BRIAN WISE MET AND INTERVIEWED ALLEN TOUSSAINT AT JAZZ FEST IN 2007! THIS IS A REPRINT OF THE ARTICLE HE WROTE AFTERWARDS.
In a city full of music legends Allen Toussaint stands as one of the greatest in a New Orleans Pantheon that includes Professor Longhair, James Booker, Fats Domino, Dave Bartholomew, The Meters, Irma Thomas and The Neville Brothers – to name a few.
Composer, producer, pianist, singer and now Ambassador for the city – the quietly spoken Toussaint is a man of many talents. Each year he performs at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and also appears at a few other gigs, sometimes headlining but more often as a guest. He has a monthly spot at a pub in New York and occasionally tours, but the opportunity to see him with his band is something not to be missed.
This year Toussaint’s performance on the main stage was as professional and inspiring as usual but had the edge of happening just hours after the death of Alvin Batiste, another of the city’s legends.
Toussaint dedicated part of the set to Batiste and also paid tribute to James Brown. “He did his bit and he split,” said Toussaint as he soared through a glorious hour that included a medley of the hits ‘Mother In-law, ‘A Certain Girl’ and ‘Fortune Teller’. He could have added another dozen or so of his best-known songs to that list.
While he has recorded and released his own solo albums over the decades (including one for NYNO a few years back), Toussaint’s influence has sometimes been more prominent in terms of his production and writing (even Paul McCartney has enlisted his magic).
Toussaint’s credentials are amazing. At the age of 17 he began his career by subbing for Huey Smith in Earl King’s band, after which he was hired by Dave Bartholomew to record piano parts for Fats Domino recordings when Fats was on the road. In his early 20s he became the main producer, writer and arranger for the Minit label, penning hits for Ernie K Doe, Irma Thomas, Art and Aaron Neville, Chris Kenner and many more (often under the name of Naomi Neville).
Later he formed Sansu Enterprises and later the Sea-Saint Recording Studios with Marshall Sehorn and recorded Lee Dorsey (for whom he also wrote many hits), Dr John, The Meters, Labelle. Toussaint arranged the horn sections on The Band’s Rock Of Ages album and Paul Simon’s ‘Kodachrome’. Toussaint’s albums, such as From A Whisper To A Scream, Love, Life And Faith, Southern Nights and Motion, are still revered for the way in which they capture Toussaint’s unique musical personality.
Some people claim that the only reason he has not been more widely known is because he remained tied to New Orleans and refused to move to the West Coast (although he sometimes recorded there).
“This is a very dear time for New Orleans,” says Toussaint when I meet him backstage for a chat after his show. He has just been talking to Paul Shaffer bandleader for David Letterman’s show and laughingly berates a friend for not telling him his tie was crooked. Toussaint is always elegant in his silk suits but I have noticed that he always wears sandals.
His voice is as smooth as the notes that drip from the keys when he plays the piano.
“As you know we just went through quite a tragedy but it has turned into such wonderful miracles. So I’d say on the scale on the balance, the good has outweighed the bad.”
I mention that I was impressed that he paid tribute to Alvin Batiste, which must have been difficult to do as Batiste had just passed away the previous night.
“Alvin Batiste was one of our heroes,” explains Toussaint, “one of our very dear gentleman who changed the course of music history as far as I’m concerned. When I was a very young child the upper echelon of education at the college level and thereon – usually the hipper musicians weren’t involved in that because by then they had already dropped out.
Usually the guys who stayed on were very legitimate, refined guys who were going to play classical music. Well, people like Alvin Batiste, Ellis Marsalis, Kidd Jordan and Harold Batiste, they changed that.
It began to be hip to stay in school and they’re responsible for a lot of young musicians having the street and the academic system well in tact and their heads screwed on right.
“Alvin Batiste is among the highest in that rank – just a really wonderful man and such a marvellous spirit. As great as he was, if he was ever in a conversation with musicians, if he was saying something and you’d butt in he’d stop immediately and let you get your point across. He really heard what you were saying. That’s amazing when people have that much and they’re that humble. Just a very sweet and dear man. The only time I ever saw him angry, he was angry at himself because he left his horn out in his car when it was cold. He went out and got his horn and it was in the case and he came back in and was sort of arguing with himself for letting his horn be out there in the car. Now, I don’t know what to make of that. That’s a rare bird there.”
One of the surprises of Toussaint’s set this year was his rendering of a country song titled ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone’ written by Raymond Lewis and produced by Toussaint.
“I produced that for Raymond Lewis many years ago,” remembers Toussaint.
“I may have added something here and there but that’s Raymond Lewis’s song. What brought it to mind was that I played with Levon Helm at the Beacon Theatre about two months ago and that was one of the songs they chose to do, especially since I was going to be there and his daughter and her group [Old Crow Medicine Show] sang it. It was beautiful and I had never thought of that song since the day we did it but now I want it in my repertoire.”
When Toussaint performed the song I was immediately reminded of Ray Charles’ country recordings and felt that Toussaint could record just about any style.
“You’ve certainly put me in good company, yes indeed,” he says quietly, “anyone would love to be associated with the same conversation as Ray Charles.”
Toussaint also appeared at the Ponderosa Stomp to help pay tribute to the great New Orleans arranger Wardell Querzergue.
“Wardell is a un-sung hero to some,” says Toussaint, “but a very loud sung hero to some of us – the people who arrange and who are on this side of the music where it comes from – Wardell is known loud and clearly. He has done a multitude of things at a very extreme level, from huge bands down to two horns, down to ‘Mr Big Stuff’ and all the way up to symphonic pieces with orchestra, with full string compliment, oboes and cymbals.
He has just been outstanding and he has had many, many hits he has been behind, like ‘Barefootin’’ with Robert Parker, ‘Mr. Big Stuff,’ ‘Don’t Mess With My Toot Toot’ – all kinds of things. He’s just a monumental guy and the people behind the scenes know.”
At Jazz Fest last year Toussaint was joined on stage by Elvis Costello, with whom he had recorded The River In Reverse (produced by Joe Henry) in response to the tragic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Hopefully, the album brought some attention to the humble New Orleans giant outside his home city.
“It was Elvis’ brainchild,” says Toussaint. “He told me he had been wanting to do an album – an Allen Toussaint song book – and since Katrina had had us in the same place at the same time and doing projects like benefits, he thought that this was such a convenient time suppose we do something together. I thought it was a wonderful idea because he is such a prolific gentleman in his own right.
“We immediately got started on that Allen Toussaint song book for which he had chosen many, many songs of mine. We also thought, ‘Let’s try writing something together’ and I began to plant a couple of seeds. Like with ‘International Echo,’ I was playing a little riff on the piano of that kind of New Orleans piano and he said we could do something right from there. I went and made a track of that and brought it back the next day. He took that home and the next day he came back with a full set of wonderful lyrics and delightful melody and there were more things like that.”
While his reputation as a writer is almost unparalleled in New Orleans, Toussaint has, perhaps surprisingly, rarely written with others and I put this to him as being one of the distinctive aspects of his songwriting career.
“No, not as a collaborator,” he agrees. “I have usually finished things that people have started, sometimes without being credited and sometimes maybe being credited. But I’ve never considered myself from scratch as a collaborator because my job has always been there: send artists to me, I do what I do and send them out.
But this was a delightful venture for me and it was a luxury to be with someone who has such facilities as Elvis Costello.”
Toussaint had first met Costello back in 1983 when he worked with him on the production of Yoko Ono’s ‘Walking On Thin Ice’ – done in New Orleans at the famous but now defunct Sea-Saint Studio which Toussaint owned with Marshall Sehorn. They met again in 1988 when Costello was recording the Mitchell Froom produced Spike and enlisted Toussaint to play piano on ‘Deep Dark, Truthful Mirror’. They met again at the 2005 Jazz Fest, just prior to Hurricane Katrina.
“I was on right before him and we met each other backstage and we chatted for a moment,” recalls Toussaint. “Again it was a great meeting and he has such a generous spirit and he is such a scholar and collector. He’s a student and a scholar and he’s so interested in music. He knows more about my music than I do – he knows more of my songs than I do, he knows the misses, he knows the A-sides and the Z-sides.”
The River In Reverse also features the production of Joe Henry who had already worked with Toussaint on the brilliant I Believe To My Soul and Our New Orleans 2005 albums, following on his acclaimed work with Solomon Burke and Betty Lavette.
“Well, Joe called me,” says Toussaint. “I don’t know how I came to Joe’s mind but he called me and asked if I would come out and do a session with Mavis Staples, Anne Peebles, Billy Preston, Irma Thomas. I mean – good heavens! That’s a marriage made in heaven. I was delighted and I went out and did it with some fine studio musicians. We did it out in California, in Hollywood.
Before that I didn’t know Joe at all but it didn’t take me but minutes to recognise what a gentleman producer he is and I can see why he is really renowned in his circle because he is a fine producer and he knows how to set an atmosphere for creativity.”
“He knows how to go for the magic,” says Toussaint, who knows a thing or two about production after forty years or so. “He’s a hands on person; he’s always in there behind the glass. It’s never ‘Where is Joe?’ Joe is always there, every step of the way. When you go back into discuss it with them Joe is there. He’s there when you’re not there and he’s there when you are there. He’s there when you’re on the way there and he’s there when you leave. So that’s the way it goes.”
Toussaint admits that he has had some discussion with Joe Henry about some more recordings.
“I deeply appreciate him and he’s inspired me,” he says and reveals that in the past few months he has written enough songs for two albums. “I’m going to record two albums with a band and one solo performance with just me and the piano – similar to what I do at Joe’s Pub in New York. One Sunday a month I do a brunch from 12-1 at Joe’s Pub and I’m going to record that kind of set which I do – the songs that put me on the map and some that had nothing to do with me.”
Exciting news from the man they call ‘The Beethoven of New Orleans’. In the meantime, enjoy his latest Joe Henry-produced outings and make sure you see him if you ever get to Jazz Fest.
The River In Reverse is available locally through Universal Music. I Believe To My Soul and Our New Orleans 2005 are available on import.
[This feature was first published in Rhythms Magazine , which Brian Wise edited and published at the time, in 2007.]