Photo by Michael Wilson
It's a music-filled podcast with New Orleans composer, producer, and pianist Allen Toussaint who combines elegance with funk. [29:29]
Excerpt of Solitude from the album, The Bright Mississippi, composed by Duke Ellington, Irving Mills, and Eddie De Lange and performed by Allen Toussaint, used courtesy of Nonesuch Records and by permission of Sony/ATV Harmony 33.34% [ASCAP], EMI Mills Music Inc. 33.32 [ASCAP], and Scarsdale Music Corp 33.34% [ASCAP]
All of the following songs were composed by Allen Toussaint:
Excerpt of Southern Nights performed by Allen Toussaint, from a live concert, used by permission of Screen Gems-EMI Music Inc. 75% [BMI] and Warner Chappell Music Inc. 25% [ASCAP]
Excerpt of Whipped Cream performed by Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass, from the album Whipped Cream & Other Delights, used by permission of Shout!Factory and used by permission of Screen Gems-EMI Music Inc. [BMI]
Excerpt of Mother-in-Law from the album The Best of Ernie K-Doe, performed by Ernie K-Doe, used courtesy of Mardi Gras Records and by permission of EMI Unart Catalog Inc. [BMI]
Excerpt of Working in the Coal Mine from the album Working in a Coal Mine: The Best of Lee Dorsey, performed by Lee Dorsey and used by permission of Sony Music Entertainment and by permission of Screen Gems-EMI Music Inc. [BMI]
Excerpt of "Fortune Teller" from the album, Raising Sand, performed by Robert Plant and Allison Krauss, used courtesy of Rounder Records and by permission of EMI Unart Catalog Inc. [BMI]
Allen Toussaint: I got to one of those points where you don't know how to finish something. Because once you say it's finished, then it's open for critique by everyone. But as long as you say, "I'm still working on it," you're safe, you know. I didn't know how to finish this album and Van Dyke Parks visited me. . And he saw me having the problem without me telling him. And he said, "Imagine you're going to die in two weeks." "What would you like to say?" So I wrote "Southern Night."
<An excerpt of "Southern Night">
Jo Reed: That's composer, producer, arranger, pianist, and recipient of the 2012 National Medal of Arts, Allen Toussaint--and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed.
Robert Plant and Allison Krauss, Patti LaBelle, The Rolling Stones, Glen Campbell and Jerry Garcia, not to mention Paul McCartney and Paul Simon---these are just a few of the singers who have covered tunes written by the legendary Allen Toussaint. . A prolific songwriter and esteemed producer-- Allen -Toussaint has created hit after hit and makes them all seem effortless.
He was born and raised in New Orleans, and that city certainly gave shape to his music with its rhythms, soul and funk. Allen Toussaint has thrown his musical net wide...scoring with songs like "Mother-in-Law"," Working in the Coalmine", "The Fortuneteller" as well as instrumentals --think of " Whipped Cream"--the standard Herb Alpert made famous and which was made more famous as the original theme of The Dating Game. Toussaint also plays the piano like a dream--with a lyrical, elegant touch as evidenced by his award-winning instrumental album, The Bright Mississippi. His song list is practically matched by his list of awards--which include The Grammy Trustees Award, the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Blues Hall of Fame and a National Medal of Arts. When Allen Toussaint came to Washington to receive his medal from President Obama, I had the opportunity to speak with him, and I asked him to tell me more about his haunting song, "Southern Night."
Allen Toussaint: It was a combination of my life as a little boy going out to the country, riding with my father, my sister and brother and mother, out to visit the old Creole-speaking people in the country. And all how that felt. It felt so wonderful and safe and warm. So I wrote that just to tell people about that.
<audio clip of "Southern Nights": >
And I must say, it's the most inspiring piece, because many times when we write, we would rather always be inspired by our most supernatural inspiration. Other times we just write because we have tools and it's time to write and we know how to do that. But "Southern Night," when I was doing that, it felt like a soft cloud. Really clear, soft, nice cloud. Came and hovered right over me. And I actually felt caressed and hugged while I was doing that.
Jo Reed: Did you grow up in a musical house?
Allen Toussaint: Well, yes and no. My father, before I was born, was a trumpet player in a big band. Not a popular big band, but played on the weekends. But he had three children and a wife, so by the time I came along he had given up that idea and he was a railroad mechanic. So it's in the blood. My sister began taking piano lessons when she was a girl, but it was short-lived because she had a teacher who spanked her hands when she made a mistake. She wanted no part of that. She didn't take many lessons, but she was a smart girl and she learned whatever she did quickly, and it was a great help to me, because I humbly, when I saw this piano and went over and touched it, I started picking out little melodies very soon thereafter, and I understood the two blacks, three black keys, two black. And I understood the octaves and all. However, she was the one who could tell me, "This, what you're pressing here, is there on the page." So her lessons were short-lived. Now I see what they were for. They were to get me started.
Jo Reed: What did you listen to?
Allen Toussaint: I listened to the radio, so I listened to everything that played. And during those days there was a lot of hillbilly music on the radio, so I learned all those saloon type hillbillies, and late at night there were boogie-woogies, and I just thought God had played that and sent it to us. So I learned a lot of boogie-woogies and some blues. But on Sundays my mother would play classical music on the radio and operas and symphonies all day long. She loved that, though we were poor as Job's turkey, she thought she was pretty ritzy. And so I heard a lot of that and I just thought that was the epitome of music. And I thought, any time I heard a piano I thought all piano players could play that except me, so I had better get on it. So I tried to play every genre, because I just thought it was all one big music and everyone could play it all except me. So I tried to play it all. I learned later on, many years later, that no, they're specialists. But I really fell equally in love with all of the musics. Then I heard this Professor Longhair--
Jo Reed: I was just going to ask you, when did you first hear Professor Longhair?
Allen Toussaint: Oh, good heavens. I had to make a left turn when I heard that. Wherever I was going before, I wanted to go wherever he was going. And that was a shock to me, and it was just absolutely lovely to hear that off-the-beaten-path music that wasn't in the same regiment as everyone else. I consider him as serious of an inventor as the greats, as the Bachs and the Mendelssohns and Beethovens and all.
Jo Reed: Now, how did you move into becoming a professional musician?
Allen Toussaint: Well, at 13 years old, we formed a neighborhood band, all the kids around the same age, and we began playing the songs off the radio, and we played for school hops and other joints out in the country where we're too young to be, but during that day you could get away with it. But we started this neighborhood band and we would mimic whatever was the call of the day on the radio. That's how I got started playing professionally, meaning getting paid. Getting paid was sometimes a dollar and a half.
Jo Reed: Right. <Laughs>
Allen Toussaint: But our regular income was $8.50, so we were in hogs' heaven at that time.
Jo Reed: And when was your first time in a studio?
Allen Toussaint: Early on, when I was 16, Dr. John "Mac" Rebennack and myself, we used to play on sessions together called in by Cosmo Matassa, who owned the studio. The number one studio. The only studio there. And anyone who was recording, who'd come to New Orleans to record, would get in touch with Cosmo. And Cosmo would call someone who would call the other musicians around town, who would fit whatever's needed for that day. And they knew that I was one who had listened to the radio and could play most of the music of the day. So I was called in to play on recording sessions during that time, many times by Cosmo Matassa himself, sometimes by Dr. John. And after a while, I began to be in charge of the sessions myself, where I would actually call people.
Jo Reed: You began producing.
Allen Toussaint: Yeah. Well, I began actually producing with the title attached to me. Of course, it was called A&R man at that time, which was not a proper name for what we were doing, because A&R man mean artists and repertoire. What got me started producing, was Minit Records. When Minit Records was starting by Joe Banashak and Larry McKinley, M-I-N-I-T, they were holding auditions at a radio station. And several of the kids around town who was going to audition wanted me to be there, because they knew I could play behind them, because I knew the songs. And I wound up playing for people I didn't even know, but I had a wonderful time. And the two gentlemen who had started the company were elated having me and I was more elated being with them, so I stayed on. And that's where my producing career got started. And I would produce and arrange and write songs. We had a wonderful time.
Jo Reed: When did you start writing?
Allen Toussaint: I started writing songs with lyrics at 12. Very humble songs. Wasn't recording them yet, but I remember starting to write them then. I started writing melodies a little earlier than that, maybe around nine. And just little simple melodies. I just loved it. After you play around a lot and you've gone over many things you're learning for that day, it just seemed to come natural that you want to get to something on your own. Especially if you copy everything you hear. You're just bombarded with so many ideas coming from everywhere. So it was very natural for me to just pick out something here and there, and I started putting them on a Webcor tape recorder and listening back to see what it was about.
Jo Reed: But you didn't want to be the front man.
Allen Toussaint: I still don't care about being the front man. I feel my comfort zone is behind the scene. Writing songs, putting them together, getting with the artists and seeing, "Can I make the best spirit that the artists have shine in this moment?" I like to tailor whatever I'm doing for the artist, the song. I like to tailor it for them and tailor the whole atmosphere for them. And write arrangements. I love to write the arrangements. It's like playing God. I mean, you have it in your imagination, put it down, and after a while you give that, and what wasn't there begin to happen. That's a wonderful feeling. So that's my zone that I feel I was called to.
Jo Reed: Well, here's a question. If you're producing and it's a song that you've written, are you strict about do you have a sense of the way you want this done? Or are you open to kind of spontaneity that can happen in the studio?
Allen Toussaint: Well, I lived and learned how important spontaneity can be. And even a better word came called serendipity.<laughs> But in my earlier days I was very rigid, and I didn't want not one phrase, to be anything other than what I had lived with over the few nights or days that I was putting it together. And I wanted it exactly like that. And I wanted the singer to sing it exactly like that, every note, and only rise here and there. I can remember in early days that I thought the music was perfect until we touched it. I tried to protect the music. But later on I began to accept spontaneity, and I'm glad, because I think there's a lot of gifts, because it is art. So we're not responsible for everything when we begin to chip away at a stone to carve a statue. Though sometime it comes out before we thought it was, we see the face before we thought we would. And if we open, we can get all kinds of wonderful gifts, because the whole world of art is bigger than any of us. We just participate in it. So like I say, I did live and learn, because I can recall when I was so rigid, it was just downright rude. But I'm glad that I overcame that and began to relish the little gifts that would come from something you didn't expect. But there's a certain part of the initial intent that I must still have.
Jo Reed: Your songs are covered by so many people.
Allen Toussaint: Yes.
Jo Reed: So "Working in the Coal Mine," for example. Lee Dorsey. This was an incredible, incredible version of it. And then how many years later Devo comes out with a completely <laughs> different version of the song. What did you think? Because your songs are covered by so many people, do you sometimes think, "Ah. No. Don't do it that way"?
Allen Toussaint: I never think, "No. Don't do it that way." I always think, "Grateful that you did it." And I must say that I'm glad you asked it like that, because I really appreciated when someone… For one thing, for them to do it at all, that meant they thought this was something they should do. And when they even get involved and want to add their own twist to it, they become sort of a collaborator. "Oh, isn't that interesting. If I just want to hear the original, just go listen to the original. But now, someone else brought something else, which I consider very respectful, that they cared enough about it to take it there. And I love the surprise that I get from it." And then there's some people who record it just like you recorded it, and I like that as well. I appreciate it in every way. Like when Robert Plant and the young lady did--
Jo Reed: Alison Krauss.
Allen Toussaint: Yes, yes. You certainly got this history down.
Jo Reed: <laughs>
Allen Toussaint: But I love the job that they did. T-Bone Walker who produced that. They gave it another mellow mold that was quite a collaboration. It was like a gift to me.
<audio clip of "The Fortune Teller">
Jo Reed: "Mother-In-Law." And you weren't even married when you wrote that song.
Allen Toussaint: No, <laughs> not at all.
Jo Reed: Tell me, what was it like working with Ernie K-Doe?
Allen Toussaint: He was the cockiest person in the world. And he didn't mind being cocky and letting you know that he was. And even before he recorded, he would tell everyone, "I'm already a star. You all just don't know it yet." But I didn't mind that. Because I like people who feel like that. I like people who want it so badly, until they eat and sleep that. When you feed that person, they take it and really run as far as they can with it, as hard as they can. Well, I wrote four songs for him to do, because we used to do four songs every time we recorded. A session consisted of four songs and three hours you do them in. And "Mother-In-Law" was just one of them. We had gone over another one before that, and it'd went okay. And when we got to "Mother-In-Law" and I was giving it to him, he used to like the Blind Boys, and Archie Brown used to shout like he was preaching. And Ernie K-Doe used to like to sing like that. But the song "Mother-In-Law" was based on a actual pentatonic mixed in there, which is kind of, it's not, it's more mellow than to preach and holler. And he approached it with that really hard and preaching kind of attitude and I just gave up on it after a couple of efforts and put it in the trashcan. I really did. And my friend, Willie Harper, took it out of the trashcan and told him, "No, this is a really good song, K-Doe. Try and calm down and do it the way he's asking you to do it." And he did.
And we had a wonderful time with it. And on the other side was "Fortune Teller."
Jo Reed: Yeah, the B side. That's been covered… And we mentioned Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, but that's been covered by everybody.
Allen Toussaint: Oh, yeah. And famous Rolling Stones version.
Jo Reed: Stones. Right.
Allen Toussaint: Many years ago. I usually sort of humorously say, "And they know how to roll all the way to the bank."
Jo Reed: You collaborated on quite a few songs with Lee Dorsey.
Allen Toussaint: Yes. Well, I wrote most of the songs, as opposed to collaborate.
Jo Reed: "Working in the Coal Mine" for example. Did you write it for him?
Allen Toussaint: All the time. Every song that Lee Dorsey sung was written for him to sing, and I venture to say that if it wouldn't have been for him, that song wouldn't have been written.
<sound clip of "Working in the Coal Mine":>
Allen Toussaint: Neither he or I knew anything about a coal mine. I still don't know why I wrote that. But he and I spent a lot of time in the studio, but much time out of the studio. He would visit my place, and we would hang out, we'd go to clubs at night. We had a lot of fun together. We'd ride motorcycles together, we'd race Cadillacs together. We had a good time. And he was such a high-spirited guy. His whole life was a smile. I guess that's why there's so much diversified songs with him, because I could write very humorous songs with him, and from time to time a very serious song. You wouldn't write "Working in the Coal Mine" for Luther Vandross, you know. He's too romantic and cool. But for Lee Dorsey's smiling voice and the way he felt about things and humorous as he was, you could write such a wide gamut of stuff for him.
Jo Reed: We have to talk about "Whipped Cream" and Herb Alpert, because he's a fellow recipient of a National Medal of Arts.
Allen Toussaint: Yes. What a player.
Jo Reed: What went into writing that?
Allen Toussaint: "Whipped Cream" was written as a joke. When I went, I went in the military, in '63 to '65. And while there, I played the piano the whole time, but we also had a small band that we played gigs on the weekends. And while I was in the military, "Java," which I had written before, came out on Al Hirt. And when some of the guys in the band heard that I had written "Java," they thought that that was so funny, because they considered it a popcorn kind of song. They figure I must be too hip to write something like "Java.". And I didn't take it that way, because it was a little more serious than that. But I was in charge of all that they had to play, all of the music that day, to play every night. So I wrote about 10 songs in the air of one who would write "Java" would write this and that and the other, and "Whipped Cream" was one of them. And they had to play all these popcorn songs that I wrote. Because <laughs> I was in charge of all the music. And we had a good time. "Whipped Cream" was written as one of those things, since they had laughed at "Java."
<instrumental of "Whipped Cream">
Allen Toussaint: And of course it became the original theme song for the original "Dating Game" by Tijuana Brass, who mimicked it very well, but with the Herb Alpert flair. Oh, wonderful flair he has the way he do those tips on the trumpet. I just, I think he's phenomenal. And he was phenomenal for "Whipped Cream." And again, he, like the Rolling Stones, knew how to blow it to the bank.
Jo Reed: "The Bright Mississippi." Your solo CD. And how strange was that? Because there you are A, you're the front man, and B, you're not producing it, and C, there aren't songs that you wrote.
Allen Toussaint: A luxury.
Jo Reed: <laughs>
Allen Toussaint: It was a luxury. All I had to do was sit and play. In fact, Joe Henry, the producer, who I admire tremendously, he did everything but play the piano. He set it up, he chose all of the songs, and he chose all of these instrumentals, which I was very happy to do, because I prefer playing than singing. And we only had one vocal song on it, but he chose all of these great standards. And that first one he wanted to produce, man, I thought he'd want some New Orleans funk like you might expect. But he chose these wonderful, classic treasures of America, and presented them to me. And I was most impressed when I looked into that box of gems that, "This is what he think of me." So I got right to it, and he chose all of the musicians, who would play on it, and he chose Gentle Giants, and we went to Avatar Studio in New York, and we recorded them all.
<excerpt of "Solitude">
He gave me a very smooth avenue to ride down. Just so wonderful, with integrity, smoothness, unhurried. You could retire easily on that.
Jo Reed: I can't even begin to list all the people that you've worked with, because it would go on for pages and days. But a recent collaboration, Elvis Costello, and the CD was "River in Reverse."
Allen Toussaint: Yes, indeed.
Jo Reed: And that was the first recording done in your hometown of New Orleans after Katrina, wasn't it?
Allen Toussaint: It was indeed. And we wanted to do the whole thing there, but we couldn't get in early on, because we were still under martial law in New Orleans, so we couldn't get back in when we started the album. So we started in California at Sunset Studio. And we was recording there, but Elvis has such a dear heart, and a creative thinker. He was really insistent on, "We have to do some of this in New Orleans." And near the end we were able to go to New Orleans to do the last bit of the album. So glad we did. It was so right. For one thing, I don't know any other musician who carries as much information, love and respect for the music than Elvis Costello. And I don't mean for just surface. I mean, subsurface, subterranial, anywhere, deep under. He channels so many of my old songs that I have laid to rest and thought I would never heard about them again. He would bring it up and say, "Well, how about this?" and "How about that?" In fact, he told me he always wanted to do an Allen Toussaint songbook. And he said, "Now, here we are. What do you think of that?" And I said, "That's a wonderful idea."
Jo Reed: Can we talk very briefly about your experiences with Katrina? You lost your studio, you lost your home?
Allen Toussaint: Oh, yes. Yes. Well, Katrina, yeah. I lost-- Katrina wiped out the studio. It just was a big, gray mass. It was interesting to see, however. And my home as well. When I walked in, everything was gray. It was covered with this big, thick, it looked like insulation foam you would spray on something, but it was all gray. And it was quite artistic-looking to me, to be perfectly frank. And when I went home and saw all of that, I knew that everything was lost. But I didn't feel badly even about it. I just felt, "Everything here has served me very well until that day. And now it's gone. But it served me well until that day." And that's all right. It was really all right. Because there was one thing that I would've cared most dearly for, for some reason, it was with me and it was videos that I had-- I've been carrying a camera, a video camera, since I was a teenager. So I used to shoot my family, my mother and father, and then later on I shot my children with the camera and all that. So the day before the storm actually hit, that evening they finally coaxed me to get out of the house and go to a hotel where I would be on a higher floor. And I did, but I took all of my videos with me, because I was going to be stuck in this hotel, so I could be looking through them to mark down where things was so when I'm editing I would know where stuff is. So that's the only thing I took. And that was the only thing that was saved. If I would've lost it, I would've felt the worst about it. So I had the most dearest thing in my life far as an object, the most dearest things in my life were saved. Everything else was gone. Except the clothes I had on my back. But again, when I went back a month or so later, because martial law kept us out, and saw that gray mass everywhere, I decided right at that moment, "It served me well until that day." And I stuck with that. And I still feel all right about it. I feel it was a baptism, not a tragic drowning.
Jo Reed: You're back?
Allen Toussaint: Back in New Orleans, yes. I retain an apartment in New York, but I am back in New Orleans. I'll always live in New Orleans. New Orleans feeds me.
Jo Reed: And Jazz Fest came back?
Allen Toussaint: Oh, yes. Jazz Fest insists on being back. Yes. The spirit of New Orleans is alive and well. Yeah. I dearly love the festival. It is so good for us. So good. And I love being a part of it, because, again, I always feel I would prefer being backstage, seeing to it that things like that happened. And the Jazz Festival's the one time I was totally up front, center.
Jo Reed: You love New Orleans.
Allen Toussaint: Oh, dearly, dearly. Yes.
Jo Reed: Okay. I have to read this, because there are just too many awards for me to remember. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Blues Hall of Fame, the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame, the Louisiana Lifetime Achievement Award.
Allen Toussaint: And the Songwriter's Hall of Fame.
Jo Reed: And now, a National Medal of Arts.
Allen Toussaint: This is the daddy of all. This is the historical moment far as I'm concerned, this award. Yes.
Jo Reed: Tell me, what's next for you?
Allen Toussaint: Well, I'm about to get on the project that my son and I are going to do, which is about many songs that I've written through my travels since Katrina. It's been much traveling, much different kind of inspiration, and I'm looking forward to getting to that.
Jo Reed: And I look forward to hearing it. Allen Toussaint, many, many congratulations. And thank you so much for giving me your time. I really do appreciate it.
Allen Toussaint: My pleasure.
Jo Reed: That was composer, producer, arranger, pianist, and National Medal of Arts recipient Allen Toussaint.
You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts.
Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at Arts.gov. You can subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U; just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page.
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For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.