Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.
In 1977, Glen Campbell’s recording of Allen Toussaint’s “Southern Nights” hit No. 1 on Billboard’s pop and country charts—the last time the singer would top either. Campbell would continue to be a popular concert attraction for decades, and would keep selling records to his core group of fans, but “Southern Nights” was the last huge single that he’d release.
It came out at exactly the right time. The former governor of Georgia had just been elected president. Top 40 radio was full of “crossover” artists like Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, and John Denver. The culture as a whole was getting deeper into craftiness and “down home” values. Campbell’s “Southern Nights” features a touch of dixieland in the instrumentation, coupled with a sunniness as bright as Jimmy Carter’s teeth. The song was the essence of the mid-’70s.
But it wasn’t the essence of Toussaint.
For anyone who grew up with Glen Campbell singing “Southern Nights,” it’s Toussaint’s version that sounds like the cover—and a bold one at that. Gone is the bouncy beat, and the prideful march forward. Instead, Touissant uses studio tricks to diffuse his voice, making it sound like it’s bubbling up from under water; and his piano ripples gently, like light across a lake. The hit version of “Southern Nights” is punchy and unapologetically corny. Toussaint’s is dreamy and softly psychedelic. It renders the lyrics’ images of swaying trees and vivid skies into something surreal.
Speaking to Bruce Pollock for the “They’re Playing My Song” column, Toussaint explained a little about how he came to write “Southern Nights” for the album of the same name:
I had written and recorded all of the other songs, and for some reason I couldn’t come to terms that I was finished with the album… Van Dyke Parks visited me in the studio. He was a wonderful guy, a genius of a guy. He said, “Well, consider that you were going to die in two weeks. If you knew that, what would you think you would like to have done?” And after he said that, I wrote “Southern Nights” as soon as he left. I stood right there and wrote it. It all came at once, because I lived that story. It was one of those things that writers would like to happen all the time… That song was a total inspiration. It felt like a soft clear white flower settled above my head and caressed me. I really felt highly, highly inspired and very spiritual doing that song… It probably took about two hours to write. Then I went down and recorded it in the studio with just a Fender Rhodes and another guy beating on an ashtray, that little tinkling sound. It was just me on the instrument and singing, and Tony Owens playing on an ashtray. No one remarked on it, because it didn’t sound much like a commercial song, and it wasn’t. I didn’t write it to be a song like all the others on there. I just wanted to share that story with this album.
The story Toussaint wanted to share was of sitting on the porch as a child with his extended family in Louisiana, singing and chatting as the sun went down. The song was meant to be impressionistic—like pieces of the day that the senses register more in the memory than they do in the moment.
That was Toussaint’s style, generally. He hovered in the background of the New Orleans music industry for decades: a pleasant bit of shading to the picture, but not one to stand out. He started working as a professional musician in 1958, but in his 50-plus years in the business, he hasn’t recorded that much as a solo act. Instead he’s been an all-star utility player: writing songs, producing, arranging charts, and playing piano for anyone who asked for his help. Beyond “Southern Nights,” Toussaint’s best-known songs are “Working In The Coal Mine,” “Fortune Teller,” and “A Certain Girl”—all catchy numbers that don’t really sound “written.” They have an ease about them, as natural as a neighborly chat.
Toussaint was most active as a solo artist in the 1970s, when he had a recording contract with Warner Bros.—a label that gave him a lot of creative freedom. Equally at home in the R&B scene and among the singer-songwriter crowd, Toussaint took advantage of the way both genres were expanding their parameters. The politicized soul of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, the cinematic sprawl of Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield, the spaced-out funk of Parliament-Funkadelic, and the proto-disco of Earth, Wind & Fire were all on the table circa 1975, when Southern Nights came out. At the same time, Joni Mitchell was refining her folk-rock confessionals into literary vignettes, scored to silky jazz; and even the hidebound country music industry was figuring out how to absorb the arrival of singular songwriting talents like John Prine, Guy Clark, Kris Kristofferson, and Townes Van Zandt. (One of country’s old guard, Willie Nelson, responded by going full “outlaw,” and in the same month that Toussaint released Southern Nights Nelson put out his magnificent song-cycle Red Headed Stranger.)
Southern Nights was Toussaint’s second album for Warner’s Reprise label, which was also home at the time to Randy Newman, Neil Young, and Fleetwood Mac. In 1972’s Life, Love And Faith, he re-conceived his snappy 1960s sound for the new era, recording fuller-sounding R&B ballads and dance tracks that sported clean hooks and complex arrangements. Southern Nights carried that concept further, taking a set of 10 simple, pleasantly melodic songs—averaging out at about three-and-a-half minutes each—and using short interludes to make them sound like a unified statement.
The conceit doesn’t entirely work. It never quite makes sense why Toussaint throws fragments of “Southern Nights” on either end of the side-one closer “Basic Lady,” a peppy tribute to those who can appreciate simple pleasures. The two songs don’t have much in common, musically or lyrically, and given that the album’s second side actually opens with “Southern Nights,” the repetition’s excessive. Even odder is the decision to end the album with a brief snippet of “Worldwide,” a fairly slight strutter from side one. Perhaps Toussaint just wanted to lighten the mood on the way out the door, rather than finishing up with the beautiful-but-blue “Cruel Way To Go Down.” Regardless, the reprise feels forced, in a way that’s wholly out-of-character.
But the failed stab at thematic cohesion is really Southern Night’s only misstep. Every one of these 10 songs is wonderful, and timeless. From the swaying, soulful slow-dance number “Back In Baby’s Arms” to the smooth, seductive “When The Party’s Over,” there’s not a composition here that wouldn’t have sounded just as sweet and sturdy a decade earlier, performed by a doo-wop group or R&B diva. What Toussaint brought to his own work in 1975, though, was an understanding of how to stack brass, so that the horns would sound rhythmic and multi-hued instead of flat and overpowering. All the instruments here follow the lead of the piano, but Toussaint gives his trumpets, saxes, and trombones a little more freedom to stretch out, to give the songs more of a subtle New Orleans flavor.
That’s the advantage of concision and clarity in songwriting: It allows room for personal embellishment. That’s why “Southern Nights” wasn’t the only song from the album to get covered. Multiple performers seized on “What Do You Want The Girl To Do?”, a breezy tune with enough open spaces built into its structure that other musicians could fill them with their own personalities and tastes. Bonnie Raitt stripped the song down and gave it a slight reggae lilt. Boz Scaggs made it bigger, and more of a showstopper. Lowell George kept the busy arrangement but slowed the tempo, rendering the song a little sadder.
One of the big differences between Toussaint and the artists who covered his songs—Glen Campbell in particular—is that Toussaint isn’t a singer, per se. He has a very nice voice, but rarely stretches notes or tries to make the vocals the primary focus. He sings like he plays the piano: moving briskly from one short, percussive chord to the next. Southern Night’s funky opener “Last Train” is a case in point. The piano, horns, guitars, and drums are meant to mimic the “huffing and puffing and chugging” of “a choo-choo train,” gaining momentum. Toussaint’s voice is more like the caboose than the locomotive, moving steadily along and providing a little bit of perspective from the rear.
Toussaint has said that he loves Campbell’s version of “Southern Nights,” and not just because he made a lot of money off of it. (He claims he was too busy in the 1970s to pay much attention to royalty checks or sales charts.) Instead, he was honored that someone as accomplished and popular as Campbell liked one of his songs; as a songwriter he was impressed by how the singer’s team reimagined it. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Campbell’s cover. It’s cheery—and the world can always use more cheer.
But like the album it comes from, Toussaint’s “Southern Nights” is more rewarding with repeat spins, because it doesn’t carry its entire meaning on the surface. Campbell strides confidently forward, while Toussaint hangs back, observing more, holding his tongue until he has something to say. And when he opens his mouth, what comes out is eloquent, direct, and irrefutable.