If Allen Toussaint had only done a couple of things—say, producing the Meters and writing “On Your Way Down”—he’d still make any list of New Orleans’ music immortals. As it is, Toussaint stands to be the most ubiquitous name in our 300 Songs series, for the sheer volume of essential music he was associated with as writer, performer or producer. Interestingly, his career began in 1958 with an album that didn’t really foreshadow his career; either for the musical style (snappy piano instrumentals) or the stage name he used (it was called The Wild Sound of New Orleans by Tousan). Yet the album yielded one classic—“Java,” soon to be covered by Al Hirt—and set Toussaint on his way as a songwriter. The golden age of New Orleans R&B was just getting underway, and it would hinge to a large extent on the songs Toussaint wrote and produced for Irma Thomas, Lee Dorsey, Ernie K-Doe and quite a few others—and again in the ’70s, once he’d plugged into a sophisticated funk style and recorded with Aaron Neville, Labelle, Dr. John and K-Doe and Dorsey again.
Collecting Toussaint can be a full-time job. His buried treasures outnumber his hits and are in some cases just as essential; we’ve included a couple of those here. The tracks named here are a small fraction of the reason why New Orleans music without Toussaint remains unthinkable, three years after his passing.
“Here Come the Girls” (Ernie K-Doe, 1981)
Along with Nick Drake and “Pink Moon,” this has to be one of the strangest stories of an artist getting rediscovered long after the fact via a TV commercial. Stranger, perhaps, is that the song wasn’t a hit the first time around. K-Doe was in need of a comeback in ’71 when he turned to Allen Toussaint, who not only provided “Girls” as a tailor-made single, but gave K-Doe a full album’s worth of top-level material (he recut one of the songs, “Whoever is Thrilling You (Is Killing Me),” with Wallace Johnson twenty years later). With its infectious riff and flat-out adoration of the opposite gender, “Girls” seemingly had everything it takes. As K-Doe’s biographer Ben Sandmel pointed out to NPR, Toussaint’s production (with the Meters as studio band) anticipates the kind of arrangements he’d do for more commercially successful albums with Dr. John and Labelle a couple years later. But Toussaint produced more than his share of great records that originally sank without a trace, and “Girls” seemed to be one of them.
Even K-Doe seemed to forget about the song. Even in the ’90s, when he’d reinvented himself as local music’s towering ruler of flamboyance, his shows were more about “Mother-in-Law” than “Here Come the Girls.” Then in 2007, six years after K-Doe’s death, the Boots drugstore chain made “Girls” the soundtrack of a two-minute commercial that was all the rage in the U.K.; they’d likely gotten the song from one of the many vintage funk compilations being reissued at the time. The song was reissued as a single and hit the U.K. charts at number three. The UK bubblegum group Sugababes then sampled it and it became a hit (and a Boots commercial) all over again. Meanwhile Toussaint started doing the song with his current band and kept it in his sets for the rest of his performing life. Both Trombone Shorty and Stanton Moore have done it in recent years.
K-Doe even got to celebrate his posthumous hit, as his late widow Antoinette escorted his wax statue to a Mid-City Lanes party in July 2008, at which a hundred women carrying roses were there to greet him in a receiving line.
“Java” (Al Hirt, 1963)
You can’t ask for a more mythic New Orleans scene than this: It was early morning after an all-night session and pianist Allen Toussaint broke into this jolly tune, fueled by the fresh coffee and doughnut smells coming from outside the studio; street passersby heard the music and started dancing along. Toussaint confirmed in the notes to a reissue CD that it really did happen that way—though the aroma didn’t come from the Café du Monde as many suppose, since the recording was done across the Quarter at Cosimo Matassa’s studio on Rampart. Toussaint also said that he built the song on the idea of parallel fifths, and that to him it had an Oriental feel. That morning reverie gave “Java” its title—unlike many of the instrumentals on Toussaint’s first album, which his then-manager named after racehorses.
It took another three years before trumpeter Al Hirt recorded “Java,” by which time Toussaint had begun his run of classic R&B singles. Hirt had a substantial career underway too; he’d come up the ranks with friend and collaborator Pete Fountain, made a stack of albums in the Dixieland vein, and opened his own nightclub at the corner of Bourbon and St. Louis. But he’d never gotten close to a pop hit, and “Java”—which retained the infectious feel of the Toussaint original—changed that: It topped out at number four on March 4, 1964—quite a feat since Hirt didn’t look anything like a Beatle. “Java” was actually one of two records by New Orleans trumpeters to hit the top five during that first wave of Beatlemania, Louis Armstrong’s “Hello, Dolly!” being the other. Hirt managed only two more top-40 hits (“Cotton Candy” and “Sugar Lips,” both also in 1964), but his albums would remain bachelor-pad staples for years to come.
“Action Speaks Louder Than Words” (Chocolate Milk, 1975)
Quick: Name a New Orleans funk band that recorded for a major label in the ’70s, worked with Allen Toussaint, played backup on dozens of notable sessions, and left behind a stack of essential grooves. Odds are that you named the Meters, who were synonymous with local funk in that era. But history almost overlooked the other major funk band, Chocolate Milk, despite their eight RCA albums and eleven R&B hits (two of which hit the lower reaches of the pop charts). Only in recent years has the band gotten more of its due, with the albums getting reissued, the songs getting covered (Galactic did “My Mind is Hazy”) and the odd under-the-radar tribute, like rock band Better Than Ezra borrowing its album title Friction, Baby from a Chocolate Milk song.
For the most part, Chocolate Milk’s sound was a long way from the stripped-down funk the Meters did, and more in line with expansive bands like the Ohio Players, Kool & the Gang and Earth, Wind & Fire: They had the horns, the dance steps, the busy percussion, the silky lead singer and the songs that alternately celebrated loving and partying. The group formed at St. Augustine High School and cut its teeth playing for tourists at Club 77 on Claiborne and Orleans. And cut demos at Sea-Saint Studios in hopes that Toussaint would take notice. “Action Speaks Louder Than Words” was the song that did the trick, and became their first and biggest national hit. One of their few songs with no evident horns (one of the keyboard-like sounds is Amadee Castenell playing sax through a wah-wah) it sounds a whole lot like the heavy, synth-driven funk that Prince and the Gap Band would come up with in the next decade. Eric B. & Rakim (on “Move the Crowd”) were the first of a few rap acts to sample it.
“All the horns were through different pickups, that was innovative for the time,” says trumpeter Joseph “Joe Foxx” Smith. “We put everything we had into our live show. There was even a time when we added a couple of psychedelic guys, just for some visual pizzazz. I swear there were times we had about 100 people onstage.”
Chocolate Milk’s members played on numerous Toussaint productions—that’s them on Aaron Neville’s “Hercules” and the horns were in on McCartney’s Venus and Mars sessions—and the band still plays the Jazz Fest, most recently in 2018.
“Lady Marmalade” (Labelle, 1974)
Few songs evoke the sexiness of New Orleans better than this tune, about an innocent guy who finds true love (or something that temporarily looks like it) with a streetwalker. (This was apparently a common fantasy at the time; it was also the subject of Steely Dan’s only real love song, “Pearl of the Quarter”). “Lady Marmalade” was just risqué enough to get on the radio, giving impressionable ’70s teens a few cheap thrills—and in more than a few cases, the first French phrase they ever learned.
The irony is that neither the group nor the songwriters were from New Orleans, and that Labelle’s version wasn’t even the first one: Songwriters Bob Crewe and Kenny Nolan originally cut a disco version with a studio group called the Eleventh Hour (don’t bother seeking that one out; it may be the only record that can be described as a less gutsy Leo Sayer). Crewe was best known as the producer/co-writer on most of the Four Seasons’ hits, and the Crewe/Nolan team also wrote Frankie Valli’s decidedly unfunky “My Eyes Adored You.” But Labelle were something else again: The ’70s incarnation of soul group Patti LaBelle & the Blue Belles (who’d hit with “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman” in 1962), Labelle had to be the first black female group to appropriate the outlandish glitter-rock sense of style and sexuality. When they played Carnegie Hall behind the single, they insisted that everyone in the audience wear something silver.
It was producer Allen Toussaint’s idea to cut the song with Labelle, using three-quarters of the Meters in his studio band (the drummer is Herman “Roscoe” Ernest, not Zigaboo Modeliste). Toussaint’s stamp is strong enough that many assume he wrote it, especially as the song showed up regularly in his live sets for decades afterward. A splashier cover version by Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mýa and Pink appeared in the movie Moulin Rouge and made “Lady Marmalade” one d the few songs in history to be a number one single for two different female groups.
“Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky (From Now On)” (Lee Dorsey, 1969)
Allen Toussaint had an enviable knack for saying something profound in a simple, infectious way—especially when writing for Lee Dorsey, who seemed to get his more uplifting tunes. If you need a perennial New Year’s resolution or just a few words to live by, this one should do the trick.
According to an interview that Art Neville gave to NPR’s American Routes, the title (and its distinctive spelling) was Toussaint’s nod to the heavy Georgia accent of their recording engineer (probably Skip Godwin, who did most of those sessions). It wasn’t the first use of “funky” in a song title (Wilson Pickett’s “Funky Broadway” got the jump, and George Clinton already had a band called Funkadelic), but it may be the first time that word was applied to that syncopated magic that the Meters did.
“Everything” works fine as a rhythm number, but you don’t have to stretch far to find a deeper meaning in it—just think about the new beginning that the lyrics imply. Madeleine Peyroux, who covered the song on her album Secular Hymns, heard its overtones of black pride. “The character in the song is reacting to something in the past—he’s not saying that everything he does already is funky. So maybe it’s a freeing of the individuality of that person. Or maybe it’s about being black in America and embracing the culture.”
This is one the many timeless Toussaint/Meters tracks whose long-term influence isn’t reflected by its anemic chart performance: It hit the lower reaches of the R&B Top 40, but stalled in the pop charts at number 95. Dorsey did get to play it for a whole new audience when he opened a bunch of Clash dates, including their only New Orleans show in 1982.