Inspiration is a tricky beast. It may curl up at your feet for days while you embark on a writing spree of epic and genius proportions, or it may gallivant off for months, leaving you staring hopelessly at blank pages, incapable of rhyming anything beyond “moon” and “spoon” (or “answer” and “dancer,” which Paul McCartney has employed in four different songs. C’mon, Macca!) When David Bowie and Brian Eno worked together they utilized a series of cards called Oblique Strategies to provide inspiration and shift their perspective, cards with off the wall suggestions like “Make it purple” or “What would a dog listen to?” It took an unexpected question like this for Allen Toussaint to write his most personal and enduring song.
Toussaint is one of the most influential figures in 20th-century popular music who most people have never heard of, especially crucial in shaping the ever-evolving sound of his hometown of New Orleans. He worked primarily behind the scenes during his six decade career, writing huge hits (such as the #1 “Mother In Law” and “Working In A Coal Mine”), producing huge hits (such as “Right Place, Wrong Time” and “Lady Marmalade”), and playing piano on bestselling albums by The Band, Paul McCartney, Robert Palmer, and countless others. During the 1970’s he also managed to find the time to record his own solo albums, a task he didn’t necessarily enjoy, but it was the price he paid to have his record label continue funding tours and other musical projects.
In 1974, his pesky label came knocking once again and requested that Toussaint please record another album, so he dutifully got to work and recorded nine tracks, but the album felt incomplete somehow. He labored to write another song but found himself blocked, unsure of what he wanted to say — an unusual situation for such a prolific writer.
While working in the studio one day, he received a visit from the quirky and decidedly sideways songwriter Van Dyke Parks, who, upon hearing about the problem, posed Toussaint this question: “What if you only had two weeks to live? What would you like to have done?”
This weighty kind of mind exercise might crush a lesser writer, but Toussaint grasped the concept immediately and it freed his creative spirit. Inspiration nuzzled beside him once again. After Parks departed, he sat down and wrote his new song in two hours. Grabbing a percussionist to keep time on an ashtray, Toussaint played electric piano and quickly recorded “Southern Nights,” a serene and shimmering and slightly psychedelic paean to New Orleans. It became the centerpiece and title track of perhaps his finest album.
So sit back, relax, feel the warm breeze, and watch a Louisiana sunset … with Allen Toussaint.
In 1977, Toussaint found out that Glen Campbell had recorded “Southern Nights” and planned to release it as a single. He didn’t hear the finished track until it was all over the radio and was surprised and delighted by the results. Campbell came at the song from a different angle, a jaunty and uptempo angle, and thereby gave Toussaint his second #1.