How much music can truthfully be described as “rollicking”? Music that’s light and nimble, that jumps and flows and makes you smile? Allen Toussaint did many things brilliantly, conveyed sentiment (“All These Things”) and sadness (“It’s Raining”), but I can’t think of anyone’s music that is so flat-out happy, and it was all in the melodic touch: think of his early instrumentals like “Java” and “Whipped Cream,” how insidiously catchy they are, or the novelty songs he wrote for Ernie K-Doe and Lee Dorsey. There aren’t too many people who could get away with something as unadorned as “Happiness,” or “Play Something Sweet (Brickyard Blues),” but there was something unaffected about his songs and nimble about his piano playing. It may seem flip to compare the composer of “Working In A Coal Mine” and “Mother-in-Law” to Duke Ellington, but I saw them both live, and here was something so casually confident about both of them, the way they sat down to play as though it were the most natural thing in the world, like all they needed to do was graze the keys lightly and these tunes would spring to life.
As was famously said about Ellington, Toussaint was beyond category; his roots were in New Orleans R&B and jazz, he was in that line with Professor Longhair and James Booker, but he took that premise, as a writer and producer, into soul, funk, pop, and it’s crazy how many of his early tunes became essential pieces of the pop repertoire despite never being “hits.” Benny Spellman’s 1962 single of “Lipstick Traces (On A Cigarette)” got only as high as #80, and The O’Jays’ version three years later barely snuck into the top 50, but somehow the song’s been covered and covered in the decades since (Delbert McClinton, The Amazing Rhythm Aces, Ringo Starr, Alex Chilton). The song is fundamentally a sad one, a memory song about a faded relationship (it draws on the opening line of the standard “These Foolish Things”: “A cigarette that bears a lipstick’s traces”), but it has that slinky New Orleans bounce, something that lightly swings.
Spellman’s “Fortune Teller,” “Lipstick Traces”’s Minit B-side, never made the chart at all, and Ernie K-Doe’s “A Certain Girl,” the flip side of “I Cried My Last Tear” on the same label, was a low-charting single, and yet in the first years of the British Invasion, those Toussaint songs kept resurfacing. Where did those groups find them? I never heard “A Certain Girl” until it turned up on the U.S. debut albums by The Yardbirds (For Your Love) and Wayne Fontana & The Mindbenders (The Game of Love). “A Certain Girl” is certainly a goofy thing: K-Doe is sweet on a chick, and can’t stop talking about how smitten he is, but he’s stuck in the friend zone and is determined not to tell this friends her name until he’s closed the deal. Again, we have a pretty sad situation here, but the song itself is in denial; this unrequited crush sounds like fun, sort of. It was one of those obscure U.S. R&B songs that the U.K. groups just snatched away: there are takes on it by The Paramounts (who morphed into Procol Harum) and The First Gear, but it’s The Yardbirds version, with Eric Clapton still on board, that nailed it down, at least until it was adopted by Warren Zevon a decade and a half later.
“Fortune Teller”’s U.K. afterlife was even more remarkable: did everyone who bought the “Lipstick Traces” 45 (London 9570) in England turn the single over and decide to record it? The song is like a Toussaint variation on Leiber & Stoller’s “Love Potion No. 9”: the singer (Spellman originally) is in romantic distress and seeks non-psychiatric counsel, in this case in the form of a psychic who tells him to chill out, that the next girl who arrives will be The One. He has no luck and, wanting an explanation, he goes back the next day to the fortune teller, their eyes meet, and happy ending: marriage, and free fortunes. It’s a cute song, and all those British groups found it simple enough to toss into their repertoires: The Merseybeats, Cliff Bennett and The Rebel Rousers, Tony Jackson & The Vibrations, The Hollies, Herman’s Hermits. It’s on The Rolling Stones’ Got Live If You Want It U.S. LP (overdubbed to sound like a concert version) and on The Who’s deluxe Live at Leeds (no overdubs required). Jump-cut to 2007, when it showed up, slowed-down and sinuous, on Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’s Raising Sand, and then jump further ahead to Elvis Costello, doing it live with Mr. Toussaint.
When Toussaint passed away not long ago, so many suggested playlists popped up online, testimony to his astonishing influence, versions of “What Do You Want The Girl To Do,” “Everything I Do Gohn Be Funky,” “Get Out Of My Life Woman,” “Freedom For The Stallion,” “Southern Nights,” “Holy Cow.” Some of those songs got recreated at last night’s Toussaint tribute at City Winery orchestrated by Jon Batiste and some didn’t: the show was too brief to get it all in, but any gig that starts with a rousing take on “Whipped Cream” and ends with “Yes We Can Can” is fine with me. One song I really thought should’ve been included was “A Certain Girl,” because when you have a Toussaint crowd and you don’t ask it to sing “What’s her name??” and respond with “I can’t tell ya!!,” that’s what you call a missed opportunity.