The songs of Allen Toussaint washed over their creator one final time on Friday.
As Toussaint, the beloved New Orleans songwriter, producer and pianist, lay inside an opulent casket at the foot of the Orpheum Theater stage, a procession of invited guests, including Elvis Costello, Jimmy Buffett, Dr. John and Boz Scaggs, sang or spoke in tribute to him. The two-hour memorial played out to a capacity crowd of 1,600 — some family, some friends, and many fans of Toussaint’s music.
The 77-year-old Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee died of heart attack following a Nov. 9 performance in Madrid. Working with the American embassy in Spain, the D.W. Rhodes Funeral Home expedited Toussaint’s return. His remains arrived at Louis Armstrong International Airport aboard an American Airlines flight on Monday morning, met on the tarmac by an honor guard of fire trucks.
Though very much a public figure who reveled in his countless interactions with strangers, Toussaint was also extremely private. Over the years, he had discussed plans for his funeral with his son. Reggie Toussaint said Friday that his father did not want a spectacle, or even a second-line parade.
To that end, his casket was closed. Saturday’s burial will be private, and Friday’s program, like its honoree, was elegant, restrained and finely tuned.
The red-brown mahogany casket, said funeral director D. Joan Rhodes, was the “Masterpiece” model, which has been used to bury presidents and other dignitaries. Flanking it was a framed American flag, testament to Toussaint’s Army service in the 1960s. Atop the casket was a floral arrangement featuring a treble clef of white poms. A miniature piano covered by white flowers stood near the podium throughout the visitation.
Festival Productions Inc.-New Orleans, the firm that co-produces the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and Bayou Country Superfest, coordinated the ceremony. The firm’s ties to the Toussaint family run deep: In addition to Toussaint’s long history with the festival, Reggie Toussaint has worked for Festival Productions for more than 20 years, managing stage production and sound. On Friday, he wore one of his father’s paisley patterned neckties.
A broad cross-section of the music community from New Orleans and beyond turned out to bid Toussaint farewell. There was clarinet legend Pete Fountain; drummer James Jackson and tenor saxophonist Benjamin Gregory, both members of Toussaint’s first band, the Flamingoes, which formed in 1952 when Toussaint was 14; and Meters guitarist Leo Nocentelli, who was himself around 14 when Toussaint hired him to play guitar on Lee Dorsey’s 1961 recording of “Ya Ya.”
Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews had been scheduled to be on tour with the Foo Fighters in Europe this week. But when the tour was canceled following the Paris terrorist attacks, he was able to return home for Toussaint’s memorial.
Elton John, an unabashed Toussaint fan, sent an enormous arrangement of white orchids. “Thank you for all the music and for being such a gentleman,” read the affixed card. “Nobody played like you. A true inspiration. Love, Elton.”
As the 11 a.m. musical tribute approached, a line of mourners still stretched along Roosevelt Way. Jazz Fest producer Quint Davis emceed the ceremony from offstage. Cyril Neville, joined by Davell Crawford on piano, opened the program with “Let’s Live.”
Mobile users click here for video.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu welcomed “all the family members, which I guess means all of us. We haven’t had a greater godfather than Allen.” The mayor likened Toussaint to the French Quarter, St. Louis Cathedral and the Superdome, as he was the “human embodiment of a New Orleans icon.” An icon, he continued, “represents the best of something. There isn’t a musician in recent memory who has done more of that than Allen Toussaint.” With the “mischievous twinkle in his eyes, “he was not just from New Orleans, but of New Orleans.”
“Deacon” John Moore, whom Toussaint hired to as a guitarist on many classic rhythm & blues recording sessions, addressed the casket with, “If I was a king, I’d give you my crown. My gift is my song. This one is for you.” With that, he lofted a delicate “Any Day Now.”
WWL-TV morning show anchor Eric Paulsen noted that Toussaint, a longtime friend, was the first to play at the refurbished Orpheum during its reopening party in August. An emotional Paulsen credited Toussaint with possessing “a gift from God,” and read a poem Aaron Neville wrote for the occasion.
A recording of Neville singing “I Bid You Goodnight” accompanied a slide show of Toussaint throughout the years. A shot of Toussaint’s signature leather sandals and socks earned an appreciative round of applause.
Crawford teased out a fetching “Southern Nights” that evoked Toussaint’s original conception. Irma Thomas followed by dedicating “Walk Around Heaven All Day” to his family. Toussaint wrote and produced several of her best-known songs.
New York businessman Joshua Feigenbaum, who befriended Toussaint in the 1980s and later financed his NYNO Records label, revealed that his famous friend preferred his shrimp po-boys dressed with cheese: “The guy was just the coolest cat on the planet.”
Buffett, who occasionally shared stages with Toussaint at Jazz Fest, wore a black hat, shirt, pants and sneakers as he strummed a black acoustic guitar for “Fortune Teller.” He grinned through the lyric, “Now I get my fortune told for free,” acknowledging Toussaint’s sense of humor.
After Hurricane Katrina, prolific British singer-songwriter Elvis Costello suggested to Toussaint that they record an album together. Their 2006 collaboration, “The River In Reverse,” kick-started Toussaint’s post-storm career as a touring artist. On Friday, Costello opted to speak, rather than sing, his colleague’s praises. As Costello adjusted his eyeglasses at the podium, he quipped, “Allen was ageless. I’m not.” Toussaint was, in Costello’s estimation, “an elegant prince, gracious, ever curious about what came next.”
Together, they toured the world, from Green Bay to an amphitheater in the shadow of the Parthenon in Athens. On an especially hot day in Sweden, Costello was shocked to discover Toussaint had shed his customary suit and tie in favor of “the most immaculate powder blue track suit that you’ve ever seen in your life.”
He concluded his remarks with the sign-off Toussaint employed for every note and phone conversation: “Looking forward.”
John Boutte caressed “All These Things,” an early Art Neville hit that Toussaint wrote and produced. Boz Scaggs confessed to losing his notes for his speech, but turned in a heartfelt remembrance nonetheless. “There’s a sadness in the air, but a great deal of joy in just thinking about Allen,” he said.
During a joint show in San Francisco, Scaggs recalled, Toussaint delivered “a master class in mastery and class.” Pianist Jon Cleary and two members of his Absolute Monster Gentlemen joined Scaggs for “What Do You Want the Girl to Do.”
“You just heard the sermon,” said Pastor Michael Green of LifeGate Church, who followed Scaggs and company. “Allen didn’t have a song. He was the song.”
Brian “Breeze” Cayolle, a member of Toussaint’s band for 15 years, rendered a somber, solo “Ave Maria” on clarinet. Afterward, he stood in silence, eyes closed. Costello was one of the first to his feet for the subsequent standing ovation.
Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack ambled onstage with a cane in one hand and an ornate walking stick in the other. “I think this is off the hook and appropriated,” he announced in his idiosyncratic dialect, before unspooling the song “Life.”
Indicative of his robust late-career rebirth, Toussaint logged 42 shows in 48 nights during a 2014 tour with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. As Friday’s tribute hit the two-hour mark, Preservation Hall, with Crawford on piano, lit into Toussaint’s “Yes We Can Can.”
Boutte joined them for “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” before an uproarious concluding jam on the gospel rave-up “I’ll Fly Away.” While Trombone Shorty and “Big” Sam Williams traded trombone licks, Buffett, Scaggs, Crawford and Deacon John shared a microphone. Landrieu danced. Dr. John, Boutte and Cleary stood side-by-side.
As the drums and trombones finished it off, Cyril Neville tipped his hat to Toussaint’s casket.
With that, Rhodes staffers prepared for the recessional. Pallbearers, including members of Toussaint’s band, donned white gloves. Preservation Hall eased into a dirge as Landrieu and Trombone Shorty led the slow march down the aisle.
Outside, on a flawless New Orleans afternoon, the sun dazzled the exterior of the Orpheum. A large throng encircled the waiting hearse, blocking traffic. WWL-TV’s Sally-Ann Roberts stood near Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler, both capturing the moment on their cell phones.
Once the casket was stowed inside the hearse, the band “cut the body loose” with an uptempo pulse. Perhaps inevitably, an impromptu, if brief, second-line commenced. A scrum of photographers preceded the band and marchers past the Roosevelt Hotel.
Soon, Orleans Parish sheriff’s deputies cleared a path so the funeral home vehicles could pull away. Reggie Toussaint rode in the front passenger seat of his father’s unmistakable blue Rolls-Royce convertible, which bore the license plate “Songs.”
Deputies halted traffic on Canal Street so the procession could speed away from the spectacle. The street party, like Toussaint’s songs, lived on without him.
Allen Toussaint tribute: Who's who of music world honor iconic figure through words, song
Visitation, tribute for Allen Toussaint will be held Friday at the Orpheum Theater
Keith Spera: Allen Toussaint was all about 'moments' ... not with celebs but people just like you
Photos: A look at Allen Toussaint's life and career