God Save the King of New Orleans

14 April 2010

Allen Toussaint, the inventor of New Orleans Funk, paid a rare visit to the Variety Playhouse in Little Five Points last night. He brought with him a baby grand piano and a trick bag loaded with 55 years of musical achievement.

While not a household name, and he should be, Toussaint is probably best known as the producer of hits like “Right Place, Wrong Time” and “Lady Marmalade.” In 2006 with Elvis Costello, he recorded the first post-Hurricane Katrina themed album; he still calls them albums, “The River in Reverse.” Last year his song “Sweet Touch of Love” was used in a popular commercial.

Before the show I had the opportunity to meet him and kvell over what a huge fan I am. I mentioned how I knew most of his catalog (“A Certain Girl,” “Mother-In-Law,” “Lipstick Traces,” “Fortune Teller,” and “Working in a Coal Mine.”) He seemed impressed. I told him how 15 years ago I saw Ernie K-Doe (singer of “Mother-in-Law”) at New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Fest when it was 95 degrees and he was wearing a white three-piece suit with a purple shirt and tie yet never broke a sweat. Toussaint replied, “That’s K-Doe.”

Toussaint said at the beginning of his 100-minute set, “I used to live and work in New Orleans but a booking agent named Katrina put me on the road.”

True enough, Toussaint spent most of his career as a producer, songwriter, arranger, session pianist and sometimes solo artist in New Orleans. He said during the show that he is more used to seeing the red light of a studio than the spotlight on a stage. He has played a handful of sets at Jazz Fest over the years but until touring with Elvis; he never took to the road.

Yet there he was, resplendent in a light grey stripped suit with wide lapels, a white shirt with a wide, red patterned tie and black dress sandals. He played in front of a select crowd that either knew some of his songs or knew of him.

The show began slowly with Toussaint playing a song he wrote for Al Hirt, “Java.” The song only hit #4, sold over a million copies and won a Grammy. He segued into “Sneaking Sally through the Alley” a song covered by Robert Palmer, Little Feat and Phish.

He mentioned that during the show he would sing songs he had written for others, songs he wrote for himself, songs he wished he had written and songs he wished he never wrote. He liked having his songs covered because as a writer, he gets paid no matter who sings his songs. Artists as varied as: Lowell George, Devo, Lee Dorsey, The Judds, Warren Zevon, Robert Palmer, The Pointer Sisters, Boz Scaggs and Bonnie Raitt have done just that.

Hearing him do his own music is a treat since he writes songs for others. This art is lost, though should be making a comeback with all the American Idol winners being singers and not writers. They are going to need material and songwriters may be a booming field soon.

Toussaint’s producing partner from “The River in Reverse” Joe Henry suggested that he play Jazz standards, thus his new album, “The Bright Mississippi” was conceived. He played a few of those songs just to show how versatile he is.

The audience perked up when he played his greatest hits medley. Hits meaning songs others had hits with while Toussaint was happy to write them and get paid. Before he sang them he said that he met a gentleman before the show who seemed to know his songs by heart. How cool is that? He gave me props during the show. I am AWESOME!

He related the great story of how Benny Spellman thought the only reason that “Mother-in-Law” shot to #1 was his deep voice that sang the background. He begged Toussaint to write him a song like that. So he wrote, “Lipstick Traces.” It only hit #28 but deejays across the country started playing the b-side, “Fortune Teller.” That was later covered by The Rolling Stones, The Hollies, The Who and most recently Robert Plant and Alison Krauss.

Proving Toussaint is more than just a great writer, he played a medley of about 25 snippets from pieces including: “Chopstick,” Mozart, Sondheim, “Rhapsody in Blue,” “Edelweiss,” “Heart and Soul” (which he played badly to demonstrate that every piano student learns this song first.), Vivaldi and Rogers & Hammerstein. Finally, he paid homage to his mentor, Professor Longhair by playing a little of “Big Chief” and “Tipitina’s” before winding up the medley with the Steve Goodman song “City of New Orleans.”

He talked about how “Get out My Life Woman was his most recorded song. A check of Wikipedia shows that artists like: Iron Butterfly, Jerry Garcia, Paul Butterfield, Little Feat, The Doors, and Nils Lofgren have covered it.

A song that saw a little resurgence over the past two years thanks to the Obama campaign (not being political just stating a fact.) was “Yes We Can Can.” More than any, this songs shows how he funky-fied his writing over the years.

The evening capped off with his best known song, one that was butchered by Glen Campbell, “Southern Nights.” Regardless, in 1977 it hit #1 and was the most preformed song of the year. Toussaint explained in great detail how as a boy his family would drive out to the country to see his Creole relatives in the backwoods of Louisiana. He would listen to the stories his elderly relatives told and just stare at the clear, night-time sky.

My niece Alissa plays piano; she has since she was six-years-old. Last year I showed her a Professor Longhair video, she opined that he was playing it wrong. Hey, she was only 11-years-old at the time. Later, I played her some Allen Toussaint and she liked it. The girl has taste, I give her that. My hope is that she, and every other piano student, learns from Toussaint rather than what is she is being taught in her staid music classes.

At 72-years-old, Hurricane Katrina made Allen Toussaint do something he thought he would never have to do. He left his comfort zone of New Orleans and Sea-Saint Studios, the recording studio he built. The place where the Who’s Who of Rock, Jazz and Rhythm & Blues would travel just to have him play on a song or chart a horn arrangement or produce a track. He was forced to hit the road where he found out he has fans all over the world who have heard his music. What we found is that this amazing artist is as vital today as he was spinning the dials and caressing the 88’s back in 1962.

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