Allen Toussaint and me

November 10, 2015
Musician and songwriter Allen Toussaint performs at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans, Louisiana May 6, 2007. REUTERS/Lee Celano
Musician and songwriter Allen Toussaint performs at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans, Louisiana May 6, 2007. REUTERS/Lee Celano

You know Allen Toussaint. You may not know it. But you do.

Lady Marmalade” (“Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?”) by Labelle? “Southern Nights” by Glen Campbell? Both #1 hits in the 1970s.

If there’s a hit single that came out of New Orleans in the early 1960s, there’s a good change that Toussaint wrote or produced it: “Working In A Coal Mine” by Lee Dorsey; “Fortune Teller” by Benny Spellman; “Mother-In-Law” by Ernie K-Doe.

In the 70s, 80s and 90s, he worked with Paul McCartney, The Meters, The Band and Elvis Costello. He was a fixture at the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. And after Hurricane Katrina struck 2005, he became a tireless ambassador for New Orleans and the relief effort in the city’s poorer areas.

He died yesterday of a heart attack at age 77.

I knew him because I was lucky enough to interview him, twice.

In 1991, I was working on a story about Charles Neville for a tiny California-based music magazine, Windplayer. Neville is a member of the Neville Brothers, who were and are synonymous with New Orleans music. Their band evolved from The Meters, Toussaint’s house band in the 1960s and R&B/funk pioneers in their own right in the 1970s.

You couldn’t write about the Neville Brothers without talking to Toussaint, but his secretary wasn’t sold when I called.

“He’s traveling.” “He really doesn’t have time.” “He’s in a legal dispute with them.”

Finally, after weeks of begging, the secretary says, “Hold on.” The next sound I heard on the phone was a glissando on a grand piano, followed by an unmistakable riff that I’d heard in dozens of rhythm & blues songs. Then there was silence.

“Uh, hello?” I stammered.

“Hello,” came this deep mellifluous voice. He chatted with me for 20 minutes and he punctuated his utterances with musical commentary. When talking about his teenage years, his fingers would noodle jolly melodies from 50s and 60s R&B songs. When I broached something unpleasant, like his dispute over songwriting credits with the Nevilles, he would turn to a slow mournful minor key and speak in a barely audible whisper. I probably got all I needed in about three minutes. But I didn’t want the conversation to end. Finally, with all the chutzpah I could manage, I said, “Can I come visit you and interview you in person?”

Several months later, I was lost in the outskirts of New Orleans, driving on the 24-mile-long Lake Pontchartrain Causeway. I stopped at a pay phone at a police station in the middle of nowhere, because I figured that a white Jewish boy from New York would surely get his ass handed to him and no one would find the body for months.

I was now an hour late for my interview, and pretty sure that Toussaint was long gone, off into a fog of more important things to do. But sure enough, he was waiting. If anyone could be regal and humble at the same time, it was Toussaint. He wore a white button-down shirt decorated with musical notes, a skinny black tie with piano keys on it, black slacks and a black vest. “You’re a foreigner,” he said. “We’re always patient with foreigners.”

He led me into the main studio, hardwood floors, foam baffling on the walls. In the center of the room was a black grand piano. He seated himself on a black padded piano bench, while I sat in a folding chair in the curve of the piano.

And for the next three hours, he regaled me with stories of sitting in with Huey “Piano” Smith and Earl King at the Dew Drop Inn. He peppered his conversations with R&B riffs. “Did you write that?” I asked after hearing a particularly familiar riff. “No, that was Professor Longhair,” he said patiently and proceeded to sing one of ‘Fess’s best known songs, “Big Chief.”

He talked about writing Lee Dorsey’s biggest hits such as “Ride Your Pony” and called the R&B singer his muse. When we talked about the hit single “Southern Nights,” he played for me his version, an almost atmospheric ballad. And he extolled Glen Campbell for making a more rollicking version and finding the hit single in the song.

It was a three-hour tour of the history of New Orleans rhythm and blues.

I was never able to sell the story. It was 1992 and there were no websites or blogs for which to write. And the mainstream music magazines weren’t interested. It seems fitting that I ended up losing the story drafts and interview tapes in a local storm of my own, Hurricane Irene in 2011. So Toussaint was the one that got away. But other people have written his story. And people will keep singing his songs, even if his isn’t a household name. To students of music history, he was a giant. And my three hours with him were an honor.

See you down the road, Mr. Toussaint.

2 comments

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Great recollections. Allen was a treasure and he will be sorely missed. The song “Whipped Cream” provided copious royalties that Allen and Marshall Sehorn ploughed back into dozens of musical projects and labels that bore immense fruit.

Posted by GetReel | Report as abusive

Amen.

Posted by BBERDUDE | Report as abusive