A few winters ago – late January of 2011, to be exact – I was burning the final hours of a short New York trip by having brunch at Joe’s Pub, a popular haunt affixed to The Public Theatre that operated primarily as a nightclub. This day, however, Allen Toussaint quietly took the stage as a winter sun lit up a Sunday afternoon in Manhattan.
Over the decades, Toussaint has been many things – a champion songwriter, a vanguard R&B stylist, a heralded producer/arranger and one of New Orleans’ foremost musical ambassadors. On this day, though, he was alone at the piano offering stories and songs from an extraordinary career. In such a setting, works like Freedom for the Stallion, A Certain Girl, Holy Cow and even a few non-original favorites like St. James Infirmary were performed with the kind of soul, ease and confidence only a scholarly elder like Toussaint could summon.
In true show business fashion, though, he saved his greatest party piece for the end of the show – a near 10 minute version of Southern Nights. Pop audiences probably recognize the tune through the hit version Glen Campbell delivered to radio in 1975. But in the hands of its composer, Southern Nights turned impressionistic. It was a love song, a lullaby and an elegy all rolled into one but played with an understated, contemplative joy. The performance will forever by my favorite remembrance of Toussaint and his astounding music.
Toussaint died yesterday at the age of 77 of a heart attack following a concert in Madrid. His departure completes a mammoth chapter of American musical history that runs from early pop hits like Fortune Teller to ‘70s-era Crescent City funk to a string of final recordings that included the Elvis Costello collaboration The River in Reverse (2006) , the predominantly instrumental Joe Henry-produced The Bright Mississippi (2009) and the career retrospective concert album Songbook (2013). The latter chronicled another Joe’s Pub show.
The venue served as a performance home for the pianist for several years. He had resettled in New York after floods in the wake of Hurricane Katrina engulfed his New Orleans studio and home. If anything, the disaster only heightened his pride and faith in the city.
“I’m proud to be one of the senders,” he told me in an interview promoting the benefit album I Believe to My Soul of the love generated for his ravaged homeland. “But I’m a receiver, as well.”