On April 30, 2013, an all-star cast of singers and musicians came together to pay tribute to one of the stars and masters of New Orleans music. Staged at Harrah’s New Orleans, the occasion was a belated 75th birthday celebration of Allen Toussaint.
A parade of mostly local talent sampled Toussaint’s huge catalog of songs and productions on the Harrah’s Theater stage. WLAE-TV filmed the event, capturing performances by Dr. John, Elvis Costello, Irma Thomas, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, Deacon John Moore, Cyril Neville, Jon Cleary, singer-producer Joe Henry and, the maestro himself, Toussaint.
“A Tribute to Toussaint” premieres at 7 p.m. Saturday on WLAE and repeats at 8:30 p.m. Sunday. Louisiana Public Broadcasting stations will air the program at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
The TV version of the tribute wraps interviews with Toussaint, his peers, collaborators and some famous fans around the concert. The New Orleans Artists Against Hunger & Homelessness, which Toussaint and Aaron Neville co-founded in 1985, staged the show.
A songwriter, pianist, producer, arranger and late-blooming front man, Toussaint has been honored many times. President Barack Obama awarded him the National Medal of Arts in 2013, and Toussaint was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998.
Other honors include a Grammy Trustees Award in 2009, Grammy nominations and his 2011 induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. In 2013, the New Orleans Music Legends Park unveiled a statue of Toussaint. Also last year, Tulane University awarded him an honorary doctorate.
At the Harrah’s concert, Toussaint’s characteristic attention to detail shows. His touring band, plus a soulful trio of backup singers and a formidable five-man horn section, provide stellar support for the star and the guests.
Some tribute performers sing songs Toussaint created for them or else helped them create. Dr. John does “Right Place, Wrong Time” at the Steinway grand that all four of the show’s pianists play. Cleary, a Briton who’s made New Orleans home for three decades, performed a marvelous version of “Wrong Number,” a poignant ballad originally sung by Aaron Neville.
Larry Sieberth and Toussaint serve as house pianists backing various artists. The night’s honoree, no surprise, plays elegant piano for one of his favorite artists, Irma Thomas. She sings another of his early standards, “It’s Raining.”
Thomas introduces “It’s Raining” with some memories of Toussaint. “Allen,” she explains, “when he wrote songs, he heard it in his head, how he wanted it sung. He would teach us verbatim how he wanted it sung, note for note.”
Deacon John Moore, who played guitar for Toussaint recordings sessions in the 1960s, offers more insight into the genius behind the scenes.
“He wrote out nearly everything,” Moore says. “There was some room for a little expression or spontaneity, but most of the stuff was structured and very precise.”
Dr. John cuts to the quick: “There’s nothing I could even think of that Allen don’t do.”
The many hits Toussaint wrote and/or produced include Glen Campbell’s “Southern Nights,” Lee Dorsey’s “Working in the Coalmine,” Ernie K-Doe’s “Mother-In-Law” and Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade.” He’s also worked with Aaron Neville, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton and dozens more.
In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina forced Toussaint to leave the city he loves dearly, he relocated, temporarily, to New York City. It was a blessing in disguise. Performing at Joe’s Pub in New York opened the door to a new world. After spending decades behind the scenes, Toussaint suddenly became the front man. He developed the solo act that he’s since taken all over the world.
Performance highlights in “A Tribute to Toussaint” include showman Deacon John Moore singing and dancing through the late Ernie K-Doe’s “Hello My Lover” and Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews soloing for the Toussaint instrumental and Al Hirt hit, “Java.”
Toussaint’s performances in the program include “Southern Nights.” A hit for Campbell in 1977, the song became a magical staple of the singer-pianist’s post-Katrina concerts. “Southern Nights” is a special song for him, the gentleman from New Orleans explains in interview footage.
“That’s not for me,” he says. “It’s about me.”