Gimme Five: Allen Toussaint on Dr. John, the Meters, Ernie K-Doe, the Band, Lee Dorsey

On this special edition of Something Else Reviews’ One Track Mind, we hand the reins over to Allen Toussaint, who will be inducted on May 9, 2012 into the Blues Hall of Fame.

He takes us inside his collaborative relationship with happy-go-lucky hitmaker Lee Dorsey, talks about his Grammy-nominated jazz-themed project with Joe Henry, and frames Dr. John’s legacy as successor to Louis Armstrong in the role of New Orleans ambassador. Toussaint also reminisces about his long-standing relationship with the Band, and reveals his true feelings about mothers in law …

RIGHT PLACE, WRONG TIME, with DR. JOHN (IN THE RIGHT PLACE, 1973): Dr. John’s first album with Allen Toussaint as producer and the Meters as his backing band sent him to the Top 25 of the album charts – and provided the former Mac Rebennack with his signature song. “Right Place, Wrong Time” shot all the way to No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, and helped set a template for the emerging funk genre of the 1970s. Toussaint’s composition “Life” was a key album cut, while “Such a Night” also charted. The group would later collaborate on the underrated follow-up Desitively Bonnaroo, which would eventually inspire the name of an annual four-day Tennessee music festival.

ALLEN TOUSSAINT: It was a lot of fun, a lot of fun. For one thing we always had a wonderful time. We didn’t always look at the big picture. We were making fun music, and doing it at our pace. The Meters, that was a most magical group. Everyone in that band was so interlocked in, it was pure joy. Dr. John is, of course, a wonderful disciple of Professor Longhair, but there are so many other good things that come along with him. He could do the whole thing – write, arrange, just do it all. What a soul for New Orleans. He’s been the city’s best ambassador since Louis Armstrong.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Hall of Famer Allen Toussaint talks about the joys of hearing his songs interpreted by others - and coming back stronger after Katrina.]

“SOLITUDE,” solo (BRIGHT MISSISSIPPI, 2009): A Duke Ellington standard delivered with twilight poignancy by Toussaint, who appeared with a swinging group that included Don Byron, Marc Ribot, and Nicholas Payton. Together, they reinterpreted classic tunes popularized or written by fellow sons of New Orleans like Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton and Sidney Bechet, but also sprinkled in a liberal portion of these ageless jazz gems – putting Toussaint in a whole new light, and garnering him a Grammy nomination. Toussaint, who earned induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame primarily as a producer, said he took a backseat on this one to producer Joe Henry – who came up with the concept.

ALLEN TOUSSAINT: All of it was Joe Henry. He did everything but play piano! (Laughs.) He chose all of those wonderful songs, he chose the musicians, he chose when and where to record. I just thought he did a delightful job. For him to see me in that light, that was quite an honor. I’ll forever be thankful for that. It would have dawned on me, I don’t think, to do that album.

“MOTHER IN LAW,” ERNIE K-DOE (single, 1961): This Toussaint-penned tune was the legendary – and legendarily eccentric – Ernie K-Doe’s first and biggest hit, going to No. 1 on both the Billboard pop and R&B charts. That earned him a spot alongside Toussaint in the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame. They also shared another, even more interesting thing: Neither hated his mother-in-law. In fact, K-Doe, the cape-wearing self-professed “Emperor of the Universe” who passed in 2001, is actually buried in the same tomb as his second mother-in-law – with whom he was very close. (K-Doe’s widow Antoinette continued to run his Mother-In-Law Lounge in New Orleans, which housed a life-sized, fully costumed look-alike mannequin of K-Doe, until her own death on Mardi Gras day in 2009.) Toussaint, meanwhile, was in his early 20s when he composed this tune – and was not yet even married.

ALLEN TOUSSAINT: Oh, no way. Not at all! Comedians used to use mother-in-laws as the brunt of their jokes back then. It was very commonplace, before they could say any and everything like nowadays. So, it was quite natural to think of that when it was time to write a novelty-type song. It just came one day while writing. It was one of those moments. It wasn’t because of anything autobiographical or anything, though. I didn’t have a mother-in-law – but my grandmother, she sure was horrified. She called me when it was out and it was hit, and she bawled me out. “Why did you write such a terrible song! Don’t know you know who I am?” (Laughs.) I apologized vehemently, and I think she eventually forgave me. (Laughs again.)

“LIFE IS A CARNIVAL,” with THE BAND (ROCK OF AGES, 1972): Toussaint returned to lead the horn section for this live double-LP, having arranged the original charts for “Life is a Carnival,” the opening track on the Band’s 1971 album Cahoots. This would become one of his signature relationships in rock music, as Toussaint returned for the Band’s Last Waltz 1976 concert, saw his tune “You See Me” included on their 1998 release Jubilation, then worked with the late Levon Helm on 2009’s Electric Dirt, on what would be his final studio release. Rock of Ages went to No. 6 on the Billboard’s Top 200 album charts.

ALLEN TOUSSAINT: Robbie Robertson got in touch with me first to do the horns for a single, “Life is a Carvival.” He thought that I would be the one to do a horn arrangement that would be fitting. He got in touch with me in New Orleans, and I met him in New York – at the Gramercy Park Hotel, in fact. I did the arrangement on that song, and that was the first time. Much later, when the Rock of Ages concert came along, again he tried to get in touch with me. But he had lost contact, so he called the sheriff’s department here in New Orleans (laughs) and he had them find me! I thought: “Well, this was quite an interesting moment.” He sat me down with the songs, and I gladly accepted right away – and you know all the rest. With Levon, actually, they sent me a couple of tracks that they had done. I did those horn parts from afar. I didn’t go into the studio with them. But I loved Levon Helm’s stuff.

“WORKING IN THE COAL MINE,” with LEE DORSEY (THE NEW LEE DORSEY, 1966): After a chance meeting with Toussaint at a party, Dorsey signed with the Fury record label – and a stirring run of collaborative hit songs followed throughout the 1960s. “Ya Ya” went to No. 7 in 1961, before Dorsey and Toussaint reemerged on the Amy label. There, they’d put seven songs into the Top 100 between 1965-69 – the most famous of which was Dorsey’s final Top 10 hit, “Working in the Coal Mine.” Their 1970 tune “Yes We Can” would be Dorsey’s last charting single, sending the amiable New Orleans native back to his beloved car-repair business – a sideline Dorsey had never relinquished, despite all of that chart success. There, he must have marveled as a techno version of “Working in the Coal Mine” by Devo returned to the Top 100 in 1981.

ALLEN TOUSSAINT: He was quite humorous and quite high spirited. He carried a smile all day long. He loved life — a very happy guy. Anyone he’d meet, he would greet them with something humorous, and with an indelible smile. When he wasn’t on the road, he stayed on his job of bending fenders. He loved body and fender work. He would stay greasy all day long, but he had an entourage of people who would hang around him – because he was a good man to be around. He was just a fun guy. When he would sing, you could hear a smile in his voice. Whatever kind of song he was singing, he would do it with that high spirit. He loved singing, dearly. He loved the whole process of being in the record business and making music. Sometimes, when we would go to places where there was a jukebox, he would sit nearby and play his own records – just to sing along with them. He loved what he was doing. He wasn’t really cocky about it or anything, he just dearly appreciated being a part of it.

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Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.