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Hear An Unreleased Song By Allen Toussaint

Allen Toussaint performs at the 2007 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
Sean Gardner
Getty Images
Allen Toussaint performs at the 2007 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

This week, the 77-year-old New Orleans songwriter, producer and arranger Allen Toussaint died after a concert in Madrid. For most of his career, Toussaint preferred working behind the scenes, but our friend Gwen Thompkins met him at a time when he'd thrown himself into performing extensively around the world. Before they parted ways for what would be the last time, Toussaint gave Thompkins a gift: a demo recording of a song he never got to release, but said he wanted the world to hear.

Last week, Allen Toussaint texted me. The message was pure Toussaint: formal, courteous and mysterious. It said "Hello" — a floating hello, without a period. I wrote back, "Hi!" And that was that. What I didn't know then was we were saying goodbye.

Toussaint took a chance on me. I called him one morning in 2012, introduced myself and asked if he'd consent to an interview. I was talking fast, dropping NPR's name and that of my own show, Music Inside Out. I promised that we wouldn't dwell on his many past accomplishments — the No. 1 songs, the million-sellers, the standards of the New Orleans canon of R&B and funk music. He'd told those stories a thousand times and I'd heard he was tired of repeating himself. I said we'd talk about whatever he wanted to talk about.

"When can we do this?" he asked.

Soon after that, we were sitting together at his piano. From then on, he never said no to me, not once. It wasn't because I was so compelling; Toussaint was a master at making people feel wonderful about themselves.

We had dinner one winter night at a fancy-pants restaurant not far from his house in New Orleans. We talked about the local singers he loved and the HBO series Treme and about how he preferred not to drink alcohol, despite the glasses of Dom Perignon on the table. He was courtly and shy — about as shy as a man can be when he's wearing a medallion the size of a baby's face that's dripping with diamonds. ("My children encourage me to wear it," he said.)

But as the hours passed, we talked about other things: his love for Woody Allen movies and animals and his model train, complete with cars, track and accessories.

"You must think I'm pretty corny," he said. But he was the opposite of corny. For all of his people skills, his charm and dazzle, Toussaint had a wonderful interior life. He appeared to spend most of his time by himself, writing — and leaving "the door open," he said, "for God to come through."

In August, after not seeing Toussaint for months, I interviewed him again at his house. He said he was looking forward to touring this fall. And before I left, he handed me a demo track of a song he'd written, but never properly recorded. It was a tribute to Jesse Winchester, the singer-songwriter who died last year. Toussaint was happy that Winchester had heard it in time, but he wanted everyone else to hear it, as well. So here it is.

Smell the coffee, sip the tea
Try something new every now and then
Smile just for the heck of it
Though some might think you're crazy
It's alright to admit that sometimes you're a little bit lazy

Go a-walking, stop and stare
At something that has always been there
You'll see something new, I guarantee
There's always another point of view
Of what you thought you already knew

We've all heard "Stop and smell the roses"
Well, there's much more to that than what meets the eye
The roses represent the blessings
That every day we just walk right on by

Enjoy every moment, make them what you will
Within every challenge there's a hidden, brand-new thrill
Knowing there's a light at the end of every tunnel
Isn't life great?

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Gwen Thompkins
Gwen Thompkins hosts Music Inside Out on WWNO in New Orleans.