Published March 11, 2011 in The Advocate
Having just returned from some of his frequent flying last week, New Orleans pianist, producer, songwriter, arranger and — increasingly since Hurricane Katrina — solo artist Allen Toussaint was delighted to be home in the city he dearly loves.
“I’m glad to say I arrived back today and kissed the ground,” he said as he was out and about in New Orleans.
But like so many New Orleanians, Toussaint was forced from his hometown by the post-Katrina flood that covered 80 percent of the city after the storm. He got an apartment in New York City and still keeps a residence there.
“Of course, I was homesick,” Toussaint said of his exile. “I was homesick every moment. And now I’m homesick at the airport on the way out. There’s something about New Orleans that hooks us, and most people who come for a visit love it as well.”
Toussaint’s writing, producing and/or arranging credits include Jessie Hill’s “Ooh Poo Pah Doo,” Ernie K-Doe’s “Mother-In-Law,” “Chris Kenner’s “Land Of 1000 Dances,” Lee Dorsey’s “Working In The Coal Mine” as well as recordings by Benny Spellman, Irma Thomas, the Band, Labelle, Dr. John and many more.
A 1998 inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a nonperformer, Toussaint will get another honor June 16. On that date he’ll be inducted with Garth Brooks, Leon Russell and others into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in New York.
“Which I’m eagerly looking forward to,” he said. “It’s a grand event.”
Toussaint is making a comparatively short journey to Baton Rouge on Saturday to perform at the LSU Union Theater. He and his New Orleans band will play selections from his Grammy-nominated 2009 album, The Bright Mississippi, as well as hits he’s written through the decades.
As much as Toussaint has been spotlighted in recent years — including co-billing with Elvis Costello for the 2006 album, The River In Reverse, tours with Costello and his own solo tours — he still considers himself a man behind the scenes.
“Well, the marquee might say ‘Allen Toussaint,’ but I feel my forté is what I did for others behind the scenes. That’s my comfort zone. But I’m glad that people like Joe Henry took such an interest in me and produced me in a way that I would be stage center. And Elvis Costello has been monumental in my life since Katrina. These things have taken my life to a different twist, but I always am a producer, songwriter, arranger, etc.”
Toussaint can trace his long, unusually successful musical life to the day a piano entered his parents’ house. He was 6 at the time. A gift from his aunt, the instrument was meant for his sister.
“People thought it was fine for a young lady to play the piano or violin,” Toussaint recalled. “Well, my sister, she didn’t take to it. But when they first put it in the house, I fell in love immediately.”
The young Toussaint enthusiastically picked out little tunes at the keyboard. “I played all day,” he said. “I would wake up in the morning and get to the piano and play. I mimicked everything on the radio.”
Playing melodies he’d learned from the radio led to Toussaint creating melodies of his own. “It was a natural evolution,” he said.
New Orleans singer-pianist Professor Longhair became Toussaint’s deepest influence.
“He was off the beaten path from everyone else. The others were doing one, two, three, four. Professor Longhair’s music did not feel like that to me. It was something else, as if it came out of some wild jungle. It just floored me. I took off behind Professor Longhair and wanted everything that he had.”
Toussaint was still a teenager when he got a call to substitute for Huey “Piano” Smith in Earl King’s band at a show in Alabama. Later, when the rising success of Smith’s first hit, 1957’s “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu,” inspired Smith to form his own group, Toussaint replaced him in Shirley and Lee’s road band. His gigs with the New Orleans duo included such legendary venues as New York’s Apollo Theater and Washington, D.C.’s Howard Theatre. “That was delightful for me,” Toussaint said of those touring days. “And that was part of my learning.”
Back in New Orleans, Toussaint and another musically inclined teenager, Dr. John, were playing studio sessions. Thanks to the dominant recording format of the era — the two-sided, 45 rpm vinyl record — the sessions gave Toussaint the chance to flex his budding songwriting skills.
“Sometimes an artist would have one song to record, but they needed two,” he said. “Whoever was in charge would come to me and say, ‘Do you have any songs? We need another song.’ So when we took a break from recording, I wrote a song, because I knew the general structure.
“They were ever so humble, but songs they were. As time went on, I took writing more serious. But it seemed so natural to do. A plot with a few good verses, a few good lines, and it worked.”
When the newly formed New Orleans label, Minit Records, hired him in 1960 to be its producer and artists and repertoire man, Toussaint’s future was set.
“I wouldn’t have minded being out on the road, as a sideman, not front and stage center, but Minit Records chose me, I didn’t choose it,” he said. “Once I got involved there, that was the way I would be and spend most of my life.”
Looking back, Toussaint was fortunate to be in such a great piano town. “We’ve had such wonderful people to represent it,” he said. “Like Huey Smith and James Booker, Dr. John, Archibald, Cousin Joe.”
Also, of course, Professor Longhair, with whom Toussaint shares scenes in Stevenson Palfi’s 1982 documentary, Piano Players Rarely Play Together.
“If that’s all I had done in my life, I would be satisfied to go to the next.”
Naturally, Toussaint’s name also belongs in that number of beloved New Orleans piano players. Baton Rouge will have another chance to see this New Orleans music master when he performs Saturday at the LSU Union Theater. “I’m looking forward to this performance,” he said. “Because I’m always about the immediate next thing. And I’m so glad that music chose me, that I was put in this position, on this avenue that I can ride smoothly for so long.”