You may be surprised like I was to learn that “Southern Nights” — a #1 hit for Glen Campbell in 1977 — was actually written by (and first recorded by) Allen Toussaint, the legendary New Orleans musician, producer, creative genius, and one-man hit factory since the late 1950s.
Toussaint explains how the song was a last minute addition to the album he was working on:
While I was finishing 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. We would like to write from total sheer spiritual inspiration, but many times we just write from our tools and our bible. 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's the only one I felt that much about. Some others have been inspired highly, but not as high as that one.
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. It wasn't supposed to be a commercial song, and I didn't think it would sound like one to anyone else. But I did feel quite complete after I wrote "Southern Nights." I felt totally finished with the album. But that didn't mean I was ready to die!
Here’s the original Toussaint version from his very good 1975 album of the same name.
Here’s a live in studio version — note his beautiful piano.
Campbell’s version is very different — uptempo with full four-piece band instrumentation — but Toussaint loved it and was pleased that anyone liked the song enough to record it at all.
When Campbell recorded the song, Allen was surprised that somebody heard hit potential in the song. He told us: "I love Glen's version. I had never thought of it as an uptempo and mainstream song before. I first heard it on the radio and I was delighted. It was so good to hear it like that, because I just hadn't imagined that someone would listen closely enough to it to want to cover such a thing.
Campbell first heard Toussaint’s version at his songwriting friend Jimmy Webb’s house.
"Glen was very, very good at arranging things for Top 40 radio. He came over to my house one time and spent some time there, and I remember I was playing an Allen Toussaint record. I liked this record, it had a real lowdown kind of delta feeling, great piano, syncopated piano chops and interesting songs on it. I was playing along, and he said, 'What was that song?' I said, 'Southern Nights.' And he said, 'Is that your record?' And I said, 'Yes.' And he said, 'Well, can I have it?' And I said, 'You mean you want my record?' (laughing) And he said, 'Yeah.' So I said, Yeah, you could have it. And he was gone, man. He had my record and it was like one of those animated cartoons, the roadrunner - *pooow* He was gone. And he worked out that (singing) 'do do do.' That record, I mean, within four weeks that record was on the air. He worked at a frightening pace once he got going." Webb adds that Campbell never did return the record, but he doesn't mind.
Here’s Campbell’s hit version.
Glen Campbell and Jerry Reed with another version — I like this one even better.
Toussaint created an amazing body of work and is one of the most unknown musical creative forces in popular music history.
He talks about Professor Longhair’s influence on his music.