Relix, January 2016

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In Conversation: Allen Toussaint & Elvis Costello

Dean Budnick

On Nov. 10, 2015, the legendary New Orleans musician Allen Toussaint suffered a fatal heart attack at age 77 after performing a show in Spain. News of his passing elicited moving tributes from a global collective of fans, friends and collaborators, such as Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Questlove, The Rolling Stones, George Porter Jr., Aaron Neville, Jim James, Nicholas Payton, Dead & Company, and the New Orleans Saints. All expressed deep remorse at the loss of "The Southern Knight," who left his mark as a songwriter, producer, arranger and gifted pianist.

Toussaint began his career while still a teenager, filling in on piano for Fats Domino during a recording session, and he would go on to receive the National Medal of Arts from President Obama in 2013, following a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction 15 years earlier. Toussaint was a singular artist of his generation, penning enduring songs like "Working in the Coal Mine," "Southern Nights," "Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley," "Get Out of My Life, Woman," "On Your Way Down," "Mother-in-Law," "Fortune Teller" and even "Whipped Cream," which became ubiquitous via Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass on The Dating Game. Working at his base of operations in New Orleans, he wrote and produced music by Ernie K-Doe, Lee Dorsey, Patti LaBelle, Randy Newman, Joe Cocker, Albert King and The Meters, who also served as the house band for Toussaint on Dr. John's In the Right Place and Desitively Bonnaroo. He created the horn charts used by The Band on their Rock Of Ages album and appeared on Paul McCartney's Venus And Mars record. Jerry Garcia, The Who, The Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt, Phish, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, Little Feat, Robert Palmer, Aaron Neville, Warren Zevon, Glen Campbell, Widespread Panic, Devo and many others also covered his music over the years.

In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina displaced Toussaint, who eventually made his way to New York City where he began performing solo concerts at Joe's Pub. Elvis Costello, who had worked with Toussaint in New Orleans on a couple of occasions in the 1980s, took in a few of these shows. In his new memoir Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink [Blue Rider Press, 2015], Costello recalls the first of these experiences as an audience member: "What everyone saw that day at Joe's Pub was a master songwriter awakening to a new set of possibilities. Allen may have lost his home and his studio and seen the rich pool of musicians who he had always called on scattered to other cities of refuge, but his songbook was invulnerable."

Costello, who describes Toussaint as "a prince in a thin disguise," proposed that they collaborate on a new record. The resulting album, 2006's The River in Reverse presented a number of Toussaint standards, as well as material that the pair co-wrote for the occasion.

At the time of this previously unpublished interview with both musicians, which took place in the summer of 2006, Toussaint was optimistic about the possibility of moving back into his home, which had experienced severe flood damage during Katrina. He predicted that "before the year's out, I will be back permanently in New Orleans, when my house is livable again. On every lawn in my neighborhood, the neighbors have a trailer parked on the grass. So that means that they're in those trailers, living in them and working on their houses. So I think we'll all be back up and running around the same time — possibly in September but more likely in October." It would be nearly eight more years before he was able to make a permanent return to his beloved home city.

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Relix, January-February 2016

Dean Budnick interviews Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint.


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