The New Orleans songwriter and pianist Allen Toussaint, who died Monday after a performance in Spain, was a key figure in the history of New Orleans music and, by extension, American culture.
Though Toussaint, 77, had his own rich solo career, his work entered America's collective psyche through renditions by some of the era's great performers. Artists as varied as Dr. John, Irma Thomas, Iron Butterfly, Bonnie Raitt, the Rolling Stones, the Doors and Maria Muldaur used Toussaint's work as a springboard.
Toussaint wrote thousands of songs, and his way with a piano-strut melody generated classics that will endure for generations. Below, ten great interpretations of his brilliance.
Benny Spellman, "Lipstick Traces (On a Cigarette)"
The lyric turns on an ex-lover’s old cigarette butt and the heartbreak it recalls, and within that exquisite image an entire world blossoms. “Lipstick traces on a cigarette,” sings New Orleans vocalist Benny Spellman in the most popular version. “Every memory lingers with me yet.” So rich is the metaphor that critic Greil Marcus titled his book on punk rock after Toussaint’s song.
Floyd Cramer, "Java"
Who knew somebody actually wrote "Java" -- a song so precisely rendered that it seems sent straight from the heavens? Middle-of-the-road pianist Floyd Cramer made a hit out of the song in the early '60s -- even if Toussaint's original 1958 version is way, way better.
Devo, "Working in a Coal Mine."
Devo's oblong take of Toussaint's "Working in a Coal Mine" is quirky, yes, but the sentiment behind it is dense with existential dread. Working down in the earthen dark every day takes its toll. "Lord, I'm so tired." "How long can this go on?"
Irma Thomas, "It's Raining"
Toussaint was a master of capturing solitude. Some of his most famous songs take place at night alone, when the mind races with unbidden thoughts -- jealousy, hope, fear, desperation. Who hasn't endured a night like the one Irma Thomas describes on "It's Raining"?
Van Dyke Parks, "Occapella"
This curious cover of a Toussaint gem has just been resurrected for the new collection of children’s music, “This Record Belongs To ...”. First made popular by Lee Dorsey, Van Dyke Parks' version from the late 1960s romps along like an elephant parade.
The Yardbirds, "A Certain Girl"
Featuring a young Eric Clapton on guitar, this version of Toussaint's "A Certain Girl" was issued by the band as a B-side in 1964. First made popular by frequent Toussaint collaborator Ernie K-Doe, the Yardbirds' proto-punk take inspired a generation of rockers to amplify their sound.
Otis Redding, "Pain in My Heart"
A song originally called "Ruler of My Heart" and made famous by Irma Thomas, Otis Redding's version was reworked with a new lyric. It's since become a blues standard. Few writers can cut to the bone with longing like Toussaint: "Another day as again it's rough/I want you to love me, love me, love me, baby, 'till I get enough."
The Pointer Sisters, "Going Down Slowly"
This funky 1975 take on Toussaint's "Going Down Slowly" mixes a disco groove with words about a descent into darkness. "Holy moly, slowly going down," sing the Pointer Sisters.
Glen Campbell, "Southern Nights"
One of Toussaint's biggest hits was also one of Glen Campbell's: "Southern Nights." A song that rode to the top of the charts, Campbell's version illustrates the song's elasticity. It could be rendered as a country song just as easily as a New Orleans celebration.
Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, "Fortune Teller"
Most baby boomers first learned of Allen Toussaint when the Rolling Stones covered "Fortune Teller" early in their career. Though the Stones did a second-rate version of "Pain in My Heart -- how can you compete with Redding? -- their take on "Fortune Teller" is memorable. In 2007, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss offered a version on their smash album "Raising Sand."
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