Allen Toussaint—the producer, arranger, writer and regal living embodiment of New Orleans soul—sits alone at a piano onstage in the dark, empty theater. He plays leisurely, but he is focused and listening carefully. It is sound check and something isn’t quite right. The monitor is popping. To test it, Toussaint plays loudly.
“There’s a certain girl I’ve been in love with a long, long time,” he sings, the piano thundering in front of him. “What’s her name? Can’t tell you, no no.” Toussaint stops mid-song. He leans into the stage lights, his ringed hand above his eyes, peering out into the darkness for the soundman, who is adjusting levels on the board in the booth by the last row. He turns back to the keys, playing a soulful version of his “Southern Nights,” the 1977 No. 1 country hit for Glen Campbell. Then, a delicate minute of Duke Ellington’s “Solitude,” from Toussaint’s Grammy-nominated 2009 instrumental jazz album The Bright Mississippi. All this beauty, forty years of genius in just a few minutes, with hardly anyone here to hear it.
Toussaint stands and moves away from the piano as the soundman walks down the dark aisle to the stage to inspect the monitor. Toussaint’s road manager approaches. This might take a while. Toussaint smiles graciously, then walks through the wings and down the rickety stairs to the basement dressing room. He offers a bottle of water, motions towards a chair. He leans forward to greet the question, and then back as he takes it in. He sits quietly for a moment, thinking. Then, he answers.
I fell in love
“I grew up in a very humble neighborhood in New Orleans called Gert Town, full of shotgun houses and little single story doubles. Families lived side by side. The word ghetto was not thrown around then, so I’ll just say it was modest. After work in the evening, the old men in the neighborhood who had guitars would sit on their front porches and strum some old kind of bluesy song. There was lots of music everywhere, but I heard the radio first. I heard a lot of hillbilly music as a boy, which I love dearly. I grew up on that, and gutbucket blues. And my mother loved operas, so every Sunday, she played classical music on the radio, all day.
I started playing piano at age six. My parents bought one for my sister, and she didn’t take to it at all, but I loved it from as soon as I touched it. It wasn’t like picking up a trumpet for the first time. You touch a piano, you get the same thing out of it that the best pianists in the world get out of it. So I fell in love with this great big piece of furniture that was so kind to me at first touch. I fell in love! And I must say that early on I understood the structure of how it was set up. My sister was eight years old and she began taking piano lessons, and she was the first to show me that, ‘This E you are playing here is on the first line of the treble clef.’ And thus, theory started.”
Imitatin’ and emulatin’
“I was 15 when I first saw Professor Longhair. I was at a sock hop, a high school dance. This was before integration. I had been listening to him for years. I was already imitatin’ and emulatin’. When I saw him, he was playing a little Spinet piano. It looked like a toy. I had imagined him to be bigger than life. But I was totally awestruck. A couple years later, I saw him working as a stock room boy in One Stop Record Shop. I went to buy a record and they didn’t have it up front so they sent into the back to get it. And the guy who brought the box of records out into the store was Professor Longhair. It’s really weird to think that Professor Longhair was a stock room boy, but for some reason that didn’t matter to me. It was Professor Longhair! I left that store feeling very good.
I was around 19 when we actually hooked up and played together. The way he sounded on record is the way he talked, with that gravelly voice. And he took his music as seriously as the most serious classical musician. With the raggedy playing most of us do, a little mistake doesn’t matter much. But for him, to make a mistake was pretty bad. And it sounds like he is just wobblin’ all over the place, but he was always playing something in particular. He’s not just throwing it around to see where it sticks. He is sticking it wherever he wants it to stick.
He had a whole Professor Longhair way of life, in terms of philosophy and ideology and even vernacular, the way he talked. Music is about what’s going on inside you. All music can be written on paper. It really can. Everything can be written on paper—gravity forces, things out in the universe, even Professor Longhair’s music. But there is something that lives inside the people who are playing music. And the guys who let it live inside of them know it better than the people who are just trying to crowd the world with it.”
Just having a good time making music
“I love Fats Domino. He was inescapable for everyone in the world, and we were glad and proud he was from New Orleans. We all played the Fats Domino songs, because they were popular, and he had a formula that was easy to imitate. See, the doowop groups played the triplets—tink, tink, tink—up here. But in New Orleans, we played the triplets down here. That’s a big difference.
So we all played Fats Domino, but when Fats sat down and played, we all went, “Oh! That’s how it’s supposed to really go!” Dave Bartholomew called me in to play on a couple Fats Domino records and I played on three songs like Fats would have played. One of the highest compliments in my life was eight months later, after the record had been out for a while, Fats told me one day, ‘I don’t know whether that is you or me!’
There was no way for us to know the impact we were having. For one thing, most of us were just having a good time. I was 15, 16, 17 when me and Dr. John, Mac Rebennack, were playing in the studio. He was always playing guitar. And I was just having a good time. And a little later on, I got to be in charge. I wasn’t just a sideman. I was really calling the shots, but still just having a good time and making music, with no idea the impact it would have on the world.
When ‘Mother in Law’ became a hit, I didn’t pay any attention to it. We lived the same way every day. We were just doing what we were doing, and it was out there. And I would hear every now and then, ‘Oh, it’s doing really good.’ And I sort of knew it was out there, but me and Willie Harper and Calvin LeBlanc and all of us, we would all be in the same room the next day, drinking Coca Cola and having potato chips and doing some more songs, with Irma Thomas or someone else. Irma Thomas was the only girl in that room with us. And like the rest of the artists, I would write a song for her, or whoever was in there, Aaron Neville or Benny Spellman or whoever else, and then we would record it just like it was. Just like that. We did the same thing every day. I felt a very special connection to the artists I worked with, but I didn’t pay much attention to what happened after the record left us.”
We never tried to keep up with any America
“I haven’t ever lived anyplace else, but I’ve always thought that in America, these special pockets are everywhere. There is something very special happening in Memphis. And there is something very special happening in Nashville. And in Texas. But I do know we feel very special in New Orleans as well and very tight knitted. I think one thing that has held New Orleans closer to each other than some other places is our stubbornness about the pace we move at.
We never tried to keep up with any America, or how fast things were going, or how big the amps were getting. We like the acoustic world very much, and I think the brass bands have something to do with that. When you march up and down the street, that has to be acoustic, of course. So we have stayed closer to an earthier concept than some other places that plugged into the big hum. And I’m not saying that is better or worse. It’s nice to have all these different gardens in America, and New Orleans is one of them. And I am glad that I was fortunate enough to be from that one.
Today, New Orleans is great. New Orleans is up for the task. The guys are in front of Jackson Square right now, jamming, and the trombone is sliding and the hat is on the ground with some dollars in it and they can have a second line band parade any time. In fact they had one a few days ago. We are up for it and the spirit is very high. The spirit didn’t get drowned. The spirit got baptized. Very solid things got drowned, but not the spirit of New Orleans. Everyone didn’t come back on the same train–never does. But everyone is coming back. One way or another.”
A knock on the dressing room door stops Toussaint mid-thought. The road manager walks in. Time’s up. Toussaint stands. He offers his hand. He walks up the stairs to the stage and takes his place at the piano. The monitor is fixed. Everything sounds great.