Allen Toussaint - From a Whisper to a Scream
I have to admit that the first time I heard the ‘Toussaint’ LP, I was underwhelmed. Allen Toussaint’s first solo LP since the ‘Wild Sound of New Orleans in 1958’ was a departure from the kind of records he was producing/arranging for others in the same time frame. Recorded in LA (though with a largely Nawlins-centric band that included Dr. John as well as Earl Turbinton of the Gaturs) for the Scepter label, the LP was a decidedly laid back effort. Previous to picking up ‘Toussaint’ my experience with his solo work was limited to the ‘Wild Sounds..’ LP, and a number of 45’s from the mid-to-late 60’s with the Stokes and as a solo performer. He certainly left his mark on dozens of amazing 45s for other artists, as composer, producer and arranger, but never really broke out as a performer. I have to be honest and say that for me it was his work as an “auteur” of sorts that overshadowed his solo work. Ultimately this kind of comparison is unfair because it discounts both the contribution of the vocalists to these records as well as the unique discipline that a composer/producer/arranger brings to the table. In the end, Allen Toussaint’s work as a performer has to be considered separately. That said, given several listens, and making the distinctions I mention above, the ‘Toussaint’ LP has definitely grown on me. First and foremost is the singing voice of the maestro. Toussaint has a reedy tenor with more than a little New Orleans flavor in the delivery that was well suited to the material on ‘Toussaint’ (and vice versa). It seems likely that Toussaint recognized that his voice – while pleasant – was not suited to heavy, overly orchestrated backing. I also can’t help but wonder about the overall sound of the LP. Despite occasional successes, Toussaint saw countless brilliant records flounder on the national charts. The ‘Toussaint’ LP is relatively free of idiosyncratic New Orleans-isms (one of the reasons it didn’t grab me right away), and may very well have been a pragmatic reach for popular acceptance. That’s not to say that it is in any way crass or ordinary, but that it seems to me that when Toussaint was putting it together (and perhaps this was the motivation/benefit behind recording in LA) he had his ear turned away from New Orleans and toward the pop charts. The title track (and today’s selection) was a slice of smooth soul with a wide dynamic range. Opening with a high-hat tick and repeated electric piano chord, Toussaint comes in, followed by the backing vocals (Merry Clayton and Venetta Fields who had done similar duty for Leon Russell among others). There are also small touches that will be missed unless you check this tune out on headphones. Toussaint keeps making a “whoosh” sound into the mike, and at one point says ‘For heavens sake girl, don’t do this to me’ at an almost imperceptible volume. The arrangement is cool (in all senses of the word) and a model of subtlety, with a tasteful horn chart and bits and pieces of brilliant guitar, piano adding accents. Toussaint’s vocals convey the heartbreak of the song perfectly, and at a few points in the song, there’s a bit where the back-up singers are almost taunting him with whispers of ‘You lost her...she’s gone’, making the sadness all the more palpable. In the end, ‘From a Whisper To a Scream’ is truly amazing, opening a new chapter (at least for me) in the Allen Toussaint story. I can’t say that the rest of the LP hits me as hard. There are a couple of less than inspired remakes (‘Working In The Coal Mine’, ‘Everything I Do Gohn Be Funky’), some funky instrumentals (‘Either’, ‘Louie’) and a couple of cool originals (‘What Is Success’, ‘Sweet Touch of Love’). It’s a cool listening experience – especially when taken in context with the rest of his discography – and certainly worth picking up the CD reissue. Interestingly enough, a year after his own recording, Esther Phillips covered both sides of this 45 on her LP ‘From a Whisper to a Scream’ to much success. Phillips was nominated for a Grammy, and when she lost to Aretha Franklin, Franklin reportedly gave her the award, saying that she deserved it. A year after that Robert Palmer recorded another cover of the tune.