Thursday, January 14, 2010
Toussaint on the Corner and See You Later, Bobby Charles
Here's the News from the Big Easy, also known as America's Greatest City:
Firstly, today is Allen Toussaint's birthday. He was born on this date in 1938 and in case you don't know who he is, he produced and composed some of the best songs to come out of AGC, and therefore the world as we know it.
From Ernie K-Do's Mother- in- Law, to Lee Dorsey's Working in a Coalmine, not to mention Irma Thomas' It's Raining, Toussaint has guided the careers of many a great New Orleans' talent.
Outside of the Crescent City he's known for his brass arrangements on the Band's Rock of Ages, his production and arrangement of LaBelle's Lady Marmalade (left more or less intact for the Moulin Rouge soundtrack version by Christine Aguilera, Lil' Kim, Mya and Pink), and his recent collaboration with Elvis Costello.
I've met him numerous times, usually as he's strolled through the fairgrounds during JazzFest. He is always gracious and elegant to a fault. "How are YOU?," he says, in a way that makes me think he might even remember me each time.
Right after Hurricane Katrina I went to New Orleans around Xmas at the request of blog regulars Mr. and Mrs. Freeland- Archer. It was very emotional for me. The city was devastated. The traffic lights were off and there were refrigerators on the street everywhere, wrapped in gray duct tape- literally hundreds of them. The areas where the levees were breached were a uniform dirty white color from the mud. Cars rested on top of other cars in the Irish Channel. The term "nuclear winter" came to mind.
One day I decided to head to the Louisiana Music Factory, one of the few places open in the city. I got to the corner of Decatur and Bienville and looked across the street. There was Allen. I rubbed my eyes, as it was truly hallucinatory. He wasn't supposed to be there, he was living in New York, he had been wiped out, etc, etc.
But there he was on the corner of Decatur and Bienville, looking as elegant as ever.
I waved at him, tentatively and he saw me (I was with the Freeland- Archers, who were as stunned as I was) and waved us over.
I swear I have never been happier to see anyone in my life. "Mr. Toussaint," I said. "How are you?' Then I added, hastily, "Bret Littlehales?"
And he said, "Of course. How are YOU?"
We made small talk, I met his daughter, he was dressed for a photoshoot at House of Blues down the street, he was working with Elvis Costello. Gracious, gracious, gracious.
Then we wished him the best and walked on.
It was at that moment that I realized New Orleans was going to be okay. Because there was Toussaint on the corner, just at the right time, to let me know.
Here is a video of Allen Toussaint doing his composition Southern Nights with his original, hauntingly beautiful piano arrangement (as opposed to Glen Campbell's hit).
Bobby Charles died today. One of the original rock and roll hipsters. Composer of See You Later, Alligator and Walking to New Orleans.
Born Robert Charles Guidry, February 21, 1938, in Abbeville Louisiana, at age fifteen Charles fell under the spell of Fats Domino and never looked back.
His first song, See You Later, Alligator, was a hit for Bill Haley and the Comets at the beginning of the Rock and Roll era.
He later worked with the Band and Paul Butterfield's Better Days, and recorded albums under his own name. Like Toussaint, he never regarded himself as a singer, but like Toussaint, sang his own songs beautifully.
My friend Larry Benicewicz interviewed Bobby Charles here, and chronicles his amazing history.
I tried to see him at the 2008 Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans, but he was a no-show, purportedly because he'd had a dream the night before that he would be shot at JazzFest. He was that kind of guy: dreams, portents, symbols. A Cajun through and through.
Here's a link to my favorite Bobby Charles song, Tennessee Blues:
That sweet, soulful voice. See you later, Bobby.