Last night, after Monday Night Football had ended, I picked up my guitar. It was a usual session for me, a combination of some favorite covers that I’m working on, scales and assorted noodlings that I hope will result in an unconscious burst of inspiration. After about 20 minutes, I was about to put it down when I realized there was a song I hadn’t played for a few months, Benny Spellman’s 1962 hit, “Lipstick Traces (On a Cigarette),” which was written by Allen Toussaint.
On the Sodajerker podcast, Toussaint said that “Lipstick Traces” came about because Spellman’s vocal hook on another of his compositions, Ernie K-Doe’s “Mother-in-Law,” was so good that he built a new song around it so that Spellman could have a hit, too. Anybody familiar with both songs could note the similarities, but to hear the man who wrote them say how it evolved was remarkable.
I spent about two weeks with “Lipstick Traces” earlier this year. The chords weren’t particularly difficult to figure out — although I remember being surprised when I realized that the bridge started on the V instead of the more-common IV — but what kept me enthralled was the feel. Even with the incongruous female background vocals sweetening things up, there’s plenty of grit, with Toussaint’s funky piano leading the charge from the opening notes. But it’s the titular lyric that gets me:
Lipstick traces on a cigarette
Every memory lingers with me yet
There’s a cool elegance in those lines that turn it from a standard “I-miss-you” R&B song into something greater. You can hear moments like that — sometimes in the lyrics, other times in the music — across Toussaint’s body of work. It’s infused throughout the melody of “All These Things,” a hit for Art Neville, also in 1962, while the stacatto piano accents on “Southern Nights” give a song about rural Lousiana an exotic, almost Asian, sensibility.
About a year ago, my mother suggested taking a vacation together, and we decided on New Orleans, where I’d never been before. With months to prepare, I dived into the city’s musical history. Previously, I knew of Toussaint more by reputation – a guy who wrote a handful of hits that people like the Band and Elvis Costello liked so much that they wanted to work with him.
But the deeper I dug, the more I learned he was so much more than that. Practically singlehandedly, he advanced New Orleans music, taking the second line rhythms of people like his idol, Professor Longhair, and — as Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew did in the ’50s — bringing them into R&B in the ’60s and, in the ’70s, funk through his work with the Meters.
In the last decade of his life, as he became a touring musician, he turned into an ambassador for his hometown, something that I witnessed first-hand.
Back in April, Toussaint was playing at SPACE, a club in Evanston, IL. Shortly after the doors opened and my friend and I decided on our spot, we saw Toussaint on the other side of the room. Of course, he was dressed in his impeccable style, with a very colorful shirt peeking out from his suit and tie. Although I normally wouldn’t approach a musician before a show, the fact that he was talking to another fan was enough justification for me.
We talked for a couple of minutes. I told him that I had seen him sitting in with Costello at the 9:30 Club in Washington a few years back, when he came to the club straight from the airport because his plane was delayed. After heaping praise upon Costello, he asked if I had ever been to New Orleans, which he had also asked the other person. I said I was making my first trip in a few weeks. “For JazzFest?” he asked, as his eyes lit up. I said only for one day, but unfortunately, not the one he was playing.
He graciously posed for a picture with us and then went back to the dressing room. A little while later, he led his band through a great set comprised of his remarkable catalog, including a medley of his early hits and an extended “Southern Nights” where he through beads and Mardi Gras masks out to the audience. But the highlight was his solo, where he took us on his own musical journey. He began, amusingly enough, with “Chopsticks” and then played a few bars of everything that influenced him, from stride piano and “Tipitina” to Bach and everything in between. It was an unforgettable night.
With the news of his death, WWOZ has turned all of its programming today over to the music of Allen Toussaint, with DJs giving their own tributes and recollections and turning the day into a celebration of his life as you would expect in New Orleans. Go and give them a listen if you can.