Song of the Day: Allen Toussaint “From A Whisper To A Scream”
I was in New Orleans over the weekend and as anyone who has ever been to New Orleans can tell you, it is almost impossible to spend time there without the sounds of the town beginning to creep into your subconscious. This is hardly a bad thing, New Orleans was and is the home to more amazing music than probably any other City in the United States (or even the world), bar maybe New York City. One of the musicians who most shaped the the New Orleans sound over the latter half of the 20th Century was a favorite of mine, the venerable singer / songwriter / pianist / arranger / producer, Allen Toussaint.
Toussaint is one of those seminal figures, well known by other musicians and in the music industry but not as well known by the general public. Which is a pity, because while many people may not have heard of Toussaint, they have almost certainly heard his music, songs that he wrote and records that he played on or produced. “From a Whisper To A Scream” is the title cut of his 1972 solo album and it is incredible. The song starts with just a high hat beat and builds into the ultimate testament to the torment felt over lost love as Toussaint’s voice, backing voacls, bass, horns, guitar, and keys all enter into the picture. The song highlights everything great about Toussaint: his subtlety as a songwriter, his facility as a musician and his genius as an arranger. Toussaint produced tracks are masterpieces in miniature: every note and fill in its right place and bringing something new and important to the overall sound. Toussaint was bring out the very best, not just in himself, but in the other musicians he worked with and all of that is on display here.
Allen Toussaint was born and grew up in 1938 in a shotgun house of the Gert Town neighborhood of New Orleans. His mother, Naomi Neville, was well known as a friend to musicians in the neighborhood, frequently feeding them and allowing them to practice in her home. His father was a railway worker by day and a Trumpet player by night. As a result, the young Allen Toussaint was constantly immersed in music from an early age. He learned to player the piano, receiving informal lessons from a number of New Orleans’ best, though his style is most closely an outgrowth of the syncopated “two-lines” style of Professor Longhair. Toussaint eventually dropped out of high school to play music full time, forming the seminal R&B group The Flamingos with guitarist Snooks Eaglin.
Toussaint went on to a long career working as a pianist and producer both on his own and with seemingly every important New Orleans musician of the last 60 years or so. Famous Toussaint collaborations include: Dave Bartholomew, Fats Domino, Ernie K-Doe, Dr. John, Chris Kenner, Irma Thomas, The Meters, The Neville Brothers, and Lee Dorsey. To name just a few. Toussaint played on, produced and wrote the songs on hit records for each of these acts. The number of amazing songs that he had a hand in is staggering. He also worked extensively with several rock acts over the years, including doing arranging work for The Band and a collaboration record with Elvis Costello. Unfortunately, Toussaint died suddenly while on tour in Madrid, Spain in 2015. The shadow that he casts over popular music, however, will live-on forever.