Last week I had the good fortune of seeing the great Allen Toussaint play live at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London at two sold-out shows. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, you’re forgiven. For aficionados of New Orleans music, his work is up there with revered characters such as Professor Longhair and Dr John. But to the general public, while his name may not trip off the tongue, I’m willing to bet you could sing along with at least four or five of his compositions.
Pretty much all of his greatest tracks were hits made famous by other people – Glen Campbell turned “Southern Nights” from a loose-limbed, drifting ballad that brings to mind the later work of John Lennon into a hokey four-to-the-floor country FM hit that sold over a million units in the USA in 1977. The Pointer Sisters brought a sheen and energy to his track “Yes We Can Can” that not only garnered a chart hit but was also co-opted by Barack Obama for his 2008 presidential campaign. “Chain Gang”, “Hercules”, “Fortune Teller”, “Mother-in-Law” – even “Here Come The Girls”, which had a second wind thanks to some canny music supervisor perfectly placing it in a TV ad campaign – all compositions from Mr Toussaint, brought to life by a variety of vocal talents.
As I sat there and watched this softly spoken musician play hit after hit, I considered the role of the invisible songwriter, churning out the music in solitude. Whether it’s a burst of inspiration that arrives fully formed upon awaking (see “Yesterday”) or Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (which took over two years to write according to Laughing Len) I don’t underestimate the difficulty of writing a catchy three-minute piece of music. No, the invisible composer doesn’t get the best table in the restaurant but then the publishing cheques can help heal the pain.
Brian Higgins, Cathy Dennis, Eg White, Max Martin – these are the canny few that can all walk down the street with the luxury of not being recognised while their work is pouring out of the radios around them. Meanwhile, the artists are out there doing the heavy lifting on the road – with the tyranny of endless soundchecks, the unfeasibly narrow tour-bus beds and, of course, the dreaded German TV interviews.
For all of the snobbery around the work of the Bee Gees, I promise you there isn’t one music critic alive who wouldn’t give up their backstage pass for even a fraction of their back catalogue, recycled by a new batch of boy bands every few years. Allen Toussaint has got it right, working with a variety of artists in his beloved New Orleans while the world comes to him.
Now, back to the piano to write that elusive perennial Christmas hit.
Paul Noble is a producer for Monocle 24.