The last time pianist, vocalist, composer and producer Allen Toussaint performed at the French Quarter Festival was in 1998. The legendary New Orleans musician was on the Jackson Square Stage, which at the time was the event’s largest venue. This was before the festival expanded to the riverfront and Woldenberg Park. This year, Toussaint will be on the big stage on the bank of the Mississippi River.
Toussaint, 76, remembers the earlier setting in the heart of the Quarter as being perfect while he also looks forward to playing near water. “Of course, any setting in New Orleans, as far as I’m concerned, is pretty close to perfect,” he graciously offers. “But to be right there on Jackson Square was so ideal.”
Because Toussaint, who has appeared at the FQFI’s Satchmo SummerFest, hasn’t performed at the event in so many years doesn’t mean he hasn’t been out there and seen it change. “Oh yes, I love any activity in New Orleans, especially a music festival,” he says of his frequent visits to the Fest. “I think the changes have been for the better.”
Toussaint’s contributions to New Orleans have been so expansive—just the hits he wrote for other artists like Ernie K-Doe’s “Mother-In-Law,” Lee Dorsey’s “Working in a Coal Mine” and “Holy Cow,” Benny Spellman’s “Fortune Teller,” to name a very few—are mind-boggling. That could be considered especially true as he is a self-taught musician.
His mother did sign him up for a piano class, but he only lasted for six or seven lessons. “By the time she did that, the boogie-woogie already had me,” he says with a laugh. “I wasn’t a good student. I was so busy learning things I heard off the radio and so busy improvising.” Toussaint quickly adds that he always encourages students to continue their studies. “The world belongs to you when you read, and all ages belong to you.”
For this interview, Toussaint touches on a couple of topics, including his approach to writing those hits and the French Quarter Festival. Whatever the subject, Toussaint’s love for his hometown is always close at hand.
When the French Quarter Festival first started, the music presented was primarily traditional jazz. Now they have a zydeco and Cajun stage, brass bands and all kinds of musical genres.
I love the variety that we have, and that’s a wonderful place to show it off. It’s so indicative of who we are. It’s good for out-of-towners as well as those right here to see these musics come together like that. It’s different dishes, but it’s all still New Orleans.
Of course, when I say New Orleans, I like to include Louisiana. As far as I’m considered, that’s all a part of New Orleans. Even though I love the whole state of Louisiana, when we leave town and go abroad, if we’re from anywhere near New Orleans, we’re from New Orleans. We’ve lived up to those credits quite well.
People away from here comment on New Orleans’ personalities—the hospitality here. I’m always glad to hear that—to know that’s the perception that people have. That’s mouth-to-mouth credits there. It totally trumps anything that’s unfavorable.
Are you bringing a full band for your set? Will you have horns?
No, I’m not going solo. I’d always rather be with a band. Not as many as Jazz Fest where I’ll have four or five horns. I’ll have my Herman Lebeaux on drums—he’s my son-in-law and has a son, 16, who’s going to be quite a musician. Roland Guerin will be on bass, and Renard Poche on guitar—he’s all about making things better and getting it right. [Toussaint anticipates saxophonist Gary Brown will also be in the band.]
With the exception of Renard Poche, who can play anything, when I hear those names I hear a lot of jazz. Will you be doing more jazz on the set, especially since you did release a jazz-oriented album, Bright Mississippi?
I’ll be doing the songs that I have written that were made popular by other people over the years. Some of them we’ve heard so many, many times. When I hold a conversation with my manger, [I ask] should we play certain songs after all these years? He’ll say, “Yes, you must play the most popular things you wrote.” There are certain people who are hearing you for the first time or there are people who have heard you before and wanted someone else to hear you. Of course, we’ll also do things that aren’t as popular but we like as much. We’ll do a couple jazzy tunes, as well. So we’re going to have a very good time.
Throughout New Orleans history, musicians like saxophonist Alvin “Red” Tyler played in R&B bands and often played jazz on the side. That’s part of New Orleans, would you agree? So Roland Guerin and Herman Lebeaux are sort of carrying on that tradition.
Yes, indeed. You called a very important and wonderful name with Red Tyler. There was Lee Allen, Edward Frank, Earl Palmer, Justin Adams, Frank Fields—as much as they made rock ’n’ roll hits and million sellers behind other artists, on their own in the evenings, they would have good jazz performances. They were noted for their jazz work.
You have traveled a lot. Have you seen musicians playing in as many different genres—traditional and modern jazz, R&B, rock ’n’ roll—as we see here?
It’s who we are. It’s how we are, and as we are, and it comes out. Jazz is such an integral part—from traditional jazz even through the avant world. Yes, we have jazz in our bones, and it has to live wherever we live.
Some people say that jazz musicians couldn’t make a living just playing jazz, which might be true, so they had to play other genres. But aren’t the musicians just used to going from one style to the other without barriers?
That’s a good thing. That’s a good situation any way you put it. I think we portray ourselves as honestly as we can. It’s a part of our language. There are some things that we say in New Orleans that’s not even said anywhere else in the vernacular. Without trying, we just speak like that.
With the indigenous music here and the indigenous people with all that’s in them, there’s just no reason to avoid any of the musics that are a part of us, because they all feel and taste so good.
How and when did you start writing and what was the first song you ever wrote?
I started writing as a kid. I was mimicking everything I heard on the radio—everything I heard anywhere. I thought I’d better hurry up and get to that because everyone could play that except me. And after you do that so much every day, you can’t help but wanting to pick out little melodies of your own, because it’s a surprise because it didn’t come from somewhere else, and here it is coming from you. And you understand enough to know that, oh yes, you can do that. I can’t wait to do more. It starts like that, very humbly so.
I remember when my mother bought an Emerson record player, and during that day, they used to give you lagniappe. They gave us two albums, a swing album with Benny Goodman and Woody Herman and a classical album.
When I got those, I remember [thinking], “I’ve got a whole lot to do. I’m going to be inside for a long time.” I thought I needed to learn everything on those two albums. I heard this beautiful piece by Benny Goodman, “Love Walked Right In,” and heard this beautiful trombone duet solo. I immediately wrote a little duet for trumpet and trombone sitting at the piano. That’s the first time I actually put something on paper.
Did it have a name? Did anyone ever perform it?
I can call it “Number One.” No, it never saw the light of day. When I put that on paper I was 12. I started playing way before then, when I was six-and-a-half.
How about lyrics? Do you write a melody or the lyrics first? What is your method?
Lyrics came early on as well. Always, the lyrics, the melody came directly at the same time, always. A phrase will come together, always. The first one recorded was “Long Lost Love” by Roland Cook who was the bass player for Earl King and his band was behind Shirley and Lee. It must have been 1956 when I wrote it. I wrote one earlier than that called “You Are Mine and I Am Yours.”
Those titles sound a bit more sentimental than some of your greatest hits. Everyone loves the humor in, say “Fortune Teller” and “Mother-In-Law.”
When you’re going by inspiration, every day is loaded with everything the earth has and even the heavens have to offer, so there’s quite a diversification in my subject matter, I’m sure I’m glad to say.
So did the words to Mother-In-Law just pop into your head?
Yes they did. During those days, on television or radio—because radio was more popular than now—a mother-in-law was the brunt of many comedians’ jokes. That was a really heavy weight subject. [Toussaint mentions comedians Rodney Dangerfield and Henny Youngman.]
I remember when that phrase came to me. Ernie K-Doe was even sitting in the room when I wrote it at my parents’ house back in Gert Town. Then after that [knowing the subject], you do what comedians do and you think of things about her. Of course, I didn’t have a mother-in-law then, so I didn’t experience that first hand, but it was so common on television. It was a sign of the times to write like that.
Were you inspired by any certain composers’ works?
I was inspired by everything I heard musically. It felt good knowing that you could go over to the piano and play a song that nobody knows but you because you just wrote it. As crowded as the world is, wherever people are and whatever they are doing now, you have something individually your own. That was quite a charge early on. I was always glad that I was becoming a part of that community.
Do you have a personal favorite song that you’ve written?
I usually say without thinking, “Southern Nights.” It’s a very true story that could have been spoken. I just sang the story I wanted to tell. The song that I feel best about as far as the craftsmanship that had gone into it is a song called “Transition” that I wrote for Lou Johnson years ago. No one knows it but me. It wasn’t a giant hit, of course—not at all. It’s long lost.