Learning at the hands of Dave Bartholomew, musician, songwriter, producer, arranger, A&R man, label head and recording studio founder Allen Toussaint has done more to put New Orleans music on the map than perhaps anyone else. His magic touch has not only been brought to fruition—and the national charts—by a long list of Crescent City R&B legends, but has been branded into world-wide consciousness by Al Hirt, Herb Alpert, Glen Campbell, Robert Palmer and countless other kings and queens of pop.
“I spent the first 23 years of my life at 3041 College Court,” Allen Toussaint begins. “It’s now 3039. All of my recollection is there; we moved there before I turned one. I came up playing the piano there, an old upright. The piano was brought there for my sister to play and when I first walked up to it I was a very young child. It was instant gratification because you could press a key and the note just came out. It wasn’t like trying to play a trumpet for the first time. So it was the Cat’s Meow right away, as soon as you pressed a key something happened, something pleasant. For some reason I understood, early on, the structure, and began picking out very simple melodies.
“With the radio going a lot in those days I would try to pick out songs in the simple form I heard and I was able to do that. We heard a lot of hillbilly music back then, like Red Foley, Little Jimmy Dickens and Ernest Tubb and we also heard a lot of good blues from Randy’s Record Mart late at night.” It was here that Toussaint first heard Albert Ammons’ “Swanee River Boogie,” which struck a serious chord. “I loved those boogie-woogies, and not being into buying a lot of the records you’d have to wait ’til you heard it again to get another part of it. So it was a long, drawn-out process, but fun, because in the interim you played around, playing as much of what you heard as you remembered and stumbling upon other things. After mimicking many things that I heard on the airwaves I began trying to devise little melodies of my own and I was able to do that. Ever so simple, but I had fun.
“There would also be old guys in the neighborhood who had old blues 78s of various things like Smokey Hogg. That was off limits to my mother because she thought that those kinds of blues were much too gutteral, but I loved them. So I’d go down and sit on the porch where old men would play things like that and I was able to get a lot of that going in my life. Which was very good. And I heard a lot of good gospel back there, like Alexander Bradford and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and I thought that was the most exciting thing in the world, which it indeed was.”
GERT TOWN BLUES
Formal lessons at the Xavier Junior School of Music ended quickly when it became evident that Allen was more interested in boogie-woogies played by ear than classics played out of the book. “There were gentlemen who would come to my house to visit my mother and father, like my cousin Uncle Emanuel. He’d play a junker blues, ‘How Long.’ Of course, ‘How Long’ had many names, ‘Stack-O-Lee’ being one of them, and he played it in a certain way, in E flat. He only played it when he was drunk and it was magnificent. And he would play it the same way every time so whatever I didn’t get the last time, I’d sit there and get while he was playing it this time. I also had a cousin named Dolores, she was much older, and she had a boyfriend who played a kind of semi-junker blues in G, and when he’d come around I’d get a chance to see that.
“There were a few other guys who would play and when one would see the other he would see how he was playing what was out and you’d see how it measured up to what you were playing. So there was a lot of interaction. However, of all the people that I listened to, my biggest shock—and strongest influence—was Professor Longhair. When I heard that, the world changed. The world became quite big and quite wild. If not big, wild.
“He had things out at that time like ‘Hadacol Bounce’ and ‘Hey Little Girl,’ but of course, ‘Tipitina’ was my most favorite of all. I just really fell in love with that Professor Longhair-type of playing. That rough voice and all of that. Very manly. Quite unique and it was off of the beaten path of the boogie-woogies, which seemed pretty straight-ahead to me. As exciting as they are, they’re pretty straight-ahead. But Fess? No, no. I knew he lived in New Orleans but I didn’t feel like I would be seeing him because he was, as far as I was concerned, one of those people on the radio—and that was a whole ’nother life.”
Toussaint was a teenager by the time he finally came face-to-face with his idol for the first time, at a sock hop at Valencia Hall. “He was playing a spinet piano and I didn’t dare say anything to him; I wasn’t qualified to talk to him yet. The next time I saw him was years later at the One Stop Record Shop on Rampart Street. By this time I was buying records, not just waiting for them to come on the radio, and they had to send for a record that I asked for in the store room. And who brought it out? Professor Longhair as a stock room boy. I saw that it was the Professor Longhair and I couldn’t get over that. Not whether or not he should be a stock room boy, just that he was the Professor Longhair. I remember that day because it was such a profound day but I didn’t establish any communication then. It was years later that I got to meet Fess formally and sit down next to him at the piano and watch him and talk with him. And that was a delight.”
Attending Booker T. Washington High School, Toussaint formed his first band, the Flamingos, with Snooks Eaglin on guitar, when he was 14. “Snooks was our star,” Toussaint remembers. “We had Benjamin Gregory on tenor and he was an outstanding saxophonist; even at a young age he was already listening to Charlie Parker. And I was listening to boogie-woogie, so there was a little cross-pollination going on there. I got started arranging for horns then. I remember listening to some of the early Ray Charles records; the horn arrangements on those records were phenomenal. I loved those horns and though I didn’t know what all the progressions meant I could hear the tones so I could write them down. That’s how I cut my teeth in arranging. I used to transcribe all these arrangements off of whatever was on the radio. I didn’t know how much that would mean to me later, but in retrospect it was quite an education.
“We played at high school dances and places out in the country, some joints we were too young to be in. The Sugar Bowl in Thibodaux was a big deal. We played at Champ’s Honeydripper in Vacherie. There was a club we played in Raceland where you played every song twice; that was just the rule there. Our chief rivals were the Hawkettes. We were hot stuff, but they were even hotter.
“My transition from the Flamingos to the rest of the world happened via Earl King,” Toussaint explains. “I took Huey Smith’s place on a gig that Earl had in Pritchard, Alabama. Bob Caffery, who they call the Cat Man, was a saxophonist who knew about me and called me to make the gig. And that started me to making some of the gigs with Earl when Huey wasn’t available, which introduced me to the Dew Drop set.”
The Dew Drop Inn was not only New Orleans’ most legendary black night club, it was a way of life for many local musicians, whose lives revolved around its magical vibe. Everything about the place fascinated Toussaint, and he absorbed all of it, from the music being played on the bandstand to the casual conversations that took place on the sidewalk. “(Drummer) Smokey Johnson and myself came on the scene at the same time,” he remembers. “I was 17 and we were the two youngest on the scene at the Dew Drop. Lee Allen and Frank Parker and Red Tyler would come hang out in front of the club after their gigs and stand out there ’til the wee hours of the morning, talking. And we would hang on the side because we weren’t in their conversation yet. They would be talking about where they had just been and things they knew and we would watch all their mannerisms; we were flabbergasted. We just thought everything about ’em was so hip. The way they would bop their heads to music; we would bop our heads that way, it was all so right. Roy Montrell would come around; he was always ready to chop somebody’s head on the guitar. He was a fun-filled guy and he had lots of wisdom about many things. He would just say one sentence before he left and it would be something that you could hang on to for a long time. Extraordinary man. Chuck Badie had his spot, if you were coming out the door to the left, that was his spot. I think if someone else was standing there and he’d walk up, they’d move. Chuck Badie would be the last one gone, so many times I’d drop him off home. It was quite a time.”
THE WILD SOUND OF NEW ORLEANS
While playing in the Dew Drop house band, Toussaint was spotted by producer Dave Bartholomew, who recruited him to play piano on some studio dates for Fats Domino and Smiley Lewis. In 1957 he went on the road with Shirley and Lee—again on the recommendation of the Cat Man—and this inadvertently led to him cutting his first record. It wasn’t a 45 single, as was usually the case for an untested artist in the late ’50s; it was a full-fledged LP with a splashy purple and gold jacket undoubtedly inspired by the primary colors of Carnival. Although his name was shortened to “Tousan” for general consumption, The Wild Sound Of New Orleans, released on RCA Victor, was just that: songs like “Whirlaway” and “Po Boy Walk” revealed an emerging pianist whose way with the ivories was as funky and rocking as those who had inspired him.
“When I was traveling on the road with Shirley and Lee, Roland Cook was the band singer and bassist,” Toussaint explains. “When we got in town one of the times Danny Kessler, who was a talent scout, was recording Roy Gaines and Roland Cook and I was there to play behind both of them. I wrote a song, in fact, for Roland Cook. It was the first thing I was actually credited for on a recording session, ‘Long Lost Love.’ When the session was over that day Danny asked me if I could prepare enough material for an album and I told him yes. About a week later he came back and we did The Wild Sound Of New Orleans album with Red Tyler.”
Toussaint’s multi-faceted career took off when disc jockey Larry McKinley and local record man Joe Banashak started Minit Records in 1959 and asked him to come aboard as their music director. “I knew all of the guys and gals,” he says of the early Minit Artists, “because they had already been hangin’ out at my house in College Court singin’ and jammin’. We got to work right away making music.”
Minit’s first national hit came in 1960, with Jessie Hill’s “Ooh Poo Pah Doo,” a song that delivered New Orleans’ raucous street rhythms into every American household that had a radio. Its follow-up, “Whip It On Me,” was even better, with Hill’s wild hollering vocals sandwiched between Toussaint’s wailing piano and a chorus of girls that sounded as if they’d been plucked out of an otherworldly junior high school gospel choir.
“Jessie had a very special spirit,” Toussaint remarks of his late friend. “He knew where his magic was and he didn’t stop short of it, and he didn’t pass it. He was just a magic man. Fats Domino is like that in a calmer, more tame way.”
It took less than a dozen more releases for Minit to hit pay dirt and make history when Ernie K-Doe’s “Mother-In-Law” became the first Number One hit recorded in New Orleans. Toussaint must have been extra proud of his handiwork this time around, as the composition was his own. Indeed, out of all the great songs he has written, he’s often cited “Mother-In-Law” as his favorite.
Besides Hill and K-Doe, Irma Thomas, Benny Spellman, Aaron Neville, Chris Kenner, Esquerita, Diamond Joe and countless others benefited from Toussaint’s songs, arrangements and productions. His work with Minit—as well as its connected imprints Instant, Valiant and ALON—wholly represented the second-coming of New Orleans R&B and the powerful impact that it would have on the soul era.
“I was always very much convicted on how things should go back then,” he says of his arrangements and songs, which were perfectly tailored to each artist’s particular strengths. Just as important were the handpicked session musicians which often included two trombonists, drummer John Boudreaux, bassist Chuck Badie, guitarists George Davis and Deacon John Moore and of course, Toussaint and his own irresistibly gospel-charged piano. The combination produced bona fide masterpieces like “Lipstick Traces (On A Cigarette),” “Tain’t It The Truth,” “Cry On” and “Fortune Teller,” but it all came to a temporary halt with his induction into the Army in January of 1963.
WHIPPED CREAM AND OTHER DELIGHTS
Stationed at Fort Hood, in Colleen, Texas, Toussaint put together a band called the Stokes with New Orleans multi-instrumentalist Billy Fayard right around the time that Al Hirt “showed the way to the bank” with his hit version of Allen’s instrumental “Java,” which had first appeared on the Wild Sound Of New Orleans album.
“When the guys in the Stokes heard that I had written ‘Java,’” he remembers, “they thought that was so funny because they expected me to be this R&B master. So then I wrote several songs in the mode of ‘Java,’ one of them being ‘Whipped Cream.’ Some were these semi-Spike Jones pieces where we had to tear a piece of paper in the middle of them, or break a glass. We decided to record some of that stuff and that’s how the Stokes album, which has ‘Whipped Cream’ on it, came into existence. We recorded it in Houston and Banashak took it back to New Orleans and released it.”
Those who had somehow missed Toussaint’s soulful Minit hits certainly got a taste of the pianist’s genius when Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass recorded their hit album Whipped Cream And Other Delights, which, judging from the regularity with which it turns up in thrift stores, must have sold even more copies than Mitch Miller’s Sing Along With Mitch series. Though his penchant for writing pop instrumental hits had now been proven beyond a doubt, Toussaint returned to New Orleans just in time for soul to meld into funk, a transformation that he had more than a minor role in bringing to fruition.
“When I finished my hitch everything about Minit had changed,” he remembers. “I felt that I was behind the scene, like everybody was out here jamming and I had been locked away.” Spurred on by this belief, when Marshall Sehorn approached him about cutting a record with Lee Dorsey, he looked at the process in a way that he never had before.
“I tried to write a hit when I wrote ‘Ride Your Pony,’” he says of the Dorsey record. “That was the only time I tried to write a hit song. I was putting ingredients in where I’d call the cities and all. I wanted to catch those territories and areas and keep it pounding. I remember for the longest we tried many things to get that gun shot on ‘Now, shoot!’
“Marshall had come down during my Dew Drop days and had me do a record with Bobby Marchan called ‘Booty Green,’” Toussaint continues, “and it was a long time ’til I heard from him again.” The 1965 reunion resulted in a partnership, and together the pair founded Sansu Enterprises, having continuous success with Lee Dorsey, as well as recording and releasing great records by Betty Harris, Curly Moore, Warren Lee, Earl King, Wallace Johnson, Diamond Joe, Benny Spellman, Art Neville and many others. The records often had a harder, grittier sound than the Minit productions, but were every bit as good, proving that Toussaint once again had his hand on the musical pulse of soulful America.
“HE’S DONE IT AGAIN”
Although Sansu had a couple of undeservedly tough years starting out, fate connected with Allen Toussaint when he heard Art Neville and the Neville Sounds one evening during a stroll through the French Quarter. “I was walking down Bourbon Street and I heard all this funk coming out of the Ivanhoe,” he recalls fondly. “I walked over there and peeked in the door and saw Art and said, ‘He’s done it again. The man is pure magic.’ Gary Brown was with them at the time on sax. Can you imagine that? It was so funky. It was wonderful. I went in and when they came down on break I talked with Art and met the other guys. I immediately asked Art to come down and talk with Marshall about getting with the company. And he did. They decided it would be a co-op group and with no further ado Art consented to that and they became the Meters.
“When I started using the Meters I was well satisfied,” says Toussaint of the many Sansu sessions that the band played on. “They were on loads of the Lee Dorsey stuff and when it wasn’t all of the Meters it was the Meters minus Zig, because he was doing other things.” When the band began recording their own string of funk classics—four of which were hits in 1969—Toussaint recalls that they didn’t need much supervision. “They were so prepared that you’d just open the door and lock them in.”
Sansu Enterprises opened their own recording studio a few years later in an unassuming building in Gentilly. “We moved into that facility in ’71,” Toussaint relates, “and we rolled tape in ’73. Badger, from England, was our first recording at Sea-Saint. Then we did John Mayall, Patti LaBelle, lots of folks. We opened out of necessity because Cosimo had closed down. If Cosimo wouldn’t have closed, we wouldn’t have opened because I was always very much at home in Cosimo’s. It didn’t matter what the building looked like, wherever you saw his face, it was right.”
The first half of the ’70s brought a trio of highly-acclaimed Toussaint solo albums, and the title cut of ’75s Southern Nights was taken to the top of the charts by Glen Campbell. The next year, Sehorn and Toussaint helmed a milestone in New Orleans funk history when the Wild Tchoupitoulas Mardi Gras Indians joined the Meters for a historic session at Sea-Saint. It’s an album that Toussaint refuses to take credit for, however. “It wasn’t that I went in and did what I do,” he says. “It was another case of we just opened the door and let them in.”
Toussaint continued to stay busy with session work and the occasional solo album until 1994, when he played a major role in the Crescent City Gold album. “That was the brain child of Kathy Sebastian. She came up with this idea of all the session guys who put New Orleans on the map, why not get ’em all together for the Ultimate Session? She thought of it just that way, which any of us should have thought of before she did, but we didn’t. We called people like Earl Palmer, Lee Allen, Red Tyler, Mac Rebennack, Edward Frank. It doesn’t get any better than that. We even called Dave Bartholomew in to play on a piece called ‘U.S. Dave.’ Dave, as far as I’m concerned, is a hero to me, he’s a champion. I patterned some of my thoughts behind Dave Bartholomew as far as doing good business. Because when a lot of us were running around not knowing what to do, Dave was already doing great business. When we didn’t know who BMI was he already had a standing guaranteed contract with advances. So Dave has always been a positive icon.”
Since then Toussaint has founded a new label, NYNO, and been inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.
“These days things are still going on,” he says. “About a year ago I wrote several jazz songs. I call them jazz-y, because I’m not a jazz musician. I got together with my brother, who played on some of my sessions 40 years ago, to jam at the house and I turned the tape recorder on. We have about 20 things that we’ve recorded that we’re going to be releasing in the near future. Jazz is all that it’s cracked up to be, and more. It takes some doing to really be satisfying. Jazz has high standards and as far as I’m concerned, they’re well deserved.”
It’s a statement that Allen Toussaint’s many admirers have been making about him—and his music—for well over half a century.
Get Low Down! The Soul Of New Orleans ’65-’67 (Sundazed)
Finger Poppin’ And Stompin’ Feet: 20 Classic Allen Toussaint Productions For Minit Records 1960-1962 (EMI)
The Complete Tousan Sessions (Bear Family)
The Complete Warner Recordings (Rhino Handmade)
Rhythm and Blues In New Orleans by John Broven (Pelican)
Talkin’ Shop With Allen Toussaint
On that rhythmic guitar sound: We called it “chink” guitar and we wore it out too. Two strings and half-fretted; you don’t press the fret all the way down. Some players used to stick a handkerchief near the frog in the back to muffle the sound down, all kinds of little devices. And then we’d use a three-quarter cha-cha—“chink chink cha cha”—and that went on for years. Those are just little trivial parts of the life back then.
On his early rehearsal spaces: There were two major houses involved, one was College Court and the other was Earhart Boulevard. “Land Of A Thousand Dances” was College Court; “It’s Raining;” Earhart Boulevard. “I Like It Like That;” College Court. So I kind of see it like that.
On Ernie K-Doe: Ernie K-Doe was a natural part of Minit because Larry McKinley was already his manager before Minit got started. Jessie’s record was the first hit but we came out with “Hello My Lover” on Ernie before that. Then we came later with “Mother-In- Law” which became our first real national hit. And many things followed.
On Benny Spellman and “Lipstick Traces (On A Cigarette)”: Benny forced that song because he was the one who sang the low part on “Mother-In-Law” and he gigged for the longest on doing that part; in fact he gigged so much he bought himself a nice green Cadillac and a house in Pontchartrain Park based on that. He came to me, which made good sense, and said, “Since I was such an instrumental part in that, why don’t you write me a song like that?” So I wrote “Lipstick Traces.”
On Aaron Neville and the lethal lyrics of “Over You”: It was OK to say those things back then but I wouldn’t dare say those things now. Even though things are looser now, some things aren’t. You knew that would never be as it was said. Like, “I’m Gonna Put Some Hurt On You;” you’re not gonna really do that.
On Allen Orange: Allen now lives in Nashville, Tennessee. He came through for a period, and not a long period. He was the first guy—and maybe the only guy—we were thinking about being co-writers. We teamed up to write a few things together and recorded as Allen and Allen.
On Diamond Joe: I just thought the world of Diamond Joe’s voice and his persona as an artist; I really considered him a winner. At one moment it was Diamond Joe and Guitar Moe. I think Guitar Moe was the kind of guy who kept a day job and took that more noble, conventional way of life.
On Eskew Reeder (Esquerita) and “True Love Never Dies”: Esquerita was a very flamboyant guy, it was show time all the time with him, from morning ’til night and around the clock. He was very much a natural musician and he had a very strong gospel back ground as well. You could tell it in his playing. Those gospel pianists all go at it with such vigor and with such confidence. He was always, in a way, in the shadow of Little Richard because he had that same kind of excitement. As far as he was concerned, they were both in the race and maybe Richard had got around there before him but he had just as much right to be there. I really loved his voice and I thought “True Love Never Dies” was just right for him.
On Lee Dorsey and “Workin’ In A Coal Mine”: There wasn’t as much percussion as you might think on there. It was a certain drummer and we had my brother hit the mike stand with a drum stick for the pick sound. Those were the two percussion instruments.
On Allen Toussaint and “Southern Nights”: Sometimes I feel almost sacrilegious about changing the key of a song. When I wrote “Southern Nights” I wrote it in F sharp. It was too high to sing it in F sharp so I sang it through a Leslie speaker so it wouldn’t be the character of my voice that you’d notice being that high but that it lived in the trees.
On Art Neville and musicians: Art could take a group of musicians—and this is not to cold-water the musicians who have played with him because he’s surrounded himself with great musicians as well—but Art could take a group of people who never played together and in a little while they’d sound like a very cohesive unit. And they would be very funky, all the time.
On guitarist George Davis: It was always a pleasure to work with George Davis, he could do anything. An extraordinary bass player too. The first time I ever saw him he was playing alto saxophone. He certainly made his mark.
On formal musical training: Six to eight lessons was all I had but I’m not glad to say that because in retrospect I do firmly believe that you should get as much formal education as you can. Because it gives you more facilities to say what you have to say. You don’t lose anything, as used to be the old myth. It just gives you more avenues to say what you have to say, if you have anything to say.