Quick Cuts: Faulkner, Haggard and Murder – Lots of News in the “Crier”

Erin Enderlin – Whiskeytown Crier

The concept behind Enderline’s second album is that each song could be a story in this fictional small town newspaper, the “Whiskeytown Crier.” Her web site bio connects her songwriting inspiration to her love of William Faulkner, and her songs are similarly rich in character, story and details of place. Most of her tales are sad, even heartbreaking, but her skill makes hearing them a pleasure.

She had her first song recorded by Alan Jackson (“Monday Morning Church”) before she graduated from college. Soon she had placed tunes with the likes of Lee Ann Womack (“Last Call”)  and Luke Bryan (“You Don’t Know Jack.”)   She toured with Willie Nelson and made friends with Merle Haggard. She confessed to Merle she was inspired by his approach, especially to phrasing, when she wrote “The Blues Are Alive & Well.”

On Whiskeytown Crier Enderline proves she can sing as well as write. Anybody who can write lines like these deserves to be heard:

“She could’ve had any man,
I thought he was just another one,
’Til that No Tell Motel shotgun epiphany…

My baby sister, sweet baby sister,
I knew you were a pistol,
But I never knew you owned a gun.”

Or…

“I smoked one to the filter, and I watched the ashes fall,
Blew smoke rings at your memory as it danced across the wall,
’Til it was gone.”

Or…

“If I start thinking about your sweet kiss,
I start thinking ‘bout your goodby,
Baby that’s the kind of heartache that can take all night,
When it comes to you,
That’s more than a glass or two,
That’s a whole ‘nother bottle of wine.”

 

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Quick Cuts – Old School Soul

Syleena Johnson – Rebirth Of Soul

The title might be hyperbole, but the delivery is silky old school soul singing punctuated by bright horn riffs and shimmering strings. Syleena is the daughter of Syl Johnson, a somewhat overlooked singer, songwriter, guitar player and producer from the classic soul period in Chicago in the sixties. He hooked up with Willie Mitchell’s Hi Records in Memphis in the seventies, where unfortunately he was overshadowed by the great Al Green. Syleena’s earlier recordings were in the contemporary vein of R&B and Hip Hop, but when she decided to record Rebirth Of Soul as a tribute to her dad, her old man eagerly signed on as producer. The result is superb, one of the better revisits to the soul standards catalog of recent vintage.

The song selection is key to the album’s success, in my opinion, because even though they’re all covers, for the most part they’re not rehashes of the typical lineup of big hits. A couple are included like “Lonely Teardrops” and “Chain Of Fools.” Most, however, were lesser hits like Bettye Swann’s “Make Me Yours,” Otis Redding’s  “These Arms Of Mine,” and Curtis Mayfield’s “The Makings Of You.” She also covers a couple of her dad’s records. My point here is that the selections paired with the arrangements – retro yet fresh – add to a package of music you’re not tired of hearing before it even starts. Plus Syleena’s voice is well up to the task. She’s neither gritty nor a belter, but she has the chops to glide or soar as the songs demand all the while giving them a mature shading of her own, as on this classic “hold your baby close and slow dance” number originally recorded by Betty Everett.

One of the better tunes on Rebirth of Soul is Syleena’s cover of her dad’s minor hit “We Did It.” But what the heck, let’s give papa Syl a little respect and close with his own version from the seventies.

Hold That Thought; Let’s Pay Tribute To Fats Domino!

I was just about ready to publish a new post featuring several strong new albums when I got word that Fats Domino had passed away, left us to go take his place in Rock ‘n’ Roll heaven as the Righteous Brothers put it. I had just had to put that post on hold and take some time to remember Fats. In my mind there were five foundational forces at the birth of rock n roll in the 1950’s: Chuck Berry, Elvis, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino. Yes there were others we could mention like Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Buddy Holly and maybe even Dion Dimucci. But really even those guys were drawn into the special energy generated by those five giants as they transformed R&B, blues, country and gospel – and galvanizing stage presence – into Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Of those five, Fats was surely the most unassuming and thus today is the least remembered despite his impact at the time. In fact, he was the first with a million selling record, “The Fat Man,” in the later forties. Eventually the man had 37 singles hit the top 40 in the fifties and early sixties. He sold some 65 million singles with 23 gold records which placed him second only to Elvis in dollars generated. He did it with an infectious, upbeat manner that belied the blue feeling in many of his songs. When you heard Fats sing and play that piano, you just wanted to grab a partner and dance. Although his sound was so consistent that sometimes one record sounded like the one before, a closer listen unveils sly inferences and nuances in the lyrics and melodies that reveal his true genius.

If you’re not as old as me and thus are not familiar with Fats’ hits, then I suggest you check out any of several of his greatest hits collections such as The Fats Domino Jukebox: 20 Greatest Hits or maybe Greatest Hits: Walking To New Orleans. There are also two good, hit loaded live recordings from the early 2000’s: Fats Domino Live! From The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival 2001 and Live From Austin TX: Fats Domino, which has excellent quality audio from an appearance on “Austin City Limits” in I believe 2006. “Here he is on Austin City Limits.”

“Blueberry Hill” was his biggest seller, but my favorites were always “Walking To New Orleans,” “My Girl Josephine,” “Ain’t That A Shame,” ” Blue Monday,” “I’m In Love Again,” and “I Want To Walk You Home.” Here is a medley of several hits from a kinescope of a Dick Clark show in 1958 followed by a clip from 1957.

 

If you already have a collection of his hits, I have two other recommendations for you:

Goin’ Home: A Tribute To Fats Domino

I’ll kick off my review of this album with a double tribute to include the late, great Tom Petty, a man who knew the difference between rock and Rock ‘n’ Roll, as he demonstrates here.

 

Fats was almost swept away by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but a helicopter plucked him from the rooftop of his home in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. A couple of years later, some New Orleans friends spearheaded this all star tribute with some of the proceeds going to the Tipitina Foundation. Unlike many tribute albums, which are simply a collection of pre-existing cover recordings by various stars, every cut on this double CD set except one was recorded explicitly for this project. The producers were able to round up a gaggle of great artists – Paul McCartney, Elton John, Tom Petty, Bonnie Raitt, Robert Plant, Taj Mahal, Irma Thomas, Neil Young, Willie Nelson and the list goes on. Some recorded as solos, but the producers were able to pair many of them with New Orleans bred artists in very entertaining combinations. By the way, the one exception to new recordings is John Lennon’s version of “Ain’t That A Shame,” an exception well worth making. In total there are thirty tunes – and a barrel of fun.

One of the cool pairings on the album is this collaboration between Paul McCartney and Allan Toussaint.

 

Fats Domino – Sweet Patootie: The Complete Reprise Recordings

Like so many of the early stars of rock n roll, the hit train stopped rolling for Fats by the mid sixties, overwhelmed first by the British invasion and then psychedelia. Somehow in the late sixties, Fats wound up at Frank Sinatra’s Reprise Records. His first effort there, known, as Fats Is Back captured the essence of what made Fats’ hits so great. The album died as far as chart sales go, but boy does it succeed on the merits. Most of the songs were new except for two covers. One is a rollicking version of the Beatles’ “Lady Madonna,” which I’ve read was itself a bit of a tribute to Domino. The other is Barbara George’s “I Know.”

In addition to Fats Is Back, this package also includes:

  • Three singles that would’ve been hits in another time, especially the Randy Newman penned “Have You Seen My Baby?”
  • A second album which had been titled Fats, produced by his old New Orleans hit machine collaborator Dave Bartholomew.

 

All in all, the Reprise recordings freshen the Fats Domino repertoire while remaining true to his legend. It may have been out of step with its times, but from the perspective of 2017, the music is great fun and reinforces his standing at the dawn of rock n roll.

So in 2017 we’ve lost Chuck Berry and Fats Domino, leaving Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis as the sole survivors from my Mount Rushmore. But thanks to great recordings likes these, the beat goes on and “Rock ‘n’ Roll is here to stay, it will never die.”

A Big Week For Two All Time Greats

Last week was truly special for music lovers. For starters, Ella Fitzgerald’s birthday was April 25; she would have been 100 years old. Ella was the quintessential female jazz/pop singer, and a case could be made that she would edge out Frank Sinatra as the greatest interpreter of the Great American Songbook. Her influence on vocalists over the decades regardless of genre cannot be over estimated.

In addition, last week saw the release of Willie Nelson’s umpty umpth album, God’s Problem Child, a remarkable collection of songs that may well be his best in quite awhile. Willie’s output of albums is unprecedented, and there have been times, perhaps every couple of dozen albums or so when he almost seemed on auto pilot. Yet at 83, Willie has produced a collection of songs as vital and fresh as his classic tunes were back in the 1960’s.

Willie Nelson – God’s Problem Child

Willie writes and sings about growing old with sentiment but never sentimentality. He can convey nostalgia, regret, or sweet memories in one song and stab you with humor the next. A classic example of the latter is “Still Not Dead,” co-written with producer Buddy Cannon, in which he muses about rumors that spread on the internet not too long ago that the old red headed stranger was on his last legs.

 

“It Gets Easier” epitomizes the former, blending quiet humor with the regret in lines like, “I don’t have to do one damn thing that I don’t want to do, except for missing you.”

One of my favorite tunes is “Old Timer” by the great and underrated Donnie Fritts. “You think you are a young bull rider, then you look in the mirror and seen an old timer.”

There’s also a fine tribute to Willie’s great friend Merle Haggard, “He Won’t Ever Be Gone,” written by Gary Nicholson whom I wrote about a few months ago. These two songs, notwithstanding, the strength of the album lies in the seven tunes Willie co-wrote with Cannon.

I also have to say that in addition to Willie’s great writing and singing, any description of the strength of this album has to include his guitar playing, which has not diminished at all with age, and the incomparable harmonica of his long time sideman Mickey Raphael.

 

Ella Fitzgerald And The Count Basie Orchestra – A Perfect Match (Live)

There are literally dozens of Ella Fitzgerald albums I could recommend. For starters over several years in the fifties she recorded a series of albums focused on the songbooks of the stalwarts of the Great American Songbook from Duke Ellington to Cole Porter to the Gershwin’s to Irving Berlin to Rodgers and Hart and others. The collection is excerpted in Best Of The Songbooks. There are many others including great live recordings and her marvelous duets with Louis Armstrong. I happen to like A Perfect Match, which was recorded live at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1979. It catches Ella still young enough at 62 to ignite an audience united with one of jazz’s hardest swinging big bands and recorded with reasonably modern technology.

I’ve had the album since it was released on vinyl, and I always get a kick when I put it on. In researching for this post, I found a number of reviews with a variety of quibbles. All I can say in rebuttal is it won the Grammy in 1980 for best female jazz vocal performance. No singer could swing, improvise of scat like Ella as evidenced by the closing number “Basella,” the opener “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone,” or the romping conclusion to “After You’ve Gone” as you no doubt saw.  And few could match her on love songs tinged in blue like “You’ve Changed” or Billie Holiday’s “Fine and Mellow.” Her rich voice saturates these songs like honey poured over a warm biscuit.

 

Yes, Ella in 1979 may have been past her prime as a vocalist. As a singer who could convey the essence of her songs and both connect with and entertain her audience, however, she was still at the top of her game. She and the Basie orchestra deliver the passion and punch that make for a concert performance to cherish.

And what the heck… Duke Ellington’s birthday was also last week, so I’ll close this week with one of the most beautiful versions of one of the most beautiful songs ever written. From the 1957 album Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Duke Ellington Songbook recorded with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Here is “Mood Indigo.”

Chuck Berry And The Birth Of Rock ’N’ Roll

A couple of weeks have gone by since the passing of Chuck Berry, and I’ve wrestled with what to say or to recommend to you. So many people have commented on his death, his music and his impact. The New York Times alone had several wonderful articles including one about his best hits and another about the songs that influenced several of his hits followed by subsequent recordings that were in turn influenced by those same hits. Frankly, I really had nothing to add.

Then I came across an album that is a compilation of his early blues tracks for Chess Records. It’s called simply:

Chuck Berry Blues

The album features Chuck covering sixteen tunes primarily from the 1940’s and early 1950’s blues canon – tunes like “House of Blue Lights,” “Route 66,” “Confessin’ The Blues,” “Driftin’ Blues,” “Worried Life Blues” and “I Just Want To Make Love To You.”

On these cuts, you hear an artist looking for his identity, his own original sound. You hear influences of Nat King Cole, Charles Brown, Louis Jordan, and Elmore Leonard, but also you hear a performer who wants to innovate rather than duplicate . In this sense the album reminds me of the Sun Sessions compilation by Elvis Presley. Both albums fall short in places, but both tease us with glimpses of what’s to come. Fittingly, the album ends with the strongest evidence that Chuck was evolving into something special, a scintallating version of W.C. Handy’s “St Louis Blues” that breathes sparkling new life into an old chestnut. The riffs and swagger are clearly emerging.

Beyond Berry’s guitar playing and singing, his songwriting, especially his lyrics, is what not only separated Chuck from other artists, but also separated his music from everything that came before. He captured the day to day joy, frustrations, trials and tribulations of young Americans in the mid-fifties – black and white – and put them to an ebullient beat that defied anyone to sit still when they heard it. In doing so, he converted R&B, with a tiny country seasoning, into a music that galvanized a generation. In my not so humble opinion, he along with three others were the alchemists of rock ’n’ roll.

Rock ’N’ Roll’s Mount Rushmore

In 1955, the top selling record for the year was Perez Prado’s “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White.”  Bill Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock” was the only rock ‘n’ roll record in the top 30. Just one year later, as an old song goes, rock ’n’ roll was here to stay. There were twelve rock ’n’ roll songs in the top 30, five by Elvis who held the top two spots, plus another two by the Platters who were evolving from easy listening to become a precursor of black vocal groups like the Dells and the Temptations. It’s hard to describe how revolutionary the change was at the time. Here’s what a top ten hit sounded like before the earth moved between 1955 and 1956.

I was there, listening to radio and records, when Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard hit the scene. Yes, there were earlier artists who planted the seed, and giants like Ray Charles, Big Joe Turner and Bill Haley and His Comets were making waves and upsetting the programmers on “Your Hit Parade.” Ray in particular was laying the foundation for what would one day become “Soul” music. But nobody, I mean nobody, generated electricity and heat like Chuck, Elvis, Jerry Lee and Little Richard.

I’m going to list for your consideration my favorite early record by each of these “big four.” Before I list them for you, however, I first must submit that the greatest record in the history of rock ’n’ roll is by far and away Chuck Berry’s “Johnnie B. Good.” It wasn’t the first rock ’n’ roll record. It wasn’t even Chuck’s first hit. But from the opening riff, its story and the musical way it tells the story define the genre. There’s not even a close second. I’ve heard it at least 1000 times including this very afternoon. Without exception, every time I hear it, I’m over taken with glee; I play air guitar; I pound on the steering wheel if I’m in the car; I jump from my chair if I’m at home; I hop out of my booth and onto the dance floor if I’m at a juke joint; I turn it up, and I sing out loud. Having said that, here are my other personal favorites by the Big Four.  When you hear any one of them, you know you’ve heard rock ‘n’ roll.

Chuck Berry – “School Days”

Next to “Johnnie B. Good” this tune best defines rock ’n’ roll in a teenager’s life, the cure for the humdrum and anxiety of high school. There was a joint right across the street from my high school, The Varsity Grill, which fits Berry’s description to a “T,” right down to “dropping the coin right into the slot.”

Elvis Presley – “Heartbreak Hotel”

This was Elvis’ first release on RCA after departing Sun Records, and it went on to be Billboard’s top selling single record for 1956. It’s a different tempo from most of his early rockers, more bluesy and featuring a tinkling piano along with the guitar. But from the opening line, Elvis’ voice commands your attention, and he never lets go.

Jerry Lee Lewis – “Great Balls of Fire”

Jerry Lee only knew one way to play. All out and on fire. Following closely behind Elvis at Sun, he lit up the radio waves with songs like “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Breathless,” but for me “Great Balls of Fire” stamped Jerry Lee and rock ’n’ roll itself as something just a little bit dangerous.  Jerry Lee re-recorded the tune for his bio-pic starring Dennis Quaid. Though not the original, this clip from the movie aptly illustrates the mania surrounding early rock ‘n’ roll and recreates a legendary encounter between Jerry Lee and Chuck. Although Jerry Lee got the best of Chuck here, he’s on record quoting his mother as saying, “You and Elvis are good, son — but you’re no Chuck Berry.”

Little Richard – “Lucille”

The first rock ’n’ roll record I ever owned was Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti,” and it was soon followed by the two sided “Ready Teddy” and “Rip It Up” along with “Long Tall Sally.” I give the nod here to “Lucille,” however, based on its almost subversive opening with the distinctively throbbing rhythm contrasted by sparse well placed piano single note key strokes, then Richard’s pleading squeal – “Lucille, you won’t do your sister’s will.” Little Richard always seemed on the verge of coming completely unglued while pounding his piano and leading his relatively large band. He was early rock ’n’ roll’s most flamboyant showman and set a standard that influenced a wide array of artists from James Brown to Prince, as I think you’ll agree seeing this clip from 1969.

These four records cover the spectrum from day to day teen life to heartbreak to hot new love to pleading for a departed lover to “come back where you belong.” I don’t think anybody can deny that Chuck Berry belongs on rock ’n’ roll’s Mount Rushmore of the genre’s founders. Who do you think should be up there with him? What are your favorite songs from the launch years of rock ’n’ roll? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Meanwhile… the one and only Chuck Berry with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band still rockin’ and rollin’ forty years later.

 

Ian Tyson – The Legendary Canadian Cowboy Troubador

There are tons of country singers posing as cowboys, but Ian Tyson is one of the few who are the genuine article. He was a rodeo competitor in his late teens and early twenties. In fact, he learned to play the guitar while recovering from an injury during a rodeo. For those not familiar with Tyson, he first came on the music scene in the early to mid sixties as part of the Greenwich Village branch of the folk music boom. With his girl friend and eventual wife, the native of western Canada came to New York via Toronto, By 1961, the pair were performing as a duo known as Ian and Sylvia on their way to becoming one of the top four or five folk acts. As their career gained traction, he wrote two of the most iconic, enduring songs of the period: “Four Strong Winds” and “Someday Soon.” Both were recorded by multiple artists and sung around campfires for years and years. Those two songs alone make him a musician worth following.

Eventually, the folk boom subsided. Some folks singers moved into rock like Dylan. A few moved into country. Others returned to folk albeit with a much lower profile and smaller audiences. Ian and Sylvia eventually amicably split up. He returned to his ranch in western Canada. After a brief hiatus, he began to build a reinvented career singing country and cowboy songs from his base in Alberta. By 1989, he was inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame.

Of course his exposure in the US was relatively limited during this period, but he did gain some recognition when Jerry Jeff Walker recorded one of Ian’s songs, “Navajo Rug.” This became one of Jerry Jeff’s biggest crowd pleasers, and many of his fans discovered (or rediscovered) Ian Tyson as a result. And sampling his work from the late eighties and on into the 21st century delivers hours of pleasure.

 

 

Ian Tyson – Live At Longview

Tyson always had a warm, extraordinarily appealing voice. He also has a demeanor that draws people to him, making his performances seem like very personal interaction with every audience member. That’s why I recommend his 2002 release Live At Longview as the best play to start getting acquainted with his music from the second stage of his career. The set list is an excellent cross section of his repertoire starting with “Navajo Rug.” And, of course, it includes “Someday Soon” which was a huge hit for Judy Collins in the sixties and then resurfaced as a hit for Suzy Boggus in the nineties. I originally planned to insert the album version of “Someday Soon” here, but then I ran across this clip from a 1986 reunion concert by Ian and Sylvia joined on the song by the lustrous Judy Collins.

 

All of the songs but one were written by Tyson, with two – “Navajo Rug” and “Sorta Together” – co-written with Tom Russell, another wonderful songwriter I’ll feature in a future post. Most of the tunes are connected to the cowboy life one way or the other. As a wonderful surprise, he takes one detour and jumps into a western swing version of the old Rodgers and Hart chestnut “Blue Moon.” All in all the crowd seems totally enthralled throughout the program, and I think you will be too.

 

Ian Tyson – Carnero Vaquero
Sadly, Tyson suffered an injury and illness which severely impacted his vocal chords several years ago. The good news is that after years of treatment and therapy, and by teaching himself how to sing again, he has recovered. He’s now in his eighties and continues working on his vocal recovery, so his voice is not as supple as before. Still it’s warm and engaging, and he’s put it to good use with his most recent album from 2015. And he’s still working on his ranch, a cowboy to the end. In some of his new songs, he laments the changes encroaching on his beloved west.

 

 

Here’s another of my favorite Ian Tyson songs with a humorous intoduction in which he tells the story of writing “Four Strong Winds.”

 
I’ll close the post with what my seem an odd song choice by Ian Tyson, but it’s one that he manages to fit seamlessly into his cowboy repertoire.

Guy Clark – In Appreciation

Yesterday morning I was making tweaks to the new post I planned on publishing later in the day when I received the news about Guy Clark’s death. I had seen Jerry Jeff Walker in concert at the Birchmere in Alexandria recently, and he mentioned Guy’s failing health before playing the title song from Guy’s last album, so the news wasn’t a surprise.

Still, this was a finality I dreaded. It made me think of lines from a song on his album Cold Dog Soup, which Steve Earle wrote following the death of their mutual friend Townes Van Zandt.

“In Ft. Worth all the neon’s burnin’ bright
Pretty lights, red and blue
But they’d shut down all the honky tonks tonight
Say a prayer or two
If they only knew”

We’ve lost so many wonderful musicians in the last year or so, giants from Allen Toussaint to Merle Haggard and from every corner of the music world. Some famous; some not so famous. In the big picture, I suppose Guy falls in the second category, but none of the others have meant as much to me personally. Almost every time I pick up my guitar, I play one of his songs.

Every list of my favorite songs, no matter how short, includes at least one of his tunes. No matter what mood I’m in, there’s a Guy Clark song that suits it. I read somewhere that Guy maintained he didn’t make up songs. Rather he wrote about things he knew to be true brought to life by details in scene, character and narrative. Certainly his songs seem like the truth to me.

He was a songwriter’s songwriter. One time I heard Jerry Jeff sing a new song he’d just written. When I told him it was great, he replied, “I know; Guy said so.” And he’s just one of the great songwriters whom I’ve heard say the same thing, all reveling in Guy’s validation of their work. He was almost more poet than songwriter, often extolling the pleasure he took from working with words. For Guy, words really had meaning. And he made phrases from those words which in themselves were musical. Still his melodies have such appeal and such variety in support of his lyrics, they could not have been secondary to him. So he was also a singer’s songwriter. Great singer’s love singing his songs, and I can attest first hand that amateurs love singing them too.

For twenty-three years, my brothers and I produced a music-based fund raising event, the Western Classic Benefitting the Foundation Fighting Blindness. In the mid-1990’s, Guy honored us by performing on our bill with his friend Jerry Jeff. It was not really his kind of gig. He preferred small, quiet rooms over an outdoor festival environment like ours. Still, being from Texas, this was not the first party crowd he had encountered. Accompanied only by his son on a guitar bass, he soldiered on and soon seduced a small core of real music lovers among our crowd. He didn’t do it with glib repartee or showy machinations. Focusing on the core who were focused on him, he did it with the enveloping presence of his calmly looming visage and the quality of his material.

Some of Guy Clark’s songs strike deeply into your emotional core. Others make you throw your head back and grin. They range from outrageous tales of dance hall tarts to the dreams in his grandfather’s immigrant eyes.

Either way, he made me feel he was letting me in on a secret; I was somehow a silent participant in the story he was telling. He made me feel I intimately knew the places and characters about whom he sang. Maybe I do. Maybe we all do. Because as specific in focus as his songs are, they’re equally universal in the truths they tell.

A month of so after Guy’s appearance at our Western Classic, I saw him with Van Zandt at a club called the Tin Angel in Philadelphia, where I was living at the time. After his set, as he made his way to the bar where I was sitting, our eyes met. Without hesitation he called out “los Leas, how’d you find your way here.” For just a flash, I felt like we were old friends. I know Guy didn’t know me well enough to consider me even a new friend. But his songs feel like old friends, and they bring me comfort today.

 

Allen Toussaint – An Appreciation

If ever a man should have died at home, one would think Allen Toussaint should have died in New Orleans.  Rarely has a person been so much of the fabric of his home town as Toussaint was of New Orleans.  He was the most enduringly influential character in the music scene of the Crescent City from the early fifties until just last week when he took his last breath.  Of course, we can’t pick where nor when we will die, so he died in Madrid.

On the other hand, he died just hours after sharing his music and love with fans who likely as not had never experienced it before. Somehow I think that, although he might not haven chosen the place, he might have been at peace with the time, still basking in the warmth of his audience’s pleasure.  As he sings in “It’s a New Orleans Thing” from his live album, Songbook, recorded at Joe’s Pub in New York City in 2009,

“Anywhere I go, something goes along with me,
It’s the sound of the city, the Crescent City in me.”

Not only was Toussaint one of the giants of contemporary American popular music as a songwriter, arranger and producer, he was by all accounts a truly lovely man. Here are a few great ways to enjoy the incredible music he made.

All Star Allen Toussaint Play List

This is a build-your-own playlist of the master’s greatest songs by a stunning array of artists. In many cases, they are the original recordings meaning they were most likely arranged and produced as well as written by Toussaint. In others, and sometimes as alternatives, I’ve suggested different versions, so you can see how other artists have interpreted his oeuvre.

  • “Mother-in-Law” – Ernie K. Doe’s version is so definitive that virtually nobody else ever even gave it a try. There is one pretty interesting instrumental version on an early album collection by jazz guitar master Kenny Burrell called Soulero.
  • “It’s Raining” – there’s the original early 1960s Irma Thomas recording and also an even nicer version on her live album Live – Simply The Best from 1991.
  • “Lipstick Traces” – Benny Spellman. There’s is also a strong version by the O’Jays from 1965, but it’s hard to find as a single cut, and another by Delbert McClinton on Live In Austin.
  • “I Like It Like That” – Chris Kenner.
  • “Holy Cow” – Lee Dorsey. There’s also a good version on The Band’s Moondog Matinee album.
  • “Get Out of My Life Woman” Toussaint said this is his most recorded song. I believe the original is by Lee Dorsey, but since he’s already on the list, I like Solomon Burke’s version on I Wish I Knew, or the Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s take on East-West. There’s also a strong version from jazz greats Joe Williams, Mel Lewis and Thad Jones.
  • “With You In Mind” is a beautiful song. From among several versions, I go with Aaron Neville’s on Warm Your Heart followed by Paul Carrack’s on 2003’s Still Groovin.’
  • “Sweet Touch Of Love” – no way to choose here, so toss a coin between Irma Thomas from The Soul Queen of New Orleans – 50th Anniversary Celebration and Etta James from 1978’s Deep In The Night.
  • “Working In A Coal Mine” – Lee Dorsey again on the original, but also check Harry Connick, Jr.’s snappy, jazzy version on Oh, My Nola.

(found this wild aggregation of talent from a live performance in 1989)

  • “Yes We Can Can” – The Pointer Sisters. Get the version on The Pointer Sisters – Live At The Opera House; it’s much hotter than the studio version. Or try Marc Broussard’s cut on SOS: Save Our Soul. Of course Toussaint himself brings an almost anthemic, spiritual quality to the song in his many recorded versions.
  • “A Certain Girl” – Ernie K. Doe had the original hit. The Yardbirds covered it. But the most fun version is Toussaint with The Levon Helm Band on The Midnight Ramble Sessions, Vol. 3.
  • “Old Records” – Irma Thomas singing Allen Toussaint never grows old.
  • “What Do You Want The Girl To Do” – Boz Scaggs from Silk Degrees. One of Boz’s very best.
  • “Southern Nights” – There’s no question Glen Campbell’s version is terrific, so I’m tempted to go with it.  But I also really dig Toussaint’s collaboration with his Nashville counterpart, guitar maestro Chet Atkins, from the great album Rhythm, Country and Blues.

To close the playlist in zestful style, I’m going to eschew excellent versions by the hitmakers and go with Allen’s live versions, all previously unreleased until done so on 2004’s The Complete Warner Recordings:

  • “Freedom for the Stallion”
  • “Brickyard Blues”
  • “Shoo-Ra, Shoo-Ra”

(Note: if you can find the version of “Shoo-Ra” by the Zasu Pitts Memorial Orchestra, Live at the Great American Music Hall, you owe it to yourself to grab it up. I have it on a vinyl LP I bought in 1985. I have never found it digitally, but I see it’s available in vinyl on Amazon through third parties. In addition to “Shoo-Ra,” the whole album is hot.)

In addition to the all star playlist, here are three particularly fine albums from the last few years, two by Toussaint and one by a terrific New York based band.

Swingadelic – Toussaintville

I learned of this album in 2013 from a blog I’ve mentioned before, JazzWax. (See link to JazzWax in the right hand column of this page.) The blog’s writer Marc Myers caught my eye when he described this as “one of the most surprisingly imaginative CDs to cross my desk in some time. The music is an intelligent and swinging fusion of big band jazz and soul-pop.”

Swingadelic came together during the retro swing dance craze in New York in the late 1990’s. There are fourteen musicians in all with four different singers trading off vocals. The song list includes several from our playlist above plus some great adds. The album closes with a special tribute number titled simply, “Mr. Toussaint.” The arrangements integrate highly accessible jazz into Toussaint’s classics. Again, to quote Myers in summing up the appeal of this great set: “It’s just big sophisticated fun, with one foot in the big bands and the other in the bit easy.”

Allen Toussaint – Songbook

Following Hurricane Katrina, Toussaint lived for a few years in New York City.  During that time, he performed regularly at a small club called Joe’s Pub. Two of his shows were taped in 2009 and combined into this album. The song list replicates many of the numbers from our playlist above and from Swingadelic’s Toussaintville. The difference is that here they are stripped down to just Toussaint’s voice and piano in an intimate setting. Whereas the other versions will stir you to get up and move, here it’s just you, the man and his music. Adding to the one-to-one feel are the occasional personal introductions to certain tunes. In addition to these relatively quiet renditions of several of his hits, there are wonderful smile inducers like “I Could Eat Crawfish Everyday” and “Shrimp Po Boy, Dressed” with it’s tasty refrain, “Give me a shrimp po boy dressed and a cold, cold beer.”

Toussaint closes the set with “Southern Nights.” This version is decidedly subdued and includes a beautiful, poetic spoken rendering of a trip through childhood memories to warm nights on the porch of the old family home in the rural south. His gentle voice takes me right there with him as his words paint a picture so easy to see.  When he returns to the refrain and the final notes play out, he’s rendered not so much a song as an elegy for times long gone but held close again in memory and heart.

 
Allen Toussaint – The Bright Mississippi

After producer Joe Henry worked with Allen Toussaint and Elvis Costello on their 2007 collaboration, The River In Reverse, he got the feeling that beneath Toussaint’s great layer of R&B and pop-soul, he would find a marvelous jazz pianist. He urged him to record this great selection of jazz standards, all connected in some way to New Orleans, with some closely identified with the city. Toussaint has freely stated that he had devoted his life to R&B producing and writing, and thus he was not very familiar with some of the songs and had rarely if ever played others. Certainly anyone raised in New Orleans would be familiar and could almost by hereditary instinct play certain local classics like “St. James Infirmary.” He just had never really had a reason.

So here we have one of contemporary music’s great songwriters playing nary a one of his own tunes, playing in a new genre, accompanied by musicians with whom he’d rarely if ever worked. And the result? Brilliant! The darn project garners the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Famer’s first ever Grammy nomination, and it’s for Best Jazz Instrumental Album.  Ah, but far more important, what it garners for the listener is well over an hour of marvelous music.

The stellar cast includes the only other New Orleans born member Nicholas Payton on trumpet, Marc Ribot on acoustic guitar, Don Byron – clarinet, Dave Piltch – upright bass, and Jay Bellerose on drums and percussion. Pianist Brad Mehldau guests on Jelly Roll Morton’s “Winin’ Boy Blues” as does tenor sax man Joshua Redman on the Ellington – Strayhorn beauty “Day Dream.” They all shine whether in lead or supporting roles, but it’s Toussaint’s arrangements and piano playing that breathe fresh air into well worn classics.

The music never strays far from traditional New Orleans jazz principles like engaging rhythms and improvisation that builds off of rather than hides the melody. Yet, Toussaint reimagines how this particular collection of instruments should execute these principles. A great example is “West End Blues.” Louis Armstrong seemed to stamp this song as a trumpet number. Here, Payton’s trumpet is still vital, but it is joined equally in the spotlight by Toussaint’s piano and Ribot’s acoustic guitar. In fact I’d have to say the biggest surprises are the twists Ribot provides on guitar throughout the album whether in foreground or background. They culminate in his marvelous closing dialog with Toussaint’s piano on Duke Ellington’s exquisite “Solitude.”

The Bright Mississippi delivers a marvelous listening experience whether you’re using it as background music while getting some chores done or enjoying a cocktail with friends, or if you’re focusing intently on the intricate interplay of musicians weaving their magic around each other.  For that matter you may even want to dance with your baby a time or two.  What it also demonstrates is the man was music; music was steeped in his being.

Toussaint told JazzWax’s Marc Myers in an interview for the Wall Street Journal that once when he was a teen he showed his dad some music he had written.  His dad, who had been a professional musician, looked at it, then looked at him, smiled and said, “You’re a genius.”  We all know that supportive dads will say something like that to a youngster. This dad was right.

For most of his career Toussaint worked in the background preferring for other singers of his songs to take the spotlight. He gave us ample gifts doing just that. Then over the last decade or so he began to step forward into the spotlight, albeit reluctantly, giving us all a chance to know the man and his full range of talents.

Thank you Allen, and rest in peace.