The music world recently lost a giant in the industry: Allen Toussaint, the gifted songwriter, producer, pianist, and singer who became a New Orleans legend. Compositions such as "Working in a Coalmine" and "Mother-in-Law" remain soul classics, while his productions of Dr. John's "Right Place, Wrong Time" and La Belle's "Lady Marmalade" became huge hits. Until his death he continued recording albums and collaborating with artists such as Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello. While Toussaint wrote and performed too many tracks to list here, one deserves particular mention: "Yes We Can Can," a 1970 composition most famously covered by the Pointer Sisters. His own New Orleans-steeped version, however, encapsulates his signature style: optimism tinged with political commentary.
Born in 1938 and raised in the Crescent City, Toussaint began learning piano at age seven. By his teenage years he was a session pianist in demand, finally recording his own album in 1958 entitled The Wild Sound of New Orleans. One of his compositions, "Java," later became a hit for Dixieland jazz trumpeter Al Hirt in 1963. His biggest break occurred in 1960, when Toussaint was hired by the Minit Label. There he added "producer" to his credits, overseeing the Jessie Hill hit "Ooh Poo Pah Doo" and the Ernie K-Doe single "Mother-in-Law" (also penned by Toussaint). In 1965 he formed his own production company, Sansu Enterprises, and there Toussaint experienced his biggest success to date: writing and producing Lee Dorsey's "Working in a Coalmine." There he first met a band that became a crucial ingredient to his sound: the Meters, a R&B group that became Sansu's house band.
He finally returned to recording his own albums with 1971's Toussaint; in the meantime, he became an arranger for top artists such as Paul Simon, McCartney, and Little Feat. After producing the enormously successful singles "Right Place, Wrong Time" and "Lady Marmalade," Toussaint released his most acclaimed album Southern Nights; Glen Campbell's cover of the title track would become the more well-known version, but Toussaint's original contained more longing and nostalgia (in concert he often explained the song was about his ancestors). After that Touissant served as a top behind-the-scenes figure, although he continued touring and occasionally collaborating with artists such as Costello; their critically praised 2006 effort The River in Reverse stood as both an homage to New Orleans as well as a lament for the devastation Hurricane Katrina wreaked on the city. Among the songs the duo performed was another Toussaint classic: the socially conscious and timeless "Who's Gonna Help a Brother Get Further?"
In addition to "Who's Gonna Help a Brother," another Toussaint composition, "Yes We Can Can," sounds remarkably relevant today. He wrote the track in 1970 under its original title "Yes We Can," and handed it to Lee Dorsey. Yet the single did not receive widespread attention until 1973, when the Pointer Sisters recorded their funkified version for their eponymous debut album. The unmistakable New Orleans drumline, popping bass, and the Pointer Sisters' flawless harmonies sent the song into the top 20 of both the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B charts. Under the danceable beat, however, lie some serious sentiments.
Toussaint performed the song in concerts, usually just accompanying himself on piano, minus the signature beat. This stripped down style starkly revealed his socially conscious lyrics. "Now is the time for all good men to get together with one another," he proclaims. "Try to live as brothers / And try to find a piece within without stepping on one another." He asks us to respect women, care for children, to help each other become better people through acts of kindness, and ultimately make the world a better place. These may sound like tall orders, but Toussaint expresses hope and confidence that humanity will rise to the challenge. "I know we can make it / I know darn well we can work it out," he sings, next chanting the title phrase like a mantra. "Yes We Can Can" transforms into a sermon, a mandate to change the world--and ourselves.
With the current political climate, "Yes We Can Can" resounds as strongly as in the early 1970s. It serves as a testament to the power of great songwriting, and stands as a classic example of Toussaint's astounding talent. He may be gone, but his vast influence and enduring messages remain.