At the Big Easy Music Awards, held April 24, the night ended with a brassy affirmation of the New Orleans way of life, as revelers second lined with post-open-bar giddiness out of the Sugar Mill onto Convention Center Boulevard. Making his way through the throng, nodding and smiling to the well-wishers with characteristic politeness was Allen Toussaint, neatly pressed and still natty after a long night, his arms overloaded with the boxes that held his awards -- one for Best Male Performer of 2006, one for Best Album (River In Reverse, his stunning collaboration with Elvis Costello that was released this time last year) and one for Entertainer of the Year. Toussaint had climbed up and down the steps to the stage all night, thanking the local music community for every recognition in a way that seemed just as heartfelt and genuine each time. Accepting his final award, for Entertainer of the Year, he even tapped the microphone, grinning almost beatifically, in time with an apparently spontaneous rap about musicians coming home.
The musicians, radio DJs, club owners, bookers, music writers, promoters, advocates and fans who made up the audience at the Sugar Mill were pleased to see the legendary songwriter and producer collect his well-deserved trophies. Toussaint is a man whose name (or pen name, Naomi Neville, under which he wrote more than a hundred songs) appears on almost every defining track in New Orleans R&B and whose personal musical history from his early teens mirrors that of New Orleans music itself. But the moment we were there for was toward the end of the show, when he settled onto the piano bench for a short but delectably sweet set with the night's Best Female Performer and Best R&B Act, soul siren Irma Thomas -- putting a creative friendship and collaboration that spans almost five decades on glorious display.
Those 40-odd years, Irma Thomas surmises over the phone on her way to Tipitina's, might have meant that Toussaint thought it would be OK to change the arrangements they'd rehearsed without tipping her off before the performance. Maybe he knew her proven grace and talent well enough to trust her on the fly. "He knows me well enough to know I won't cuss him out on the stage," she says.
"He always trusted me and my abilities," recalls Thomas, who met Toussaint through her first husband while she was still in her teens and before she became a performer. It was Toussaint, in fact, who went with her in 1960 to audition for impresario Joe Banashak's fledgling Minit Records label, which (along with its later incarnation, Instant Records) was home to nearly every classic of New Orleans rhythm and blues from the late '50s until the late '60s.
"When I did 'It's Raining,' he only taught me the first verse," Thomas says, "and then he put the rest of the music on the stand in front of me while I was recording. Now in those days, we had no digital recording, no instant replay. It was four tracks, and if you made a mistake, you had to start again. He'd do that to me often."
"Irma Thomas' voice stayed in my head all the time," Toussaint says, appreciatively. "And it still does. Her delivery -- she nails it every time."
Banashak actually turned Thomas down after her first audition for Minit in 1959, and she signed to Joe Ruffino's competing Ron Records label instead, cutting two records, including the sassy R&B single "You Can Have My Husband (But Don't Mess With My Man)." The song went to No. 22 on the Billboard charts, and by 1960, Minit had scooped Thomas up. The freewheeling boogie-woogie "You Can Have My Husband" is still a frequent part of her set. And an early Minit recording, the Deborah Chessler-penned song "It's Too Soon To Know," a sugary, plaintive teenage love ballad also put on wax by Linda Ronstadt and Roy Orbison, is an interesting use of Thomas' boundless vocal talent. But by 1961, up through 1963 when Toussaint left the label for the Army, Thomas and Toussaint really began to cook in the studio together, turning out the smoldering powerhouses like "Ruler of My Heart" and "It's Raining" as well as cheerfully empowered gems like "Done Got Over It" and "Hittin' on Nothing" that are favorites of Thomas' fans even today. Always a pro, Thomas played the role of a good-time gal or a starry-eyed teen well enough, but barely into her twenties, she was already a twice-divorced mother of four who supported her family by waiting tables. She knew a thing or two about a thing or two -- including the sting of heartache and how to tough out hard times. Toussaint's production unleashed the power of her voice, and his songwriting tapped into her personality.
Shortly after Toussaint left for the service, Minit was sold to its distributor, Imperial Records, along with Thomas' contract. Toussaint left Banashak's fold to start Sansu Enterprises, a business and creative partnership with producer and street-smart businessman Marshall Sehorn that would birth multiple labels, including Tou-Sea, Deesu and Kansu and in the early '70s, the Sea-Saint recording studio in Gentilly, where a young funk outfit called the Meters would become the house band. But Thomas' star was already cast in gold.
"He was able, especially so among the writers I've known, to write the songs that best fit the artists," Cosimo Matassa says of Toussaint. As engineer and proprietor of the legendary French Quarter landmark J&M Studios, Matassa recorded iconic hits for artists like Fats Domino, Earl Palmer and Professor Longhair throughout the '50s. After J&M closed, Matassa went to work for Toussaint and Sehorn at Sea-Saint Studios. By that time, he'd been watching Toussaint's talent evolve for nearly two decades. As a producer, Matassa recognizes Toussaint's intuition for a performer's potential and style as one of the magical elements that made his studio such a hit maker.
"The hallmark of a good producer is also taking care of the business side," Matassa says. "A talented person can let you know who's boss, what it's all about and also get the best performance. [Toussaint would] come in with prearranged arrangements, and then adapt them based on what was going on with the musicians. He's a perfectionist. And he kept a fresh sound that was appropriate to every performer. It was astounding how he could create a song and arrange it and wrap it around a particular performer."
Toussaint had ample time to get to know most of those performers at his parents' Gert Town home in the '50s and early '60s. The shotgun house was a hub for all-day sessions where Toussaint and a rotating crew of artists would write, rehearse and just hang out. The place was a creative flashpoint where the city's top musical talent would smolder over the course of many hours until something caught fire.
That house was where Toussaint's career started, playing piano and arranging songs he heard on the radio for the band that would be the Flamingoes -- a group that included neighbors like Snooks Eaglin and the young Ernest Kador Jr., better known as Ernie K-Doe.
"We played high school hops and various things," Toussaint recalls. "We played at some clubs we were too young to be in, but at that time, we could get away with that." Those early club gigs introduced Toussaint to what he quaintly calls the "Dew Drop set," the sprawling crowd of local musicians who played, lived and hung out at the sensational combination nightclub-restaurant-hotel-barbershop on LaSalle Street Uptown.
"That was my rite of passage into the adult world at the age of 17," he says. "That was a great thing for me. The business wasn't serious, but it was enough for me to get in." Once in with the Dew Drop set, Allen began picking up work as a sideman.
"There were always several young fellows like Allen (Toussaint) and Mac Rebennack (Dr. John), who'd hang around the studio and pick up jobs," Matassa says. "From day one, in spite of the soft-spoken approach, [Toussaint's] playing was dynamic. When he sat down and played, the level of everything jumped."
In 1957, Toussaint was tapped to fill in for Huey "Piano" Smith on an out-of-town gig with Earl King's band. Shortly after that, he went on the road with the duo Shirley & Lee. When Joe Banashak started up Minit, he hired Toussaint to pinch-hit on piano in the studio for Harold Batiste, who was busy with other projects. The move from there to becoming Minit's premier songwriter, arranger and producer fell right into place, Toussaint says.
"I was in training for such work before I got that position," he explains. "Being the piano man, the artist comes to the piano first, works out the changes and tells the rest of the musicians how the song goes. And being with the Flamingoes band, I was accustomed to working out recordings. So when I got into that position, it felt quite natural, it felt quite right."
After that, the hits started flying fast and furious. There were Irma Thomas' now-signature songs; Benny Spellman's classics "Fortune Teller" and "Lipstick Traces"; songs for Aaron and Art Neville, Chick Carbo and Jessie Hill; and, of course, for his old bandmate Ernie K-Doe "A Certain Girl," "Hello My Lover" and a little something called "Mother-In-Law." It was also at Minit that Toussaint met Lee Dorsey. In 1961, he produced Dorsey's classic "Ya Ya" for the Fury label, although the two would do their best work together later at Sea-Saint with the Meters in the house.
"Lee Dorsey and I spent so much time together," remembers Toussaint. "Such a unique voice. It inspired things you'd only write for him, of course. I spent loads of time with him, in and out of the studio. We rode motorcycles together ... we raced Cadillacs together." The only time Toussaint ever tried to write a hit on purpose, he says, was for Dorsey.
"That was when I got out of the Army in 1965," he says. "I wanted to try and get right back in the race. So I wrote 'Ride Your Pony.'" The song made the Top Ten on Billboard's R&B charts.
Around the house where Toussaint spent the first 23 years of his life, songwriting happened organically.
"Allen's mama was a very sweet person," remembers Thomas, a regular visitor. "Very typical New Orleans -- she'd feed everybody."
"It was in the front room of my parents' house," Toussaint remembers. "Artists, musicians and singers would come by and sit on the porch until I woke up. And we'd sit around every day, writing new songs or playing along with songs off of the radio. The way it used to go if Irma Thomas was there, for example -- it was all us guys and that one gal, Irma Thomas, and she was so strong, holding up her end. I'd write, and she'd go in the other room and practice. And me and maybe Benny Spellman would practice. And everyone who was there would just sing backup behind her. Then Benny would come back in, and we'd all sing backup behind him. That's why those early recordings are like that -- with Benny Spellman singing the low part on "Mother-In-Law" and Ernie K-Doe singing on Irma Thomas songs. We saw it as one big family unit."
Rarely if ever seen not dressed to the nines in suit and tie, Toussaint has the unique distinction of being nearly as famous for his snappy dress and impeccable manners as he is for his sound. ("Oh, if it didn't match, he didn't wear it," Thomas confirms.) He is also perhaps the only public figure in history to make wearing socks with sandals look perfectly stylish. According to all accounts -- and in a field where down-and-dirty backstory is the norm rather than the scandalous exception -- he is, and always has been, the consummate gentleman of rock 'n' roll, with never a wrinkle in his tie or a sag in his pressed trousers.
"He was always very neat," Matassa says. "He wasn't one of those people who'd show up to a session in a torn shirt." (In an interview with Biz magazine in New Orleans a few months before Katrina, Alison DeSaix, Toussaint's youngest child and booking agent, swore she'd seen her father play a Jazz Fest set in an open-collared dress shirt, and then promptly don a tie upon returning home.) Well-known for his demure, articulate way of speaking and genteel politeness, his friends say he is actually -- famously -- simply shy.
"He's the same way he always was, just older," Thomas says. "Very introverted and shy; very quiet."
Matassa agrees. "In the early days he was quite shy," he says. "Marshall did a lot of interviews for him then. He still doesn't toot his horn as much as he might. He downplays his abilities, but he's truly one of the geniuses of this city."
Once he started up Sansu Enterprises with Sehorn, who died in December, recognition of Toussaint's genius outside the city began picking up speed. Sea-Saint opened in 1973, and with Toussaint's well-honed writing and production chops and his signature horn and string arrangements, became the home for the evolving New Orleans sound -- probably best exemplified by the Crescent City funk of his longtime house band, the Meters. Toussaint cowrote some of Lee Dorsey's best-known hits there for Sansu, including "Working In A Coal Mine" and "Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky," recorded Dr. John's biggest hit, "Right Place Wrong Time," as well as later caught the ear of Patti Labelle, who came to New Orleans to make use of his signature horn arrangements for the hit "Lady Marmalade." ("Patti LaBelle was quite a pleasure," Toussaint says. "She brings so much theater, such grandioso attitude and such professionalism wherever she goes. I found Labelle extremely rewarding, and such a culture shock. We work at such a different pace in New Orleans, and they brought that asphalt energy with them.") In 1998, as a cherry on top of a stack of professional accomplishments, collaborations and awards that already make an exhausting list, Toussaint was inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame.
During Katrina, which soaked his home with 5 feet of floodwater, Toussaint evacuated to Baton Rouge and then to New York at the urging of Joe Feigenbaum, his partner in the small NYNO Records label he founded in 1996. Performing at a hurricane relief benefit show in September, Toussaint remade the acquaintance of Elvis Costello, whom he'd worked with twice before; once producing a cover of a Yoko Ono tune Costello recorded in 1983 and again in 1989, contributing a New Orleans junker-style piano track to the song "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror" on Costello's album Spike. In an interview with the two of them last year, Costello said he had been thinking for some time about recording an old-fashioned "songbook" album of Toussaint's work. As the two stayed in contact, the project turned into more of a collaboration. (Costello has a long history of interest in New Orleans music. Among other things, his 2004 roots-heavy album Delivery Man includes a track with a shout-out to Dave Batholomew.)
"He began to name the songs he had in mind, songs I didn't think anyone knew but me," Toussaint says. "He knows more of my songs than I do." By December of 2006, the two were working at Piety Street Studios. Costello wrote the wrenching title track alone, as a direct response to the storm. The rest are collaborations that turn the album into a delicately balanced, masterful conversation between a couple of very formidable talents. On Toussaint songs like "Tears, Tears and More Tears" and "On Your Way Down," Costello's trademark bitter delivery fills the lyrics with righteous venom. On others, like the spooky "Ascension Day," a minor-key version of "Tipitina" with lyrics written by Costello, the result becomes something much more than the sum of its parts. Costello brought in longtime collaborators like pianist Steve Nieve, and Toussaint rounded up a top-notch horn section that included Big Sam Williams. The end result -- especially a year later -- is probably the best project to emerge from Katrina. It's full of heartbreak, anger and confusion, but impeccably written and played by two luminaries sharing the contents of their formidable bags of tricks.
"The way I was thinking when I sang [the songs on River] was, there was the idea that we must remain vigilant and ask that promises that have been made be kept," Costello said last spring. "Songs have a habit of finding their moment, and Allen has written so many songs like that."
For his part, Toussaint can't speak well enough of Costello's commitment to raising awareness about New Orleans' continuing recovery.
"He promotes the city as if it's his very own," Toussaint says. "He loves it as much as most New Orleanians and more than many."
These days, on a break from touring with Costello, Toussaint visits New Orleans as often as he can.
"I will always be a resident of New Orleans," he says. "I would never have moved away for any reason. I am fortunate that because of what I'm noted for, artists have come wherever I am, so I've been able to stay here. And I am most optimistic about New Orleans. The city's soul is alive and well in New Orleans, and I just love that. It's very important for the future."
Toussaint performs regularly at the East Village concert hall Joe's Pub, and is preparing to go into the studio soon to work on three projects, which will include a comparatively rare solo album.
"He's still doing it, he's still creative," Matassa says. "Some artists go cold, or they fall in love with themselves. But it goes back to [Toussaint] knowing what's appropriate for the artist -- in this case, himself."
- Cheryl Gerber
- "In the early days he was quite shy. He still doesn't toot his horn as much as he might. He downplays his abilities, but he's truly one of the geniuses of this city." -- Cosimo Matassa, music producer