ONE OF THE highlights of this year's New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival was a special evening concert called "The Dew Drop Inn Revisited." The Dew Drop Inn was the city's leading African-American nightclub in the 1950s and '60s, and one of the club's most enduring products, composer/producer Allen Toussaint, was the perfect host for the festival's May 1 tribute to that golden era of New Orleans rhythm & blues.
Toussaint, who comes to the Blue Bayou Festival in Upper Marlboro Saturday, took the stage of New Orleans's Riverboat Hallelujah Hall in a glittering gold-and-pink tuxedo. Tall and distinguished, the 53-year-old Toussaint was the perfect ringmaster for the musical circus of six Dew Drop veterans that followed.
He got the evening off to a good start at the piano by playing his "Brickyard Blues," a hit for Three Dog Night and Maria Muldaur. The refrain, "Play something sweet; now make it funky; make me lay back and grin like a monkey; play something I can understand," gave away the secret recipe for the accessible, infectious singles Toussaint has been writing and producing for 30 years.
"The Dew Drop was the biggest club in New Orleans," Toussaint recalls. "Anyone who was someone came to the Dew Drop when they were in New Orleans: Duke Ellington, Jackie Wilson, Charles Brown, Esquerita and Ray Charles. The first time I met Ray, he was living at the Dew Drop Hotel. My first big gig was playing in the Dew Drop Inn house band in 1956. It was just a trio, with me on organ plus a drummer and a saxophonist. They hired me because anything that was on the radio I could play exactly.
"My big break," Toussaint continues, "came when Huey Smith got sick and Earl King needed someone to play piano for a show in Alabama. I was just a kid, but someone recommended me and I played the show. That's when I knew I could be a professional musician."
King was one of Toussaint's guests on the "Dew Drop Inn Revisited" show, followed by Irma Thomas. She was in great voice as she belted out the early '60s broken-heart ballads that Toussaint wrote and produced for her: "It's Raining" and "Ruler of My Heart."
"My biggest inspiration early on was Irma Thomas," Toussaint admits. "I could write songs for her day and night without stop. There was something about the way her voice resonated in my ear that never grew complacent. When I wrote 'It's Raining,' it was raining at the time and Irma was sitting right there beside me. I just put the two together and made a song out of it. I used to do that all the time. If someone walked into the studio and told me a story about something that just happened, I turned it into a song."
Otis Redding took Thomas's version of "Ruler of My Heart," changed a few words and enjoyed a 1963 hit with his revised version, called "Pain in My Heart." Toussaint's boss at Minit Records, Joe Banashak, made Stax-Volt change the writing credits. The credit was not Allen Toussaint, however; it was Naomi Neville.
"I had signed a publishing contract when I was underage," Toussaint explains, "and when it was time to change companies, the old company wanted to hold to the old contract. So I just started writing songs under my mother's maiden name, which was Naomi Neville. After a while, certain songs at the piano sound like a Naomi Neville song and others sound like an Allen Toussaint song. Most of the Irma Thomas records are Naomi Neville songs."
As far as he knows, Toussaint is not related to the Neville Brothers (who also played at the "Dew Drop" show), but he shares a history with them. Long before there was ever a Neville Brothers Band, Toussaint was writing and producing singles in the early '60s for both Art and Aaron Neville.
"One night I was walking down Bourbon Street in the French Quarter and I heard this fantastic band," Toussaint says. "I looked in through the door and saw it was Art Neville & the Neville Sounds. I said to myself, 'There he is; he's done it again.' Every time Art has put a band together since he was a teenager, he not only gets a great group but gives it a special twist. I immediately walked in and asked if they wanted to come down to my studio and do some recording."
Renamed the Meters, Art's band enjoyed some modest hits on their own and played for Toussaint on records by Dr. John, Paul McCartney, Robert Palmer, LaBelle, the Wild Tchoupitoulas, Lee Dorsey, Chris Kenner, King Biscuit Boy and Toussaint himself. The best of Toussaint's own recordings have been assembled on a new anthology, "The Allen Toussaint Collection" (Reprise).
"I once had the attitude that I wasn't a performer," Toussaint confesses. "I was a songwriter, arranger and producer and that was that. As time has gone on, however, people keep asking me to perform, so I've taken it more and more seriously. I don't do it often enough, though, to be really comfortable with it. I do some solo shows, but I prefer performing with a band, because my musical life has been built around arrangements for other people. To have all that there, I have to have the instrumentation."
Toussaint's favorite song on the new anthology album is "Southern Nights," and he climaxed the "Dew Drop Inn Revisited" show with a heartfelt, unaccompanied version of the song at the piano.
"That was one of the inspired songs," he says with satisfaction. "That comes right from my own childhood when my mother and father would take us out to visit the old folks in the country. They would speak Creole, and we would sit out on the porch telling ghost stories. A guy would pull a banjo out from under the bed, and there would be music as we watched the fireflies out in the fields. That was a very real song."