ALLEN TOUSSAINT IS ONE OF THE GIANTS OF MODERN MUSIC.
By Brian Wise.
This article originally appeared in Rhythms Magazine 2013.
The history of music in New Orleans since the mid-1950s has featured some huge names but few more influential and abiding than that of Allen Toussaint, who began his recording career in 1958 and has been like a colossus on the scene ever since as composer, arranger, producer and piano genius. They call him the Beethoven of New Orleans – and rightfully so. So, when you see Toussaint in concert, you are watching one of the true greats.
If you did not know Toussaint’s solo work then you would surely know many of his songs, which over the years have been massive hits for others: ‘Fortune Teller’ (The Rolling Stones and Australia’s The Throb), ‘Mother-In-Law’ (Ernie K Doe), ‘Southern Nights’ (Glen Campbell), ‘Working In A Coalmine’ (Lee Dorsey), ‘A Certain Girl’ (The Yardbirds and Warren Zevon) and dozens more.
Bluesfest 2013 artists who have recorded Toussaint’s songs include Robert Plant who recorded ‘Fortune Teller’ with Alison Krauss for Raising Sand, Bonnie Raitt (‘What Do You Want The Boy To Do’ and ‘What Is Success?’). Trombone Shorty did ‘On Your Way Down’ on Backatown (with Toussaint as guest). Derek Trucks and his band added ‘Get Out Of My Life Woman’ to his live set.
Toussaint’s production has included The Meters, Dr John, Robert Palmer, Willy DeVille, Frankie Miller, Labelle (remember ‘Lady Marmalade’?) and Paul McCartney – to name just a few. His arrangements have graced The Band’s Rock Of Ages and The Last Waltz. In addition, Toussaint has released his own classic solo albums such as From A Whisper To A Scream, Life, Love & Faith and the brilliant, shimmering Southern Nights.
More recently, Elvis Costello, has managed to get the very humble and shy Toussaint to record the superb album The River In Reverse with producer Joe Henry. It was nominated for a Grammy and even got Toussaint out of his beloved New Orleans for some tours (including his first trip to Australia in 2011). Henry went on to produce the beautiful The Bright Mississippi for Toussaint in 2009.
But if you somehow, by some miracle, missed any of Toussaint’s music in the past you might have seen him in David Simon’s wonderful hit TV series Tremé, tracing the history of that neighbourhood post-Hurricane Katrina. (His music has also appeared in True Blood).
“We love the idea that Tremé is being done to shine another light on New Orleans,” says Toussaint when I meet him at his office, not far from one of the Mississippi levees. “We love the focus on New Orleans because they use a lot of great music I’m glad to say – beyond my own. I love Tremé.”
I recall Bobby Womack’s story that when he was touring with the Rolling Stones, who had covered his song ‘It’s All Over Now,’ people kept coming up to him and saying he should put out an album of his own, even though he had been releasing records for years.
“Yes, I learnt that even before I started touring that a lot of young people were discovering my music,” says Tousssaint, “and I dearly appreciate that. It’s gratifying to know that it touched them in a way that they would want to have it involved in their lives because it’s a speeding world with progress. For them to reach back and take something along with them is quite a good feeling. When someone makes a deliberate effort to include you in their life that’s quite gratifying.”
The fact that people such as Robert Plant are still recording Toussaint’s songs is not only a testament to his talent but has also helped to keep his music alive to new generations.
“That’s the wonderful thing about the business that we’re in,” agrees Toussaint. “Some of the things that you thought were laid to rest years ago can be resurrected and shine another light. It keeps whatever you do alive – it keeps you a part of the scene instead of a relic of some sort.
“When we were doing The River In Reverse with Elvis Costello and myself he went back and chose some songs that I thought nobody but Lee Dorsey and I would have known. He thought they were applicable to today’s scene. I’m so glad he did and that’s one of the prime examples of things that you thought were laid to rest and you’d never see again and here they are in today’s world.”
“I am busier then ever,” admits Toussaint, “and I must say I owe much of it to this booking agent called Katrina who sent me away from my one inner sanctum that I use to spend my days quite complacently. Katrina had me get out of that comfort zone for a while and be some place else.”