ALLEN TOUSSAINT: Musical Gumbo Man

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Allen Toussaint wears the mantle of legend with the same extraordinary elegance he brings to his singular music. This prolific bard of New Orleans changed the entire sound and scope of his birthplace’s trademark rhythm and blues at the dawn of the 1960s. As A&R man for the Minit and Instant labels, his duties encompassed producing, arranging, playing piano, and writing songs for nearly every session.

Allen Toussaint wears the mantle of legend with the same extraordinary elegance he brings to his singular music.

This prolific bard of New Orleans changed the entire sound and scope of his birthplace’s trademark rhythm and blues at the dawn of the 1960s. As A&R man for the Minit and Instant labels, his duties encompassed producing, arranging, playing piano, and writing songs for nearly every session. Toussaint abandoned the previous decade’s storming rock and roll attack for a funkier approach. The Crescent City’s savory musical gumbo would never taste the same.

“I must say that it wasn’t something that I sought, in that [it wasn’t] a deliberate effort to make the sound different or anything,” says Toussaint, born January 14, 1938. “I was just going at what I wanted to hear, and it happened to come out like that. But I really couldn’t take credit for saying I was going to look for and found a new sound. It just happened.” From there, Toussaint was involved with the great majority of the hits to emanate from his hometown.

The master pianist’s primary influences included local 88s ace, Roy “Professor

Longhair” Byrd, “as a player,” Toussaint explains, “and also as a bold conceptualist…because I consider him as having certain things similar to Bach’s Inventions that you could latch onto. But also, he had some other methodology in his vocals that was so off the beaten path.”

Toussaint made his studio debut as a leader in 1958, cutting an instrumental album for RCA Victor featuring his buoyant original, “Java” (later a smash for trumpeter Al Hirt). At Minit, he created hits for Ernie K-Doe (“Mother-In-Law”), Irma Thomas (“Ruler Of My Heart”), Benny Spellman (“Lipstick Traces”) and Aaron Neville (“Over You”). Uncle Sam drafted Toussaint in 1963. While in the Army, he wrote and cut the instrumental “Whipped Cream” with the Stokes. (Herb Alpert’s cover was adopted as the theme to TV’s The Dating Game.)

Upon returning to the Big Easy, the pianist hooked up with Marshall Sehorn to form a production company. They established the Sansu, Deesu and Tou-Sea labels, and in 1973 launched Sea-Saint Studio. Lee Dorsey was a special favorite, Toussaint penning a string of hits for the New Orleans singer that included “Ride Your Pony,” “Working In The Coal Mine” and “Yes We Can Can.”

“We spent a lot of time together, and he had such a unique voice that you could go to subjects and humor that you never would dare try with another type of vocalist or a debonair personality,” Toussaint says. “He was just such a high-spirited guy and had such a unique voice that always sounded like it had a smile in it. It was just a pleasure to hear his voice.”

Even Hurricane Katrina didn’t still Toussaint’s muse. Like nearly every other musician in the Big Easy, he was forced to flee when the levees overflowed. Landing in New York, he forged a creative collaboration with a seemingly unlikely partner, Elvis Costello.

“I had to migrate there until I got my living quarters in New Orleans back in order, and Elvis has a place there,” he says. “And right after Katrina, we were doing benefits where we were on the same stage at the same time-making music together. Elvis approached me about… ‘Why not get together?’ He had always wanted to do an Allen Toussaint songbook. If one is going to collaborate…good heavens! That’s like at the highest level.”

The hurricane’s devastation has had an unexpected positive side effect: Toussaint’s been touring more than usual. “Because of Katrina, I have been more mobile than ever in my life,” he says. “So I’m getting inspiration from so many different places. It’s really been gratifying.”

The collaborations with Costello are rarities, because Toussaint customarily crafts his music alone. “A song needs to be written now, and I write songs…so I write a song,” he reasons. Toussaint’s creative method varies, as he explains during a recent phone interview with American Songwriter.

What’s your preferred method of songwriting?

There are many ways that it works, and it’s always at work. I collect a lot of scraps as I go through my day, wherever I am. I find myself either pulling on the side of the road as I’m driving and taking down a note, because of something I saw on the corner…and maybe even how I felt about it, because it might inspire a plot. Something will seem that important, even though it looks small. And then when I get back home, or to wherever I’m held up for the time, I’ll develop it and see if it develops into a song.

That’s one method. And others…you just feel. It seems like a song begins to play through you. You just latch on to it and hold on to it, and it’ll take you someplace. That’s the inspirational way. Many times, just a hook-line will come-the hook, or even sometimes just the first line of it. And you can tell that this is the first line of a song. It sounds like, “Yes, I know where I’d like to start going with it.” Then I’ll see where it takes me.

How did you get started writing songs?

I started writing simple melodies at 12. I do know that. And it just was fun. It just seemed like a natural thing. It seemed like a natural progression after you mimic a lot of recordings, especially if you come up the way I did, mimicking records. At some point, you want to say something on your own. I think it’s automatic.

As songwriters, I like all of the greats. But I have never actually patterned behind any. I certainly like all the greats. And for our generation, I do think Bob Dylan, Smokey Robinson, Chuck Berry, Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello…they’re the best in our time.

Is there a special knack to writing hit instrumentals?

I don’t know what the secret is, whether it’s a hit or a miss. I just know it’s fun. Those songs are very much fun…and all about fun. When “Java” comes to mind, that’s the first ingredient that I think of: fun. And a little call-and-response.

How did you get your big break as A&R man at Minit Records in 1960?

Larry McKinley and Joe Banashak were starting a new company. McKinley was a famous deejay in New Orleans, and Banashak was the owner of a record distributor called A-1 Distributors. They were both knowledgeable about the record business, and how [you] go from A to B. So they thought they’d start a company, and I went in the first evening that they were holding auditions. I played behind many of the auditions that came in, because I knew all the songs of the day-being one who played in cover bands.

So at the end of the day, after the auditions had taken place and evening had come to a close, the two owners asked if I would come in and be their A&R man and be their music person until their permanent guy-who was going to be Harold Battiste-would come in from California and assume that position. I immediately said, “Yes, I’d love to!” and we got started like…in the next week. We found it was highly satisfying on both sides. Battiste never had to come from L.A. and join up, and I just stayed on.

What inspired you to write Ernie K-Doe’s 1961 pop/r&b chart-topper “Mother-In-Law”?

Years ago, mother-in-laws were the brunt of many, many jokes of the stand-up comedians. I actually liked the way the line goes melodically, and the word “mother-in-law” fit into that melodic line very well.

When I first began writing for Ernie K-Doe, he used to like to scream a lot, like the Five Blind Boys…the early ones. And he used to really like to scream. When I was about to do this recording on him, I didn’t think it should be the kind that he screamed and carried on. I thought it should have some sort of rein that could be held onto, that others could hold onto as well-rather than just take off and scream.

How about Irma Thomas’s “Ruler Of My Heart,” later amended by Otis Redding into “Pain In My Heart?”

If she wasn’t right in the room, it was when she was on the way over. Because Irma, like others I was writing for…they inspired their songs because of who they were. Irma did a marvelous job, like she did on everything. When Otis came out with “Pain In My Heart,” which was the same song, just with some different lines…in the beginning of that I didn’t pay much attention. I was just honored that he had considered it. But the company knew better, that, “No, you don’t just take it like that. It is still your song.” But I was just honored and gratified that Otis liked that song enough to do that.

Why did you write some early Minit hits under the alias Naomi Neville?

That happened because it was time to change publishing companies, and it was gonna be a period of contracts moving from one office desk to another. So I wanted to continue on doing what I was doing, and I had to use a pseudonym name so it wouldn’t be confusing-right in the middle of that litigation. So the best pseudonym name that I could think of was my mother’s…and the safest.

What inspired the composition of Lee Dorsey’s ‘66 smash, “Working In the Coal Mine?”

I have no idea. But I remember the day I wrote it, because he was on the way over, and I had it about 10 times faster than that-for some reason-when it was first coming. I don’t know why I would write “Working In the Coal Mine,” but I remember it came to me…that “working in the coal mine, going down, down…” That just came to me all at once. And it’s a very shallow song, actually. It doesn’t get too deeply involved. It’s just a little fun thing that happened one day.

Was it scary to cut your first vocal album in 1971, rather than writing songs for others?

By that time, not really, because I always made demos so others could learn the songs. So that had already introduced me to a microphone being my good friend, by getting the songs from me to someone else. I would have to make them a demo and sing it to them a few times. So by the time I recorded myself, I was familiar with the mic, at least. It’s just that [I’m] not familiar [with me being the] primary artist. “Who is he?” I try and tailor-make things for others, because I sum up who I think they are in some way, and I know how to write for them. But when it comes to me, I don’t know who I am to write for. That makes it a little difficult.

How do you feel about all the hit covers of your songs? I’m thinking of the Pointer Sisters’ version of “Yes We Can Can” and Glen Campbell’s “Southern Nights,” just to name two.

It’s wonderful hearing other artists do such. For one thing, it’s such a high compliment that they liked what you did enough to do it again, and to add their own flavor to it-their own voice. To hear another voice singing it is part of the pleasure. And to know that they had spent some time seeing it, liking it, learning it, spending time to get it done properly, and all that went into it…it’s highly gratifying.

Do you ever envision a time when you won’t be writing new songs?

No, no, no, not at all. I just love writing, and it seems to even embellish more as time goes on.


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