The New Orleans music tradition really would not be the same without the input of pianist and singer-songwriter Allen Toussaint and this mini-anthology groups together three of his early-mid 1970s albums as a leader, though during the same period he was prolific as a songwriter, most notably for the Meters who returned the compliment by backing him on one of the albums contained within.
On his debut album, ‘Toussaint’, from 1970 that forms the whole of the first CD, (and includes several bonus cuts not included on the original vinyl which originally came out on Scepter records, a label noted for its quality artists, among whom Dianne Warwick counted on its impressive roster) the singer for once recorded outside his native Louisiana in L.A. and yet with keyboardist Mac Rebennack (aka Dr. John) participating, New Orleans was never likely to be far from Toussaint’s thoughts. Factor in some blues guitar from Terry Kellman and quality background vocals from Merry Clayton and Venetta Fields and you have an album that has never really received its full due. In content, the songs are in some instances the singer’s own interpretations of compositions that were made famous by others. Of these, ‘Working in a coal mine’ has a lighter feel to the Lee Dorsey original whereas ‘Everything I do gonna be funky’ has something of a country funk atmosphere in the use of slide guitar and a gentle pace in the percussion. A real discovery is one of two non-Toussaint compositions, ‘Chokin’ Kind’, that is a lovely mid-tempo tune with some terrific call and response vocals. The second, from the Charlie Brown soundtrack that guitarist Vince Guaraldi made famous is the gently uplifting ‘Caste your fate to the wind’. Best of all, however, are the largely instrumental bonus pieces with ‘Number Nine’ strong enough in tempo to be a northern soul tune while ‘Pickles’ is a downright dirty, gritty southern funk piece over which Toussaint magically inserts a classical piano solo at the end, with blues guitar and percussion in close attendance throughout. A contender for a storming funk 45 is ‘Louie’ and would have made an ideal AA 45 with ‘Pickles’. While this is not the first time that this underrated album has been re-issued in the UK (it more recently surfaced on Kent Soul as one part of the Scepter and Bell recordings), it does have a complete feel with the additional numbers and rightly deserves to be compared alongside its more famous companion albums.
The second CD focuses on the two albums for Warner with ‘Life, Love and Faith’ from 1972 being by far the most sought after because of the Meters participation. This was recorded at Cosimo Matasso’s recording studio and right away the instantly distinctive New Orleans drum beat is present on ‘Am I expecting too much?’ Toussaint inserts a gospel flavour in the use of organ on the laid back hues of ‘My baby is the real thing’, but it is then back to funk duties on ‘Goin’ down’, complete with wailing saxophone. In contrast, ‘Southern Nights’, was a far more sedate affair, covering pop, R &B as well as country territory, and this is reflected in the haunting tone of the title track that conjurs up a heady evening spent in New Orleans. As a vocalist, Allen Toussaint probably did not have the power or range of some of his New Orleans contemporaries and in this respect he joins an illustrious group of American singer-songwriters such as Burt Bacharach, Leon Russell and Jimmy Webb who are best known for their songwriting talents as opposed to their own vocal delivery, competent though it may be. That would be to massively underrate Toussaint’s considerable talent. It is true to say, however, that songs such as the title track or indeed ‘What do you want the girl to do’ are best known to the wider public as cover versions by the likes of Glen Campbell, Bonnie Raitt and Boz Skaggs. The fact that these interpreters were aware of Allen Toussaint’s songwriting ability is testimony to the high esteem in which fellow musicians hold him. Only on ‘Last Train’ does he really recapture anything like the earthy funk on the preceding album and this time without the Meters in attendance. Where does Allen Toussaint, then, compare in the African-American music tradition?
Arguably, his contribution is such that he deserves a place on the all-time great table with Curtis Mayfield a similarly innovative and influential figure. Full marks once again to Raven for the detailed notes and numerous illustrations. No bonus sessions on the second CD, but then Toussaint was too busy producing others and ultimately that pre-occupation meant his own career as a singer suffered as a result.