Allen Toussaint, “Lady Madonna” from The Art of McCartney (2014): One Track Mind

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Of the many, many guest stars on the forthcoming Art of McCartney tribute album, none perhaps makes more true-fan sense that one Allen Toussaint — a figure who, careful liner-note readers know, worked with Paul McCartney on his just-reissued Venus and Mars project in 1975.

Toussaint’s choice of the Beatles’ “Lady Madonna” doesn’t reference that period, which saw Toussaint adding piano to “Rock Show” and playing host to recording sessions at his legendary Sea-Saint Studios in New Orleans. In fact, most people outside of those Louisiana environs might not even be aware of Toussaint’s connection to Paul McCartney. Almost 20 years later, however, when McCartney made a stop at the Louisiana Superdome on a tour in support of Off The Ground, a beaming Toussaint was right up front.

As with this new update of “Lady Madonna,” Toussaint makes his contributions — perceptive, unique and entirely low key — and then returns to the shadows.

“I’ve been very happy,” Toussaint tells us, in an exclusive Something Else! Sitdown. “I was in a comfort zone, and I still am in the comfort zone, in that position — being the one behind the scenes, putting stuff together. I really like that and I feel like that’s my forte. I’m completely satisfied with whatever due I’ve received.”

That due has included, of course, a cherished spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, recognition for timeless original songs and some notable studio work. Toussaint wrote “Working in the Coal Mine” (Lee Dorsey), “Fortune Teller” (Benny Spellman, the Rolling Stones, the Who), “Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky” (Robben Ford, Lou Donaldson), “Mother-in-Law” (Ernie K-Doe, Huey Lewis and the News), “Ride Your Pony” (also Dorsey), “Play Something Sweet [Brickyard Blues]” (Three Dog Night, Levon Helm) and “Southern Nights” (Glen Campbell), among many others. He’s collaborated as a producer, arranger and sideman with the likes of Elvis Costello, Levon Helm and the Band, Robert Palmer, the Meters and Dr. John, Labelle and, of course, Paul McCartney.

Allen Toussaint and McCartney also performed a duet on “I Want to Walk You Home” for the 2007 project Goin’ Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino. And it’s this separate musical strand, long before their time together around Venus and Mars, that Toussaint explores more deeply here.

Domino was, of course, a principal inspiration for “Lady Madonna” — and, in a cool turn, Domino covered it on an album released within months of the Beatles’ single, 1968’s Fats is Back. So, this track arrives on The Art of McCartney as another of his quietly perceptive choices. Then Toussaint adds something very special, giving it a Vieux Carre goose. Listen as his finger-licking piano thrills, like a party inside the riff, punctuate “Lady Madonna” in a whole new way.

By the time it’s over, this low-key legend has reminded you of his own place in McCartney’s stirring legacy, and the role New Orleans played even further back. Oh, and also that, even now, everything Allen Toussaint does is still gonna be funky.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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