A few weeks ago, I jokingly suggested renaming Lee Circle after New Orleans singer Lee Dorsey, best known for his recording of “Working in the Coal Mine,” which was written and co-produced by Allen Toussaint.
Now, someone has come up with a better idea, naming the circle after Toussaint himself.
The singer/songwriter/producer, who died last week after a show in Spain, was virtually present at the creation of New Orleans R&B music in the 1950s. He wrote for and worked with such early local giants as Dorsey, Irma Thomas, Chris Kenner, Ernie K-Doe, Benny Spellman and Art and Aaron Neville. Later, he would work with other signature New Orleans acts like The Meters and Dr. John.
But his impact wasn’t limited to Crescent City music or to the R&B sphere. He crossed borders — those between countries and between genres.
Al Hirt’s “Java,” an early hit for the New Orleans trumpeter, was Toussaint’s. So was “Southern Nights,” recorded by Glen Campbell.
Warren Zevon, the Yardbirds, Boz Scaggs, Jerry Garcia, B.J. Thomas, Robert Palmer and Bonnie Raitt, to name just a few, all laid down Toussaint tracks. He worked with The Band, Elvis Costello and Paul McCartney. He and Paul Simon were to appear together next month. Now, that concert will be a memorial to Toussaint instead.
If we claim our style of cooking and our style of music as two important gifts from us to the world, then no one contributed more than Toussaint to spreading 20th century New Orleans music around the globe.
In all likelihood, Gen. Lee is going to be leaving that circle soon, and Toussaint seems like the best figure to fill the vacuum.
“Few New Orleanians have contributed so much to the city, the nation and the world — advancing our culture, creating amazing music with such a huge diversity of artists,” the petition says.
It adds that rechristening the circle in Toussaint’s honor “would unite us in a way we have not seen since the events of 10 years ago,” referring to the days after Hurricane Katrina.
Well, I’ll believe that when I see it. The pro-monument side is still pretty adamant about this, even trying to make it an issue in the governor’s race.
But Robert E. Lee has had his day in the sun, a much longer day than anyone who led an armed rebellion against the United States could ever hope for. He stands atop a pedestal with his arms folded, looking like a surly grandpa unhappy with the changing world he sees below him.
Toussaint would make a much more welcoming and joyous figure, and a better symbol of the city.
President Ronald Reagan, a showman in his previous career, knew the importance of atmospherics. The country was down in 1980, when he first ran as the Republican presidential nominee. The Iranian hostage crisis was still going on, and inflation was at such a rate that people feared it wouldn’t be long before we would be like Germany during the Depression, when it took a wheelbarrow of cash to buy food.
Reagan focused on the positive, though, saying it was “morning in America.”
We can take a lesson from the Gipper by focusing on the positive and on the luminous joy that Toussaint’s music evoked.
He is just about the perfect embodiment of the image of itself that New Orleans wants to present to the world.
Dennis Persica’s email address is email@example.com.