Allen Toussaint and New Orleans
Allen Toussaint © Gilles Petard/Redferns
My job as a singer–songwriter often involves being interviewed. One of the questions I’m asked most frequently, up there with “What comes first, the words or the music?” and “Do you write your songs from real life?”, is “What has been the highlight of your career so far?” There have been many but if I had to name one thing and one thing only, as the ultimate tell-the-grandkids story, it would be the night 20 years ago in New York I played harmonica with Allen Toussaint as he sang ‘Everything I Do Gohn Be Funky (From Now On)’, the song he wrote for Lee Dorsey.
I’d first heard Lee Dorsey in the mid ’70s when I walked into an Adelaide party and ‘Working in the Coalmine’ was playing on the stereo. This is exactly where I want to be right now, I remember thinking as I squeezed past the dancers to look at the record cover. Other songs followed: ‘Get Out My Life, Woman’, with its funky piano riff, deep backbeat and stabbing horns; ‘Ride Your Pony’, the band playing urgently on top of the beat and out of nowhere the vocal interjections and sound effects of “Shoot! Shoot! Shoot!” This music was bad. When ‘Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky’ came on, every-body got a little closer to each other and began to grind, arse to arse and hands in the air.
Once I started digging into Lee I discovered Allen Toussaint, who wrote and produced most of his hits. Drilling down further I discovered, like a miner following a thin vein of ore to a rich seam, the mother lode of New Orleans R’n’B from the ’50s and ’60s. Seemingly connected to it all was one man, the backroom master, the invisible but very audible hand, writing, arranging and playing piano on song after song, the Midas who turned everything he touched to gold.
Allen Toussaint was born in New Orleans in 1938 and from 1960 on helped launch the careers of Ernie K-Doe, Irma Thomas, Aaron Neville, Benny Spellman and Chris Kenner, as well as Dorsey. Later came The Meters, The Neville Brothers and Labelle. For years I’d been hearing songs he’d written, produced or played on, songs covered by the Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, Little Feat, The Band and many others.
La Nouvelle-Orléans was settled by the French in 1718, went to Spanish hands for 40 years then French again, before becoming part of the United States. It was a port town, a slave hub and always a melting pot. When you consider the amatory instincts of slave owners and sailors on shore leave it’s no surprise that the city’s family bloodlines are blurred and that New Orleans’ most famous dish is ‘gumbo’, a stew that combines the ingredients and cooking practices of many cultures.
Like gumbo, New Orleans music has always been a blend. Latin, Caribbean, African and Native American rhythms found ways to work together from early on. Class-conscious Creoles, of French and African ancestry, had pianos in their homes. Virtuosity was prized. Self-dubbed ‘professors’ of piano improvised for hours in the brothels of Storyville. Brass bands at funerals began mournfully and ended joyously as the parade beat kicked up its feet coming back from the cemetery. In no other city could jazz have been born.
Jazz spread from New Orleans irresistibly, mutated, diversified and went uptown. But the deep roots and sense of fun were never forgotten in the Crescent City. It was this playfulness and mongrelisation I fell in love with.
On one of my first trips to the US I bought a three-cassette compilation called New Orleans Rhythm & Blues covering the years 1950 to 1970. Every track a joy. In ‘I Ain’t Got No Home’, Clarence ‘Frogman’ Henry imitates a girl in falsetto and then a frog. Jessie Hill sings a party on his big hit ‘Ooh Poo Pah Doo’, which began as a call-and-response bit of fun at gigs.
There’s something about these records that sounds homemade, a bunch of people fooling around. Professor Longhair sings ‘Bald Head’ like a crazy uncle at a barbecue. The Dixie Cups chant a childhood rhyme, ‘Iko Iko’, against rudimentary percussion. In Shirley and Lee’s ‘Let the Good Times Roll’, Shirley sounds like the next-door neighbour who’s wandered in and asked, “Can I have a sing too?”
For me, Allen Toussaint was a synecdoche for all the music of that golden age, a shadowy imp bringing people together, moving around town, dropping his magic dust all over. So when my American record label rang me in 1992 just before a tour and said, “Can you get here early? We’d like you to do a songwriter’s forum with Michelle Shocked and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. It’ll be good publicity. Oh, and maybe you’ve heard of Allen Toussaint. He’s on it too”, I was on the next plane.
I arrived in New York on the day of the show straight from Melbourne via Los Angeles. The airline had lost my luggage so I turned up at The Bottom Line in the afternoon to meet the others for soundcheck still in my travelling clothes. Allen had an old-time gentlemanly courtliness to him as we all shook hands and sketched out the show. Our MC was a well-known New York DJ, Vin Skelsa. The format for the evening over two two-hour shows, back to back, was a round robin: each of us to sing a song and, when prompted by Vin, tell a story connected to it.
The long day’s journey into night passed for me in a weird dream-punctuated-by-terror state. My suitcase never turned up. I’d slept an hour or two out of the past 36. I was on stage with a man said to have written 600 songs, who epitomised the kind of songwriter I wanted to be, who had a direct link to Professor Longhair and the legendary old-time piano players.
When Allen’s turn came round he often did a medley, seguing from one classic tune to another. He talked about writing songs on the spot, off the cuff, at the age of 20 or 21 in the front room of his parents place with ‘the gang’ – Irma, Ernie, Jessie, Chris, Benny, Lee – doling them out to each in turn and everyone doing back-ups for each other.
Michelle had a mandolin, Jimmie and I guitars. We chipped in on each other’s songs from time to time. On ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’ Allen chimed in on piano, giving me the chills with his signature curly style. At the end of the first show, Vin asked Allen to bring it on home with a tune we could all join in on. He started up ‘Everything I Do Gohn Be Funky’ and I picked up my harp. In the middle of the song Allen threw to me for a solo. Can this be real? I thought. I still have the cassette tapes of that night, recorded live from the sound desk. I’m playing out of my skin.
In 2005 when Hurricane Katrina smashed New Orleans, Allen Toussaint lost his home. He relocated to New York for a while and began doing more and more shows outside his home state; he got involved with fundraisers for the stricken city with the likes of Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton and BB King.
A few years later filming began on the HBO series Treme. Set mainly in the New Orleans neighbourhood of the same name, the story begins three months after Katrina and composes a mosaic of the city by zeroing in on the lives of diverse characters. Music and food seem to be in every scene. You might say music is the lead character, endlessly talking about itself. This is a striking characteristic of New Orleans, city of ghosts. So proud of its past that it constantly invokes it. Many of its well-known songs directly reference the city and its culture – ‘Basin Street Blues’, ‘Walking to New Orleans’, ‘Mardi Gras Mambo’ to name a few.
The makers of Treme picked up on this reverence for local legends and cast many of them in the show. How pleased I was to see Allen Toussaint pop up several times and to note that two of his songs, including ‘Everything I Do Gohn Be Funky’, provided the titles to two episodes.
Allen himself says that Katrina, in spurring him on to play more live shows nationwide, has had its silver lining. “Obviously, I wish Katrina had never happened,” he says. “But these past few years have been an interesting time. My whole life … has been behind the scenes. Performing front and centre stage is new to me.”
At the age of 73 he seems to be doing quite nicely, especially in interviews, judging by his recent answer to that old staple: What ambitions do you still have unfulfilled?
“I would like to do something close to the classical field, without being grand classical. When I was a very young kid I had eight formal piano lessons altogether until mother finally gave up, because she knew the boogie-woogie had me.”