At times, it seems that most everything that's happened in New Orleans popular music since 1960 revolves around Allen Toussaint. As an arranger, producer, composer and performer, Toussaint has built a resume not only heavy with hits, but also rich in musical ideas and spirit. From "Mother-in-Law," his 1961 No. 1 hit for Ernie K-Doe, to No. 1 '70s hits like Glen Campbell's "Southern Nights" and Patti La Belle's "Lady Marmalade," Toussaint has been New Orleans' main music man.
The somewhat shy Toussaint was once an anxious live performer, but those fears are a thing of the past. Toussaint, who comes to the Roxy on today and Tuesday, is playing live dates again, sitting behind the piano and offering audiences a retrospective of his whole career.
"Early this year, they asked me to play the Village Gate in New York," Toussaint explains. "I went up and did it with Dr. John's band. It was supposed to be an isolated occasion, but it made me remember how good it felt to be in front of a live audience. So I decided to take offers if they came."
Actually, Toussaint began his career as a live performer in the early '50s. Schooled in the rumba-and-boogie piano style of Professor Longhair, a very young Toussaint toured with Shirley and Lee and then worked as a studio player for the legendary Dave Bartholomew, the New Orleans band leader who composed, arranged and produced all of Fats Domino's hits.
"Dave Bartholomew was a model for me," says Toussaint. "He had the magic of simplicity, which is unique. He had it and he used it over and over again with just perfect little twists, turns and variations. He knew pop formulas."
By the end of the '50s, the classic rock 'n' roll era of Domino was over and New Orleans needed a new direction. When Toussaint was hired as musical director of the new Minit and Instant labels, he quickly emerged as the successor to Bartholomew, the new hitmaker. In the early '60s, Toussaint wrote and produced hits by Ernie K-Doe, Chris Kenner ("I Like It Like That") and Barbara George ("I Know"), as well as Jesse Hill, Irma Thomas and Aaron Neville.
In 1965, after a two-year Army stint, Toussaint joined forces with record promoter Marshall Sehorn and formed a production company, Sansu Enterprises. Writing and producing, Toussaint scored a few hits with Lee Dorsey ("Working in a Coal Mine") and then the Meters, who became a force in the development of funk. Despite the hits, Sansu could achieve no consistent success.
"Sometimes I think the development of our artists fell short," Toussaint says. "To just keep making record after record is good but you also need to build a few artists. That was never my forte."
By the early '70s, Toussaint's reputation had spread, and artists from outside New Orleans began to seek out his songs and production skills. Paul Simon, Paul McCartney, Joe Cocker, La Belle and others came to Toussaint's Sea-Saint Studio to record. Artists as diverse as Boz Scaggs, Robert Palmer, Glen Campbell, Three Dog Night, La Belle and the Pointer Sisters had success with his songs.
With so many impressive credits, Toussaint is a little reluctant to single out a particular artist as special, but finally relents. "La Belle -- every performance she ever did, even in rehearsal, was a grand performance and I like that attitude in an artist. I like the uniqueness of Lee Dorsey. Aaron Neville and Irma Thomas were the most inspiring artists in the early '60s. As far as covers, I especially like Glen Campbell's 'Southern Nights' and the Pointer Sisters' 'Yes We Can Can.' "
Toussaint, who had recorded one album in 1958 (which yielded "Java," the Al Hirt hit), also began recording albums again in the '70s. The music was a sweet and sophisticated soul sound that delicately mixed country, pop and classical touches, which is hardly surprising in light of Toussaint's diverse inspirations. "I like Dvorak," he begins. "I like Vivaldi, Verdi, Chopin, Bo Diddley, Bach, Minnie Pearl, Little Jimmy Dickens, Red Foley and polkas. I like the new pop music too, like Lionel Richie, but I shy away from demonic-type rock."
Toussaint remains confident of New Orleans' musical future. "We've always had our peaks and valleys in New Orleans music, and we've just been through another valley. New Orleans has always been known for creating things that go somewhere else to grow up. We've been creative, but we just have not had the follow-through. Now we're working on developing careers, not just making hits."