Few artists have impacted New Orleans music history — and, by extension, the history of modern soul, R-B, funk and rock — as deeply as the late Allen Toussaint did over the course of his decades-spanning career. Toussaint’s best-known studio work commenced during the golden age of New Orleans rhythm and blues as he lent his production skills to hits like Jessie Hill’s “Ooh Poo Pah Do” and “Ya Ya” by Lee Dorsey.
But he went on to lend a major contributing hand to the development of New Orleans funk — a soulful style that built on what Professor Longhair had done and became a point of inspiration for funk artists around the country as well as British Invasion rockers and beyond. While his work with Lee Dorsey, Jessie Hill, the Meters and Dr. John remains key to the Toussaint canon, these five tracks — as performed by Toussaint himself — serve as a solid intro to Toussaint’s overall body of work.
Toussaint was a master of bringing the glow, swelter and mysticism of Louisiana nights to life through music. The piano intro alone on this shimmering, 1975 gem conveys as much about a warm breeze rustling through centuries-old oaks and magnolias as the lyrics and vocals, which juxtapose poetic imagery atop just the right amount of psychedelia. Though Glen Campbell made the tune famous with his recording in 1977, it lacked the dreamy soul evoked by Toussaint’s original version.
“Victims of the Darkness”
Replete with between-the-cracks rhythms and a sensual, funk-soaked horn arrangement, this track off Toussaint’s seminal Life, Love and Faith album concerns itself with the fate of the folks he sings about on “Night People,” a tune he recorded a few years prior that remains a local favorite among New Orleans musicians.
Despite his famously colorful suit-sandal-sock combos and flashy cars, Toussaint remained humble throughout his career, writing songs under a pseudonym and making zero fuss when others took credit — or chart-topping spots — for his work. Originally recorded by Benny Spellman when Toussaint was the house producer for Minit Records, “Fortune Teller” was originally credited to the invented songwriter Naomi Neville and made famous by the Rolling Stones and the Who. In Toussaint’s later years, however, it became a regular component of his live sets.
“Ruler of My Heart”
Among Toussaint’s best-loved artist collaborations was his long-running professional relationship with Irma Thomas, who recorded this song, now a standard in the New Orleans songbook. Toussaint’s original version yields a lighter touch on his album, Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky. It also functions as a stepping stone in his progression from songwriter to piano player to producer
“Go Tell the People”
This lesser-known track appears on Desitively Bonnaroo, a Toussaint-produced Dr. John album that inspired the name of an entire festival decades later. In addition to penning this jam, Toussaint contributed piano, backing vocals and arrangements to the album, which also features the Meters behind Dr. John. Toussaint fans, however, would be wise to begin with this track.