Night Music and Allen Toussaint’s Sublimely Beautiful Southern Nights
Amidst the insane amounts of work I have to do as yet another quarter comes to an end, I’ve found comfort in a recording that was among the first pieces of mail I received after moving to Chicago: Rhino’s The Complete Warner Recordings by Allen Toussaint. As I’ve remarked elsewhere, Toussaint is one of those songwriters and performers whose name is rarely on anyone’s lips, but whose influence is nonetheless profound. He was, for what it’s worth, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998. Why, you might ask….
Well, I would reply, he embodies/encapsulates the best New Orleans had to offer where music was concerned, particularly during the 1970s. The Rhino set includes the three albums he made while signed to Warner Brothers. It includes as well an unreleased live recording made in Philadelphia, one that features hard-to-find material like “Brickyard Blues” and “Freedom for the Stallion.” The former has been an obsession of mine since 1990, when I saw him perform it on an episode of the late, lamented Night Music, a show hosted by David Sanborn and that featured during its run performances by Toussaint, The Residents, Sun Ra, Bongwater, John Lurie, Bootsy Collins, Shawn Colvin, Nana Vasconcelos, David Thomas (of Pere Ubu)—and those are only the things I managed to capture on tape. The latter song I heard only after receiving the Rhino set in the mail. I could just as easily be gushing about it here.
My new favorite tune, however, is one that is well-known, though not necessarily with Toussaint’s name attached to it. Just as most people might never realize that an obscure NOLA songwriter and arranger was responsible for writing, arranging and producing much of Labelle’s debut album Nightbirds, the one that features “Lady Marmalade,” there are probably even fewer who know that one of Glenn Campbell’s signature tunes, “Southern Nights,” was written by Toussaint. The version that closes the Rhino set is for me the definitive version. Toussaint’s voice and electric piano are routed through a Leslie cabinet on its fastest speed for a somewhat psychedelic effect.
But what really pulls me in to the track is the way his voice makes one hear and experience the nostalgic longing for home that the lyrics express. Have you ever felt a Southern night? Probably not until you’ve heard this…