Allen Toussaint, the founding father of New Orleans R&B, died Monday night of a heart attack after a concert in Madrid. He was 77 years old.
Toussaint's vast contributions to American music as a songwriter, pianist, singer and producer are far too extensive to enumerate here. But among his hundreds of songs, one sticks out, having served a particularly important purpose in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: "Yes We Can Can." As the people of New Orleans struggled to process the storm's damage and slowly rebuild, Toussaint's hopeful exhortation served as a unifying anthem:
We got to make this land a better land
Than the world in which we live
And help each man be a better man
With the kindness that we give
I know we can make it
I know darn well, we can work it out
Oh, yes, we can, I know we can, can
Yes, we can, can, why can't we?
If we wanna, yes, we can, can
I talked to Harry Connick, Jr. one year after Katrina, and he told me that if he could choose the official song for the city of New Orleans, it would be "Yes We Can Can." "Especially right now," he said. "It’s so simple in its sentiment. It basically says, 'I know we can do this.' As cliché as it sounds, that’s kind of what we need to be saying... I mean, it couldn’t be more prophetic."
"Yes We Can Can" was originally recorded by Toussaint protegée Lee Dorsey in 1970, at the tail end of the civil unrest of the 1960s. It became a hit in 1973 for the Pointer Sisters, who recorded the song at Wally Heider's famous studio on Hyde St. in San Francisco.
Toussaint himself performed the song many times over the years, but the one that comes immediately to mind this morning is his version that opens the stellar benefit album Our New Orleans: A Benefit Album for the Gulf Coast, released in 2005.
Click "play" below, and hear the sound of hope and determination.