Allen Toussaint, fonky-fonky pianist, writer and producer of untold hit songs, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and first-chair favorite son, makes his annual appearance this week at the 2012 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival – a tradition, he says, “which I dearly, dearly love.” Then, he plans to resume a completely revitalized solo recording career alongside Joe Henry, who oversaw Toussaint’s swinging triumph Bright Mississippi a couple of years ago.
In a career dating back to the 1950s, Toussaint had served as side-stage Svengali for a series of seminal New Orleans recordings by the likes of Lee Dorsey, Ernie K-Doe, Dr. John and the Meters, and Irma Thomas before bursting onto the national scene on projects with Paul McCartney (Venus and Mars), the Band (Rock of Ages), Paul Simon (There Goes Rhymin’ Simon), Joe Cocker and Little Feat, among others. Along the way, his songs had been recorded by artists as disparate as Glen Campbell (“Southern Nights”), Ernie K-Doe (“Mother-In-Law”), Robert Palmer (“Sneaking Sally Thru the Alley”), Devo (“Working in a Coal Mine”), Labelle (“Lady Marmalade”), Warren Zevon (“A Certain Girl”), the Rolling Stones, Herb Alpert and the Yardbirds.
Yet it wasn’t until more recently, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of Toussaint’s hometown, that he began to more fully explore his career as a solo artist. A pair of pair of well-respected projects followed (2006’s The River in Reverse with Elvis Costello, and the Joe Henry album in 2009) followed. The latter album saw Toussaint explore more fully the influence of jazz in his music, and he promises a similarly intriguing twist on the next collaboration with Henry.
“The one that we are contemplating now will be quite different,” Toussaint told us, in the latest SER Sitdown. “It will be so different than the other things that are out there, and just as removed from what I have generally been doing.”
Toussaint also talked about his stirring late-career resurgence, about the lasting influence of New Orleans folk hero Professor Longhair, and about the thrilling experience of hearing others transform his work …
NICK DERISO: There was so much devastation in the wake of Katrina, but at the same time some good came of it: You seemed to have been rejuvenated, undertaking a series of extensive tours and recording a series of well-received albums.
ALLEN TOUSSAINT: It ended up being almost like a blessing for many of us, especially myself. It made us flex new muscles. We lived our lives down here in New Orleans and it easy to become complacent. It’s such a comfortable pace. But Katrina came along and made us try other things, to move away for a period. With me migrating to New York as I did, I was right in the midst of where a lot of things were going on – and I was easily accessible, being right there where the action was. That brought about some collaborations that were very healthy for me. I began even doing live performances on a regular basis, which was unusual for me but quite rewarding. What I do is all about reaching the public, however, it had been done via the studio – waiting for the red light to come on. Doing a live performance, I was right in the meat of the matter, so that was good. Collaborations like the one with Elvis Costello, we got together and recorded together and toured. Many wonderful things happened.
NICK DERISO: Costello seemed like an offbeat choice for a collaborative project, yet you two seemed to immediately hit it off. What made working with him so successful?
ALLEN TOUSSAINT: For one thing, he’s so self contained. He has quite a reservoir of ideas, and he can take it all the way from beginning to end. I’m also used to taking things from beginning to end as well ,so it was a quite a luxury to be with someone who cares so much. He just has so much that he carries around with him, and he’s eager to share it too. It was perfect marriage, as far as I was concerned. Also, he knew so much about my history. I’m so glad that he had such a vast knowledge of the history of what I’d been doing. He delved back into things and rejuvenated some songs that I had thought were laid to rest forever. Because of the moment we were in, he thought of them as applicable to what we were doing – and he was so right.
NICK DERISO: You’ve described the late local piano hero Professor Longhair as the Bach of New Orleans rock. In many ways, you are carrying his sound forward – whether the uninitiated know it or not.
ALLEN TOUSSAINT: For me and Dr. John, and all of the pianists who came along afterward, he was just an amazing influence. Everybody else, you can put them in a particular file. There’s a generality of pianists, guitarists, etc., and you can see that this goes in that bunch. But Professor Longhair seemed to come from somewhere that we didn’t know. He was so strong and convicted, and so near and dear about what he was doing. He had his own vernacular, when he played and when he spoke. He was his own thing. You couldn’t help but love that. Plus him being our very own helped a lot. He’s the epitome of how we feel.
NICK DERISO: Meanwhile, your own career has been the definition of behind-the-scenes, with the bulk of your Rock and Roll Hall of Fame resume made up of work as a writer and producer for others. Do you ever wish you yourself were a bigger star?
ALLEN TOUSSAINT: Not at all. I’ve been very happy. I was in a comfort zone, and I still am in the comfort zone, in that position – being the one behind the scenes, putting stuff together. I really like that and I feel like that’s my forte. I’m completely satisfied with whatever due I’ve received.
NICK DERISO: There have been some radical reworkings of your songs along the way – from Otis Redding’s update of your Irma Thomas hit “Ruler of My Heart,” to Glen Campbell’s “Southern Nights,” to Robert Plant and Allison Krauss’ cool reimaging of “Fortune Teller.” New Orleans pianist Jon Cleary is the latest person to pull apart your songs, finding interesting new sounds and textures.
ALLEN TOUSSAINT: I love it when they do that! I love that dearly. It’s like having a collaborator that I didn’t know I had. I think it’s wonderful for them to take enough interest, for one thing – to want to do it, in the beginning. And then to put so much time in it, and to think it could go a whole other way. I really appreciate that dearly, whether it was a hit or not.
NICK DERISO: Campbell’s version of “Southern Nights” is maybe the most remarkable transformation. He took a song that had this dreamscape reverie and turned it into a romping country saloon song.
ALLEN TOUSSAINT: He took it to the people! And I thought that was wonderful. The story I was telling, I was concerned about that – not what it would make a person do. Glen Campbell decided he would make a person dance. And also, I think his version is so much more entertaining, because there’s music and there’s the story, where mine was mostly about the story, and the music almost stayed out of the way. I set it into a mode just to live that moment, as if talking the tune. I just love what folks bring to my songs, because everybody has their own signature. They all have something to say, as well.