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Irma Thomas Remembers Allen Toussaint

1.14.38 – 11.9.15

Allen Toussaint closing the 2010 Montreal International Jazz Festival
Allen Toussaint, Chicago Jazz Festival 2012

Each year, in our March issue, we ask prominent musicians to pay tribute to fellow artists who have passed in the previous year. This piece appeared in the March 2016 edition of JazzTimes.

Allen Toussaint was what I would call an undiscovered genius. He was given credit for being able to produce and create the way he did, but he was never labeled a genius and he was one.

The first time I met him I was about 17 and he was three years older. I was auditioning for the New Orleans label Minit Records and got turned down. Then I did a record for Ron Records, and Minit decided they wanted me onboard. Allen was playing piano on that first audition, and I thought he was the man who was saying yes or no on the songs and turned me down. I would always tease him, until one day he finally told me, “I didn’t have any control over that.”

Usually when he was producing me, we knew where we were going before we got to the studio, because back in those days there were only two tracks-no overdubbing, no room for flubs. You can’t come back later and put your vocals on. It was all done at the same time, so we were well rehearsed and well prepared; his parents’ living room was our rehearsal hall. But he wrote “It’s Raining” while it was actually raining, and he didn’t give me the second verse until we were in the studio-I mean literally in the middle of recording! I was recording it when he put the second verse on the music stand in front of me. He had that much confidence in my ability. It became a song I can’t get through a show without doing.

He always studied the artist he was writing for. He listened to their voice and wrote according to their vocal abilities. The songs always fit. When Allen wrote a song for you, it was for you. It was your glove to put on.

As far as his personality, Allen was a gentleman. He was very laidback, very conservative and very introverted. He would have a conversation with you, but he may not be the one to initiate it. He was always gracious, humble, cool, very soft-spoken. Even in anger he wouldn’t yell out; that wasn’t in his nature. You’d really have to push him for him to cry out; his anger was a quiet anger. He would walk over to you and tell you what he needed to say.

He was also a person who always had to have everything just right when it came to clothing. Allen always wore a suit, more than whatever was in style at that time. He didn’t tour until after Katrina, so in the earlier days he was never one to fall into what was current, like the leisure suits; he didn’t have to be style-conscious. Allen did what Allen liked to do for Allen. He wasn’t someone who had to be noticed or had to be seen. To be in his company you didn’t have to acknowledge him in that way. He was not offended if someone didn’t know who he was. He liked being in the background as a producer and songwriter. That was his joy.

The last time I saw Allen was on the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise, where we both performed. It was a couple weeks before he died. He did three sets on the ship and I did four because I did the gospel brunch, and then we did a sit-down talk with NPR, on the history of the music of Louisiana. Allen talked about his aspirations for, and his inspiration from, the city of New Orleans, and about the artists he grew up listening to. He was the picture of health at that time. None of us ever know when we’re gonna go, but if it’s any consolation to his family and friends, he was doing what he loved to do.

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