and leather sandals.
He had an air about him, but never put on airs. His songwriting royalties generate a fortune annually, yet he lived in a nondescript brick house in Gentilly until Hurricane Katrina’s breached levees destroyed it. More recently, he inhabited a similarly low-key address on Robert E. Lee Boulevard.
He was likely far more complicated than his public persona let on. Over the years, I’ve heard musicians grumble about their business dealings with him in the 1960s and ’70s; no one has ever accused him of not being savvy.
But the version of himself that he presented to the world — especially in the decade since Katrina — was beyond reproach. He was a tireless ambassador for the city, unfailingly pleasant and gracious, always a gentleman. This is the image of Allen Toussaint that will endure, along with his staggering body of work.
The stories of his going above and beyond the call of duty are legion, whether it was composing an original song for the funeral of famed architect Arthur Davis (who was also the father of Jazz Fest producer/director Quint Davis) or helping a stranger push a bicycle carriage over a bridge in City Park.
At a private party to celebrate the opening of the renovated Orpheum Theater in August, Toussaint played a short set of solo piano. The stage was level with the main floor. To most of the hundreds of guests — many of whom were far more interested in talking, drinking and socializing than listening — he was both invisible and inaudible.
Here was a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, one of the greatest figures in the history of New Orleans music, reduced to essentially providing background music at a cocktail party.
And yet, he fulfilled his obligation with a smile.
At 77, he wasn’t a young man. But his death still came as a shock — he seemed immune to the ravages of time. He struck many of us as a guy who would be around forever. His music, at least, will be.
Ultimately, he was spared a long, slow decline. He didn’t fade away. He was himself — stylish, fluent, unflappable, a consummate pro — until literally the very end. Though he was reportedly already feeling ill onstage at Madrid’s Teatro Lara on Monday night, he, nonetheless, finished the show. After an encore of “Play Something Sweet (Brickyard Blues),” he slipped offstage with a final wave.
Hours later, he was gone.
Allen Toussaint’s light was fully on, and then it was off. New Orleans is a little less bright without him.