SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Allen Toussaint died this week. The New Orleans songwriter, producer and arranger died after a concert in Madrid. He was 77. For most of his career, he preferred working behind the scenes, but our friend Gwen Thompkins met him at a time when he'd thrown himself into performing extensively around the world. She has this remembrance.
GWEN THOMPKINS, BYLINE: Last week, Allen Toussaint texted me. The message was pure Toussaint - formal, courteous and mysterious. It said hello, a floating hello, without a period. I wrote back hi, exclamation point. And that was that. What I didn't know then was we were saying goodbye.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALLEN TOUSSAINT SONG, "EGYPTIAN FANTASY")
THOMPKINS: Toussaint took a chance on me. I called him one morning in 2012, introduced myself and asked if he'd consent to an interview. I was talking fast and dropping names like NPR and my own show, "Music Inside Out." I also promised that we wouldn't dwell on his many past accomplishments - the number one songs, the million-sellers, the standards of the New Orleans canon of R&B and funk music. I said we'd talk about whatever he wanted to talk out.
When can we do this, he asked. Soon, we were sitting together at his piano. And from then on, he never said no to me, not once. It wasn't because I was so compelling, but Toussaint was a master at making people feel wonderful about themselves.
ALLEN TOUSSAINT: I can look at you and write a song about you now.
TOUSSAINT: Yes, and from the way you sound, as wonderful as you speak, I'll have to put some good vernacular in it as well.
TOUSSAINT: If you spoke a little like James Brown, it would sound differently.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOUL SISTER")
TOUSSAINT: (Singing) Hey, you. Hey, you with the curly bush on your head, baby. Baby, you know you're looking good. You know you're looking good. You know you're looking good, soul sister, sister, sister, sister...
THOMPKINS: No, I'm not the soul sister he's singing about, but it would've been nice. Toussaint was a charmer and an optimist. The last time I saw him, he said he'd be happy if optimism was his legacy. After all, he was the man who wrote songs called "Yes, We Can," "Happiness" and "Sweet Touch Of Love."
(SOUNDBITE OF ALLEN TOUSSAINT SONG, "SOLITUDE")
THOMPKINS: We had dinner one winter night at a fancy pants restaurant not far from his house in New Orleans. We talked about the local singers he loved and the HBO series "Treme" and about how he preferred not to drink champagne, despite the glasses Dom Perignon on the table. He was courtly and shy, about as shy as a man can be when he's wearing a medallion the size of a baby's face that's dripping with diamonds. My children encourage me to wear it, he said.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALLEN TOUSSAINT SONG, "SOLITUDE")
THOMPKINS: But as the hours passed, we talked about other things - his love for Woody Allen movies and animals and his model train, complete with cars, track and accessories.
You must think I'm pretty corny, he said. But he was the opposite of corny. For all of his people skills - the charm, the dazzle - Toussaint had a wonderful interior life. He appeared to spend most of his time alone, writing and leaving the door open, he said, for God to come through. In August, after not seeing Toussaint for months, I interviewed him again at his house. He said he was looking forward to touring this fall. And before I left, he handed me a demo track of a song he'd written but never recorded. It was a tribute to Jesse Winchester, the singer-songwriter who died last year. Toussaint was happy that Winchester had heard it in time, but he wanted everyone else to hear it as well. So here's the song. It's called, "Isn't Life Great" by Allen Toussaint.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ISN'T LIFE GREAT")
TOUSSAINT: (Singing) Smell the coffee. Sip the tea. Try something new every now and then. Smile just for the heck of it, though some might think you're crazy. And it's all right to admit that sometimes you're a little bit lazy. Enjoy every moment. Make them what you will. Within every challenge, there's a hidden, brand-new thrill. Knowing there's a light at the end of every tunnel, isn't life great?
SIMON: Gwen Thompkins is a writer and host of the public radio program "Music Inside Out" on WWNO, New Orleans. We're following the news of the terror attacks in Paris throughout the day, on the air and at npr.org. I'm so glad you could join us today. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
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