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Top 10 Allen Toussaint Classic Rock Covers

Jason Merritt / Scott Gries / Rick Diamond / Vivien Killilea / Rick Diamond, Getty Images
Jason Merritt / Scott Gries / Rick Diamond / Vivien Killilea / Rick Diamond, Getty Images

In a career that spanned nearly 60 years, Allen Toussaint was one of the most respected names in the music business. His death on Nov. 9, 2015, at the age of 77 while on tour in Europe made us realize how many rockers have covered his songs over the years.

As a New Orleans-based songwriter, pianist, producer and arranger in the late ’50s and early ’60s, Toussaint brought the music of his hometown into the R&B era, creating hits for Lee Dorsey (“Get Out of My Life, Woman”), Irma Thomas (“Ruler of My Heart”), Ernie K-Doe (“Mother-in-Law”) and Benny Spellman (“Lipstick Traces”). In the ’70s, he helped define funk thanks to his production work with the Meters, who served as the house band at his Sea-Saint Studios and on his solo albums. And he always found a way to pay tribute to the jazz influence of mentors like Professor Longhair and Huey “Piano” Smith.

In the last 10 years of his life, he moved back into the spotlight, tirelessly performing in clubs and at festivals around the world — including an annual appearance at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival — and getting the acclaim he deserved. Toussaint’s shows would mix his songs with improvised interludes where he’d play snippets of everything that had influenced him, from stride piano to boogie-woogie to Bach. And he did it with a cool, elegant style and demeanor that was entirely his own.

Toussaint’s extensive catalog of songs, both those released under his own name and those made famous by other artists, were regularly covered by classic-rock acts over the years. There have been many, but we think these are the Top 10 Allen Toussaint Classic Rock Covers. And be sure to check out the original versions too.


10

‘Holy Cow’ (1973)

The Band

 

 

Our list of the Top 10 Allen Toussaint Classic Rock Cover Songs starts with a group that also worked with him — the Band. After Toussaint wrote the horn charts for the group’s single “Life Is a Carnival” and the Rock of Ages live album, they paid him back by putting his “Holy Cow” on their 1973 covers album, Moondog Matinee. Lee Dorsey recorded the original, which hit No. 23 in 1966.

 

9

‘On Your Way Down’ (1973)

Little Feat

 

 

Even though they were formed in Los Angeles, few rock bands exemplified the musical gumbo of New Orleans better than Little Feat. So it makes perfect sense that they would gravitate toward Toussaint. Their landmark 1973 album Dixie Chicken includes a funky take of “On Your Way Down,” a track that Toussaint had released the year before on his Life, Love and Faith album.

 

8

‘Play Something Sweet (Brickyard Blues)’ (1974)

Three Dog Night

 

 

Five artists — ranging from country’s B.J. Thomas to disco star Sylvester — covered “Play Something Sweet (Brickyard Blues)” in 1974 alone. But it was Three Dog Night who had the most success, taking it to No. 33 that year. Scottish singer Frankie Miller’s version is also worth checking out. It’s one of seven Toussaint songs that appear on his High Life album.

 

7

‘Working in the Coalmine’ (1981)

Devo

 

 

Originally a Top 10 hit for Lee Dorsey in 1966, Devo put their own warped New Wave spin on “Working in the Coalmine.” It was featured in the movie Heavy Metal after Warner Bros. rejected the song for Devo’s next album. It become an unlikely hit, barely missing the Top 40 while also charting on the Club Play and Mainstream Rock charts, and the label wound up including a 7-inch single with copies of New Traditionalists.

 

6

‘What Is Success’ (1974)

Bonnie Raitt

 

 

In 1969, after building up his reputation as a songwriter and producer, Toussaint started working on a solo album, his first since 1958. It was released twice, as From a Whisper to a Scream on the Bell label in 1970 and Toussaint on Scepter a year later. Neither version sold well, but Bonnie Raitt definitely heard it. Her faithful cover of “What Is Success” found a place on her fourth record, Streetlights.

 

5

‘What Do You Want the Girl to Do?’ (1976)

Boz Scaggs

 

 

The title track to Toussaint’s Southern Nights was a No. 1 pop and country smash for Glen Campbell. But another song from the same album sold plenty of copies too. “What Do You Want the Girl to Do?” was covered by Boz Scaggs on the five-times-platinum-selling Silk Degrees, which featured the hits “Lowdown” and “Lido Shuffle.”

 

4

‘A Certain Girl’ (1980)

Warren Zevon

 

 

Using his mother’s name Naomi Neville as a pseudonym for contractual reasons, Toussaint wrote “A Certain Girl” for Ernie K-Doe, with whom he had a No. 1 hit in 1961 with “Mother-in-Law.” “A Certain Girl” wasn’t as successful, but it found a new life a couple of times after that. The Yardbirds featured it as the B-side of their first single, “I Wish You Would,” in 1964 and Warren Zevon had a minor hit with it on Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School.

 

3

‘Freedom for the Stallion’ (2006)

Elvis Costello

 

 

After the destruction of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Elvis Costello collaborated with Toussaint, with whom he had worked a few times (that’s Toussaint’s piano on Spike‘s “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror”), on a new album, The River in Reverse. It features Costello singing some of Toussaint’s lesser-known songs and some new compositions by the pair. “Freedom for the Stallion,” an obscure 1972 single for Lee Dorsey, was the best of the bunch.

 

2

‘Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley’ (1974)

Robert Palmer

 

 

Robert Palmer was one of Toussaint’s biggest boosters in the mid-’70s, recording his material on three of his first four albums, and even naming his debut album after the obscure Lee Dorsey single “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley.” Palmer recorded the song at Toussaint’s Sea-Saint studios in New Orleans with three members of the Meters.

 

1

‘Fortune Teller’ (2007)

Robert Plant and Alison Krauss

 

 

Benny Spellman’s 1961 hit “Fortune Teller” is one of Toussaint’s most-covered songs. The Rolling Stones included it on Got Live If You Want It!, and it was a live staple of the Who‘s sets in the early ’70s. But the definitive version (after the original) was by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss on their Grammy-winning 2007 collaboration Raising Sand. The original’s groove was replaced by a slinky tremolo guitar part that still conjures up the spookiness of Spellman’s take.

 

Next: 10 Cover Songs Better Than the Originals

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