Both his personality and the signature musical style of Allen Toussaint — the two are inseparable — reflect such refinement, grace and subtle whimsy that the soggy tale of his evacuation from his native New Orleans seems as incongruous as the devastation of that city remains unthinkable. Even after Hurricane Katrina had hit, the legendary producer-songwriter-arranger-pianist, the man responsible for more classic Crescent City hits than just about anyone, had no intention of leaving.
"I feel like an uprooted plant, even when I'm gone for two days," says the soft-spoken, 68-year-old Toussaint. There's a lilt of melody in his voice, the cadence of poetry in his phrasing. "When wasn't producing, I'd walk around in the city I love to walk around in, drive in, be in. I could never see a reason to move. I would settle for a lot less of whatever else just to be in New Orleans."
As a New Orleans native, he was accustomed to hurricanes, and he'd taken precautions. He'd boarded his immaculate house, with each board numbered to correspond to the window where it fits. On the advice of concerned friends, he'd checked into a room on the fourth floor of the Crowne Plaza Hotel, downtown on Canal Street, higher ground than Toussaint's quiet neighborhood. He lives (or lived, and one day will live again) just a piano solo from the Fair Grounds Race Course, the site of the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. He figured he'd be at the hotel for a couple of days, let things pass and head home.
Then the levee broke. His house flooded with five or six feet of water, submerging his Steinway piano. There would be no going home, at least not soon.
"It got a little complicated," he remembers. "Communications went out. Transportation was zero. I waded about calf-deep in the water outside the hotel, because the [French] Quarter wasn't as wet. And I walked over to the Monteleone Hotel, where you could purchase a Greyhound bus ticket to Houston. I figured I'd go there and catch a flight to Vegas or somewhere. Somehow, my business partner in New York, Josh Feigenbaum, got in touch with me and said, ‘You'd better come up here. It might be awhile down there.'
"There was this long line of people out in the street waiting for the bus, and we waited for four hours. A gentleman I knew who had a chartered school bus was around the corner, and he said, ‘The buses you all are waiting for, they're not coming. They've been taken over by the authorities to take people to the Superdome.' So I got on this chartered school bus that was heading to Baton Rouge, spent the night in the Baton Rouge airport, and the next morning caught a flight to New York. And that's where I've been living, though I've been back to New Orleans many, many times, for different events and benefits, and trying to get my house back into livable order."
When not on the road, Elvis Costello spends most of his time in New York, with his wife Diana Krall. While Toussaint was uprooting himself from the city he'd never imagined he'd leave, Costello found himself across the country, playing the annual Bumbershoot Festival in Seattle. The tragedy of New Orleans still vividly fresh in his (and everyone else's) mind, he returned a song to his set that had long been one of his favorites, a soulful, spiritual anthem Toussaint had composed in the mid-'70s titled "Freedom For The Stallion":
They've got men building fences to keep other men out
Ignore him if he whispers and kill him if he shouts
Oh, Lord, you've got to help us find the way
The plainer it became that the plight of New Orleans had as much to do with issues of class, race, and government ineptitude and neglect as it did with natural forces, the more it sounded as if Toussaint's song could have been written in response to the cataclysm, not 30 years before it. When Costello returned to New York, he was delighted to learn that not only was Toussaint alive (early reports had both him and Fats Domino among the missing), but that they were now living in the same city.
The two had a shared history, albeit sporadic, and a deeply mutual admiration. When Costello contributed a rendition of "Walking On Thin Ice" to a 1983 Yoko Ono tribute album, he'd asked Toussaint to produce, and he'd also enlisted the pianist for the riveting accompaniment on "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror", recorded in New Orleans, for 1989′s Spike.
"To my shame, I hadn't kept up our relationship," says Costello, though he'd had an enjoyable reunion with Toussaint at the 2005 Jazzfest, when they were both billed on the same stage. "Next thing I know, he's in New York, under extraordinary circumstances. Wynton Marsalis called, mainly for my wife, about a benefit that was being organized for Lincoln Center, and he suggested that I sing ‘Freedom For The Stallion' with Allen. And then things really accelerated, because we were both independently approached to take part in a large-scale benefit at Madison Square Garden and a much smaller event at Town Hall. So suddenly we were seeing each other every day.
"One day Allen was playing Joe's Pub, very intimate, and it was something he'd never done before, just sit down and play solo the way he might for his own amusement. I went to the show, and it was a knockout, and he had me come out from the audience. While watching, I'd been thinking there couldn't be anything better than this concert, except to put it on a bigger platform where more people could really appreciate what's in his songbook. Maybe that's the record that should be made, though at that point I didn't know whether I should produce it or sing on it."
The initial plan to celebrate highlights from the extensive Toussaint songbook became something even more ambitious. The project quickly evolved into an artistic collaboration that would not only shine the spotlight on the underappreciated Toussaint (though he's rarely underappreciated by fellow musicians and fans of New Orleans music), but would also explore new and common ground for Toussaint and Costello.
In addition to seven vintage numbers from Toussaint's catalogue — including "Freedom For The Stallion" as the album's centerpiece — The River In Reverse (released June 6 on Verve Forecast) includes an impassioned title cut by Costello, as well as new tunes that find Toussaint collaborating on lyrics to a Costello melody and Costello penning words to Toussaint's tunes.
The rhythm section is Costello's Imposters, fronted by Toussaint's piano, with regular Costello pianist Steve Nieve switching to Hammond B3 organ for a rich keyboard interplay. The brass section and guitarist Anthony Brown are from Toussaint's New Orleans stable, with Costello minimizing his own guitar to concentrate on vocals. Though Toussaint takes a lead vocal only on "Who's Gonna Help Brother Get Further?", a song he'd cut with Lee Dorsey that sounds all the more pertinent today, his voice is all over the project.
"He has a voice as a singer, he has a voice as a horn arranger, and he has a voice, obviously, as a songwriter," says Costello. "And we wanted to keep all those things. There's a character linking a few of the songs, a gospel feeling to some of the ballads and a unique rhythm in songs like ‘Tears, Tears, And More Tears' and ‘Brother'. And we tried to echo that in some of the new compositions; you can hear how some of the ornaments in ‘Broken Promise Land' and ‘Six-Fingered Man' come from Allen's piano vocabulary."
Though music may be the universal language, nobody speaks it quite like Toussaint. He draws from the impressive lineage of New Orleans pianists — in particular from the late Professor Longhair, his idol and mentor — to encompass a range that extends from classical flourishes to Asian delicacy to Caribbean syncopation to barrelhouse blues. Yet some of his lyrics have the sing-song innocence of nursery rhymes (you can imagine kids jumping rope to "Yes We Can" or "Working In The Coal Mine"), imbued with playful humor and down-home wisdom.
The release of The River In Reverse and the supporting tour will cap Toussaint's busiest year ever as a recording artist. Whether or not the "Big Easy" will ever be able to reclaim that nickname, life back home had perhaps gotten a little too easy for Toussaint, at least as far as artistic output was concerned. He'd long been more comfortable working behind the scenes, writing and crafting hits since the early '60s with Irma Thomas ("It's Raining", "Ruler Of My Heart"), Ernie K-Doe ("Mother-In-Law", "A Certain Girl"), and Benny Spellman ("Fortune Teller", "Lipstick Traces") and later with the great Lee Dorsey ("Working In The Coal Mine", "Get Out Of My Life, Woman", "Yes We Can").
Just as Duke Ellington often said that he composed with the members of his orchestra in mind, Toussaint has always tailored his material specifically to the artists he was producing. "Usually, they were sitting right there in the room," he explains. "In fact, the way we used to live, Irma and Betty [Harris] and Aaron [Neville] and Willie Harper would all be there at the same time. And I'd write a song for Irma, and while she's practicing, the others would be singing backup for her. And on some of the early records, Aaron or Irma might be singing backup for somebody else. I always wrote for one particular person, with that voice in mind, and if I didn't use it on them, it didn't get recorded."
Through the '70s, his artistic reach extended well beyond his native city, though most who wanted to work with Toussaint had to come to him. He helped give Dr. John his greatest commercial success with the Right Place, Wrong Time album, produced Labelle's "Lady Marmalade", saw Glen Campbell top the charts with "Southern Nights" (though the jaunty hit lacks the wistful atmosphere of Toussaint's own version), Three Dog Night have a minor hit with "Brickyard Blues", and the Pointer Sisters record a top-20 cover of "Yes We Can". He also wrote horn charts for The Band's Rock Of Ages and for the two Pauls, Simon and McCartney. Both Boz Scaggs and Bonnie Raitt turned his "What Do You Want The Girl To Do" into something of a signature tune. (A version featuring Costello and Toussaint on dual vocals didn't make the cut for The River In Reverse, but will undoubtedly surface.)
Whereas so many New Orleans artists never received compensation commensurate with their sales, Toussaint lived like comparative royalty, benefiting from his roles as songwriter, producer, and arranger. Even before the string of smashes he produced, his instrumental "Java" did well for him through a cover by Al Hirt, and his "Whipped Cream" became the title track (not to mention cover inspiration) for a chart-topping Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass album. According to Billy Vera's liner notes for Rhino's limited-edition Allen Toussaint: The Complete Warner Recordings, when "Whipped Cream" was adopted as the theme for TV's The Dating Game, it pushed Toussaint's royalties for that composition alone into the six-figure range — quarterly!
Though some of us think that Toussaint sings Toussaint best of all — that his vocal warmth and laid-back phrasing have an organic charm which complements the uniqueness of his horn arrangements, rhythmic accents and piano style — he has never achieved the commercial success with his own recordings that he did masterminding those for others. Yet the three albums he cut for Warner Bros. in the early '70s showed a definite progression from the lighter (sometimes almost novelty) lyrical content of some of his most popular '60s songs.
"I noticed the change, but it wasn't that I was deliberately trying to change," he says of highlights from those Warner albums such as "Victims Of The Darkness", "Freedom For The Stallion" and "On Your Way Down" (the last covered by Little Feat and revived as the album-opener for The River In Reverse). "I didn't consider myself political at all, but in retrospect those songs do have a social conscience. I think maybe I grew in certain directions. I hope it was considered growth.
"One thing I do know is that writing for myself was quite different from writing for others. I didn't see myself as an artist and wasn't able to use my own voice as an inspiration. But when I was working with Ernie K-Doe, Aaron Neville or Patti LaBelle, those voices meant so much to what I was going to write."
Even with a series of recordings under his own name, there was little impetus for Toussaint to seek the spotlight. He was content for decades to limit his live performances to a single set per year at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, initially as headliner on the evening riverboat cruise concerts, subsequently (after those cruises were discontinued) highlighting the Fair Grounds bill. He'd have a crack band, he'd play all the hits, the crowd would go nuts, and then he'd disappear for another year.
Most of the other artists who brought so many of us to Jazzfest year after year — pianists such as Professor Longhair and James Booker, singers Johnny Adams, Lee Dorsey, Ernie K-Doe and Irma Thomas, zydeco kingpin Clifton Chenier, the incomparable Neville Brothers — could be heard around the city (and some of them around the country) during other times of the year. But even amid such luminaries (all sadly gone now except for Thomas and the Nevilles), Toussaint's appearance was the once-a-year highlight.
I had the rare opportunity to spend a day with Toussaint during the Jazzfest of 1989, accompanying him throughout a day at the Fair Grounds, discovering in the process how the man was so special and why he enjoyed such a special relationship with his city.
As we made the short drive from his home to the Fest in his Mercedes convertible (with SONGS as the custom license plate), he circumnavigated the traffic crunch by heading the wrong way down the one-way street that led to the artists' gate. The cop standing guard was about to berate him, until he recognized the dapper man in the cream-colored suit. When Toussaint apologized with a wave, explaining how blocked the streets had been, the policeman replied, "That's OK, Mr. Toussaint, we know you know what you're doing. We're just worried that 30 or 40 more cars might follow you."
As is typical for New Orleans in late April, the weather was muggy, the grounds were dusty, and the festgoers were sweating through their T-shirts if they hadn't already discarded them. I never saw the immaculately groomed Toussaint betray a drop of perspiration or a speck of dust, though he was dressed for the sweltering afternoon as if performing at a sophisticated nightclub. Fans of all ages hailed him as we walked through the grounds, stopping him every step or so to tell him how much they loved him, how much his music meant to them. To each one he'd reply with thanks and soft-spoken graciousness.
It would be easy to see why someone would never want to leave that. But once he had to leave, the artist who previously was content to cruise on autopilot shifted into high gear after his evacuation to New York.
"Now that I've been displaced a little — to a great place, however — this is the perfect time to be as busy as possible," he explains. "I needed that. And I'm glad to say that most New Orleans musicians are at their busiest points ever. Those who had been busy are busier than before, and some who hadn't been all that busy have become very busy, as good ambassadors for the music."
Toussaint actually had been coaxed back into action a few months before the hurricane by Joe Henry, an inspired songwriter and recording artist in his own right, who seems to have shifted his emphasis to production in general and making contemporary-sounding soul albums with classic artists in particular. Following his Grammy-winning work with Solomon Burke, his grand vision at the time was a project titled I Believe To My Soul, including Ann Peebles, Billy Preston, Mavis Staples and Irma Thomas, along with Toussaint as not only a featured artist but pianist throughout the sessions.
Henry admits he was initially intimidated to be producing a producer of such stature, though little did he know that it would turn out to be the first of three recording projects with Toussaint in less than a year, culminating in Henry's production of The River In Reverse.
"Of course I was terrified," he says of his initial work with Toussaint. "There was Allen Toussaint in the piano chair for the whole week, no matter who the artist was, and I couldn't believe he had agreed to do it. I'm glad I didn't know when we began that I'm the only one to ever produce him except for Jerry Wexler, which he mentioned to my brother toward the end of the week.
"But maybe because he is the producer that he is, he understands what that job is, and it seems easier for him to allow someone else to do it. Because he expects that kind of authority and leeway when he's in that chair, so it's easy for him to say whoever's in that chair deserves the same respect. He very quickly not only gave me the authority I needed, but made sure I knew how important it was to take it. I say this without qualification, he is the most open-hearted, forward-thinking person I've ever been around, let alone musician or producer. So all the respect I had for him when we began, I had ten times that by the end of that week. Just being around someone who is so gifted and so generous was life-changing."
By the time I Believe To My Soul was released to rave reviews that fall, the hurricane had already hit, and proceeds from the album were directed toward Katrina relief. Among the subsequent benefit releases the disaster inspired, the best was Our New Orleans 2005 on Nonesuch, which quickly reunited Henry with Toussaint and Irma Thomas. Opening the album is Toussaint's rendition of "Yes We Can", the first time he'd recorded the number on his own, with its lyric of resilience sounding all the more timely in light of current events. The album's highlight was his solo instrumental recasting of Professor Longhair's uptempo anthem "Tipitina" into the mournful, minor-key "Tipitina And Me".
"Professor Longhair was so vital to me," says Toussaint. "I call him my Bach of Rock and consider him as important as the classical composers are in their field. And he had so many different periods, any one of which you could build a life on, taking it into all sorts of different things. After ‘Mardi Gras In New Orleans', which is somewhere between rock and rumba, he came up with ‘Big Chief', and I can't imagine where else that kind of piano could come from. It's unrelated to anything else I've ever heard. And in the middle of it all, ‘Tipitina' is, as far as I'm concerned, the cornerstone of Professor Longhair."
Perfect in itself, Toussaint's elegant adaptation of his hero's signature song provided the breakthrough for the artistic collaboration with Costello that carried The River In Reverse beyond the initial songbook concept. "When we started writing some songs, to be honest, we were almost too polite about who would go first," says Costello. "And then I came up with the notion of writing lyrics to this beautiful version of ‘Tipitina' that Allen had done. I said that this really paints a picture in my head, so I went home that night and wrote ‘Ascension Day,' and that seemed to really break open the collaboration."
As for the selection of older Toussaint material, Costello had a list of songs he'd often performed and others that he'd considered singing, mainly lesser-known material from the Lee Dorsey sessions. Like most music fans, Costello had become very familiar with Allen Toussaint's music before ever knowing the name Allen Toussaint.
"I kind of discovered Allen's songs in stages," he says. "The beat groups had already picked up his songs, like the Rolling Stones doing ‘Fortune Teller', but I actually heard ‘Fortune Teller' first by the Searchers. I could tell that the Lee Dorsey hits, when they came on the radio, had a very different accent than what I knew as soul or R&B, the records that I now know came out of Detroit or Memphis. His records were whimsical at times, and there was a quirkiness to the rhythm and the instrumentation, with the piano very prominent, which I now know was all Allen's doing.
"Then in the early '70s my friend Nick Lowe was in a band [Brinsley Schwarz] that, like a lot of bands in London at the time, made a real point of digging out unusual songs. These bands were called pub-rock, and I never really liked that term much, because the pub was where old men went and smoked cigarettes. But the music was very fresh, and the songs were very short. We're talking about the '72-'73 period when everyone else was in silver spandex with terrible hair like poodles and playing really long guitar solos in big suites about witches and goblins. So, this pub-rock music was very joyful and soulful, and Nick's band used to do ‘Wonder Woman', so I've known that song for 35 years or something. And then I sought out the Lee Dorsey version and found that they'd copied it note for note!"
The new album's "International Echo" celebrates the process through which a song so obscure that it left no imprint back home made a huge impact on Costello and other British music fans, who often prized the music for its very obscurity. "Send out a message and it's sure to rebound," sings Costello to an uptempo Toussaint melody. "What's that I hear? What is that sound? Seems to be coming from under the ground, international echo."
Despite the affinity the artists have for each other — personally and musically — it might be hard to find two men more different in temperament than the gracious, low-key, invariably polite Toussaint and the sharp-tongued, supercharged, often outspoken Costello. Maybe it's partly the difference between the leisurely, even lazy pace of New Orleans, at least in tradition, and the commotion of London and New York.
"Elvis is so prolific, and so aware and awake. He operates at one speed: top speed," marvels Toussaint. "I think New Orleans operates at a slower pace. When other people were taking music very seriously, and fine-tuning it and glazing it up and putting click tracks on it, we were still having fun with it. We held onto the upright bass long after everyone else had gone to the electric, and the acoustic piano kept its place, even after the guitars everywhere else got to be screamers."
"What Allen and Elvis share, first and foremost, is an incredible musical generosity," says Henry. "They're both so completely open to serving the music and are fairly ego-less in figuring out how to make a song feel like a living thing. A lot of it in this case had to do with Elvis's incredible love and respect for Allen. He really wanted to put a light on Allen; that was his goal from the beginning.
"So it was very collaborative from the get-go. Allen is such a respectful, quiet gentleman. But he has a duty to the music. And he always finds a way, even if it pains him, to point out what needs to be pointed out, because the music insists on it. I mean, Elvis has a point of view and had a lot to say, and he was the singer — and Allen would attempt to defer, because it's his nature to serve the singer — but he would address whatever he felt needed to be, even if it had to do with the vocal. And rarely was it, ‘Elvis, I think you need to sing that one more time.' More often, Elvis thought that he needed to fix something and Allen and I both felt, no, the emotional content was there. We always wanted to err on the side of what's emotionally correct rather than technically correct."
Toussaint returns the compliment from Henry in similar fashion: "Joe's quite the gentleman among producers. It's quite evident that he has something in mind, but he sets such a tone that everyone feels not only free but obliged to be creative. He has a keen ear for the magic, and seeing when it's heading that way and encouraging more of that. And whenever it isn't heading that way, he has a very polite way of discarding it."
Some sort of magic pervades The River In Reverse. The sessions that convened in Los Angeles and concluded in New Orleans resulted in a project that somehow pays proper homage to Toussaint's distinctive legacy without diminishing Costello's creative and interpretive imprint. An older obscurity such as "Tears, Tears, And More Tears" sounds whipcrack fresh, while a new collaboration such as "The Sharpest Thorn", though Costello wrote the melody, steeps itself in the soul-spiritual tradition of some of Toussaint's most compelling work. Though "Broken Promise Land" comes closest to a cut that Costello might have recorded on his own, there's generally a seamlessness between old and new, and between Toussaint's style and Costello's.
"Since Joe Henry had had this amazing experience of making that I Believe To My Soul album, I know Allen was in terrific form," says Costello. "And then the songs just kind of chose themselves. We didn't want to be walking in the shadows of some very famous versions such as ‘Working In The Coal Mine' and ‘Southern Nights', so that took several of the well-known songs off the list. There's a kind of song that really speaks to me. I'd sung ‘All These Things' for many years, and others that weren't so well-known had been in my mind to sing.
"Because we'd begun with the notion of an Allen Toussaint songbook, I wanted to introduce his compositional voice pretty strongly at the front of the record before I got involved as a writer," he continues. "So the first three songs were always going to be from his catalogue, and ‘On The Way Down' was always going to open it. Then the first co-written song is ‘The Sharpest Thorn', and from there through ‘Ascension Day' there's sort of a central section where every song is related — maybe not specifically to Katrina, but to the things Katrina points to."
The question of how Katrina and its aftershocks pervade the musical mood and choice of material is a tricky one. If Costello and Toussaint had managed to reconnect independently of the hurricane, they might well have made a record together, but it wouldn't have been this one. They may have included ‘Freedom For The Stallion', but it wouldn't have had the associations for both artists and listeners that reverberate through the wake of Katrina. They certainly wouldn't have had the Costello-penned title track, the song that most specifically and fiercely comments on the state of New Orleans post-Katrina, the one that asks, "How long does a promise last? How long can a lie be told?"
"Some of the songs were triggered by the events but aren't specifically limited to those events," says Costello. "We really have to think beyond just Katrina, because it was just so indicative of how we're treating each other. If this sounds idealistic, I make no apology for that, but it's time to stop being ironic and cynical. It's time to say what you mean, that it is better if we take care of one another. That there's enough to go around, if we handle it right. But we're seeing people live in a way that is unacceptable."
For his part, Toussaint seems almost offended by the idea of Katrina providing impetus, inspiration, or anything that could remotely be considered positive. "I don't want Katrina to have more credit than Katrina deserves," he says. "We expect this music to last longer than the most minute effects of Katrina. We weren't making a speech; we were making the music we love to make."
Yet the spirit of the music demanded that Toussaint and Costello give their collaboration its largest public preview at this year's Jazzfest, an event widely seen as a harbinger of the city's renewal. The festival drew the largest crowd to gather in New Orleans since Katrina and featured one of its highest-profile lineups of headliners ever, from Bruce Springsteen's introduction of his Seeger Sessions Band, to Paul Simon's appearance in anticipation of his collaboration with Brian Eno, to the triumphant return of Allen Toussaint to the city he'd never intended to leave. Though there had been grumbles in recent years that the fest was booking too many outsiders at the expense of showcasing local artistry, this year's lineup had the highest concentration of New Orleans musicians in decades — so many of them displaced, returning to their hometown where they no longer had a home.
"This was the most special Jazzfest ever, and it was a huge success in so many, many ways," says Toussaint. "There was so much emotion, even in the audience. There were tears where I hadn't seen tears before. It seemed like everyone was glad to be there for more than one reason."
"I have never been thanked so many times for doing something when I wouldn't have been anywhere else," says Costello.
Following the album's launch, Costello and Toussaint were booked to tour the U.S. from June 10 through July 12, with subsequent plans to take their collaboration all over the world — London, Berlin, Tokyo — places where the Toussaint name is revered but whose audiences have never had the opportunity to see him onstage.
In the meantime, he's been shopping for another house in New Orleans, one where he can live while the house he calls home continues its massive overhaul. Many New Orleans musicians will never return, at least not to live. Allen Toussaint couldn't imagine giving up on his city.
"We had a baptism; we didn't have a wipeout," he says. "There's a kid picking up a trumpet for the first time today in New Orleans, and those kids will be the Marsalises of tomorrow. New Orleans is the birthplace, and it keeps giving birth."