When R&B icon Allen Toussaint performed at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival at the end of April, it marked an emotional return to the city the 68-year-old musician has called home his entire life. In many ways, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame pianist, songwriter and producer is the embodiment of New Orleans music, with a 50-year résumé that includes enough hands-on hits to warrant a 24-hour radio marathon.
But the man who once said he would never leave New Orleans — "This is the garden and I'm a plant, I wouldn't uproot" — was driven out in August by Hurricane Katrina. Toussaint (pronounced Too-sant) tried to ride out the storm in a hotel on Bourbon Street, but as his city flooded, he was evacuated to Baton Rouge and, a day later, to New York City. Toussaint lost his studio and the main floor of his home as six feet of floodwater destroyed a lifetime of memorabilia, manuscripts and instruments, including a prized Steinway grand.
"My home is fixable, so I'm having it redone, but I lost all the things in it," Toussaint said recently from his temporary home in New York, quickly adding: "I must get past it. I figure I've been blessed to be doing something that I love all of my life, and even though I accumulated those things and have now lost them, I'm still healthy and able to go forward, doing the things that I've been doing. So I'm fine with that."
Katrina, he says, "will uproot me, but only for a little while. Anywhere I am if I'm not in New Orleans, I'm just a visitor."
On Thursday, Toussaint will visit Wolf Trap with Elvis Costello, supporting their recently released collaboration, The River in Reverse. The album features seven Toussaint standards, five new songs written with Costello and Costello's original title track.
The project grew out of a series of benefit concerts in New York in the weeks after Katrina hit. Within days of the disaster, Costello had started performing Toussaint's "Freedom for the Stallion" in tribute to the hurricane's victims. Invited to a Madison Square Garden benefit where Toussaint and his band backed a succession of guests on Toussaint classics, Costello sang "On the Way Down." A few days later, the two musicians shared a bill at another benefit, with Costello debuting The River in Reverse just hours after he had written it.
After Costello attended one of those rare Toussaint solo shows — the low-key legend hasn't toured since the late '50s, and his public profile is as invisible as it audible — he starting thinking about "an Allen Toussaint songbook record," which led to a consideration of new, collaborative tracks. Costello chose the vintage songs, while Toussaint did the arrangements and played piano, with Costello mainstay Steve Nieve on organ and Costello's Imposters rhythm section joining Toussaint's Crescent City Horns. Much of the album was recorded at Piety Street Recording, one of the only Crescent City studios to have escaped Katrina's floodwaters.
And, Costello says, "we wouldn't have done any of this without planning to take it out on the road."
For Toussaint, "this is what I call the lemonade of the lemon Katrina that has displaced us in such a fashion that we wind up doing different things that we wouldn't do if it wasn't for that. Though my goal is to return home to New Orleans and continue my life there, the opportunity to play with Elvis, my horn section and his rhythm section touring and playing before the people, is a wonderful gift."
The first opportunity to do that since finishing the album came at Jazzfest — the musician's home is in the shadow of the festival fairgrounds — and Toussaint admits: "I was looking forward to getting there, and I certainly wanted it to work. And [Jazzfest] worked like never before, a sea of people each weekend, and there was emotion everywhere. The musicians were elated because they were all spread out [post-Katrina] and came together for this. The people in the audience, I saw signs of emotions from them, as well. The next weekend, I sat in with Paul Simon on three songs." (Simon did some recording at Toussaint's fabled Sea-Saint Studios, as have Paul McCartney, the Band, Bonnie Raitt and others.)
Probably no city's contribution to American popular music has been more distinctive than New Orleans', and Toussaint, as prolific songwriter, arranger and producer, has been a key shaper of its legacy. As a youngster, his main inspiration was the legendary pianist Henry Roeland Byrd, better known as Professor Longhair.
"I tried to learn every piece Professor Longhair ever came out with," Toussaint recalls warmly, while also praising Huey "Piano" Smith, Pinetop Perkins, Fats Domino and Ray Charles. "We are reflections of the things we appreciate, and especially the things we try to copy, and we arrive somewhere out of that without even trying."
By the time he was 12, Toussaint was playing local clubs and doing arrangements for an R&B band. At 17, he was hired by Dave Bartholomew to stand in for Fats Domino at a recording session while Domino was on the road. Bartholomew, the first great New Orleans musician/composer/arranger/producer, was an inspiration and a mentor, Toussaint says, adding: "That was a milestone. I'd been a studio sideman before. That said that I was someone to reckon with."
In 1958, at age 20, Toussaint recorded his debut album, The Wild Sounds of New Orleans, under the name "Tousan" (he felt people wouldn't know how to pronounce Toussaint). Two of its instrumentals would resurface as hits for others: Al Hirt's "Java" and Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass' "Whipped Cream" (also the theme for the television show The Dating Game).
But Toussaint's recording career has been sporadic — just seven solo albums over 47 years — and he has never had a Top 40 hit on either the pop or R&B charts. It didn't help that he has a modest singing voice and a quiet, self-effacing personality. Even in his home town, Toussaint is not regarded as a celebrity.
Ironically, when Toussaint was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998, it was in the non-performer category. He admits he was never much of a performer, much less a touring musician. "The last time I was on the road for an extended period was with Shirley and Lee in '57. As soon as I got busy in the studio, that's been my life in the city."
Quite the life, it turned out: In the early 1960s, Minit Records put the 22-year-old Toussaint in charge of writing, arranging and producing for a stable of artists. The results included Lee Dorsey's "Working in a Coal Mine," Irma Thomas's "It's Raining," Chris Kenner's "Land of 1000 Dances" and Ernie K-Doe's "Mother in Law," the first No. 1 song recorded in New Orleans. The Meters were Toussaint's house band and hit makers 15 years before they became the Neville Brothers. Toussaint's production style favored simple, joyfully rhythmic dance tracks built on tight horns, exact snare drums, clicking guitars and his own funky piano — the prototype for modern New Orleans funk. As Dorsey's final hit put it, "Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky."
It was those tunes that first caught Costello's attention in the early '60s "when I picked up a guitar and started to become curious about who was behind the sound rather than just taking it at face value on the records, and his name [Toussaint] popped up time and time again."
The Dorsey connection on The River in Reverse is particularly strong. Of the seven Toussaint chestnuts, five are Dorsey tracks, three from Dorsey's 1970 album classic "Yes We Can." They include the timely "On Your Way Down," "Tears, Tears and More Tears" and "Who's Gonna Help Brother Get Further?" (That album also produced a title-track cover hit by the Pointer Sisters and "Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley," the title track of Robert Palmer's 1974 debut.)
Toussaint says he's gratified that Costello "knows so much about my history and so much else — he's just a wealth of information. For him to think so dearly of those songs, and to do them today and breathe such new life into them, is a wonderful feeling."
Costello and Toussaint first worked together in 1983 on a cover of Yoko Ono's "Walking on Thin Ice" and again in 1989, when Costello recorded his Spike album at Sea-Saint, with Toussaint's piano featured on "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror." But the new album is their first significant collaboration, highlighted by "Ascension Day," with poignant lyrics Costello crafted to "Tipitina and Me," Toussaint's minor-key adaptation of Professor Longhair's classic instrumental "Tipitina."
"I take Professor Longhair very seriously," Toussaint says, "and that's one of the variations I've done [on his tunes]. It's my favorite, but I had no plans on where to take that, so I love what Elvis came up with. Now I see the real purpose for that piece ever coming into existence." (You can hear Toussaint's minor-key inspiration on the Katrina benefit CD Our New Orleans.)
The other collaborations — "The Sharpest Thorn," "Broken Promise Land," "International Echo" and "Six-Fingered Man" — came together in October in New York, and two months later Toussaint and Costello stepped into the studio. Now they're stepping onto the stage, celebrating an astonishing musical legacy and posing the troubling question at the heart of the album's title track: "There must be something better than this / I don't see how it can get much worse / What do we have to do to send the river in reverse?"