Legendary New Orleans R&B blues man Allen Toussaint is heading to our shores for the first time, in a career that spans more than five decades. He’s brushed shoulders with a plethora of music greats over the years who read like they’re a “who’s who” of rock’n’roll.
When you see someone described as a “treasure of the music world” and “one of the most influential figures in New Orleans R&B”, it’s easy to dismiss it as music industry hype. But in the case of 73-year-old industry veteran Allen Toussaint he definitely deserves the accolades and then some – he’s a true living legend.
Coming to Australia for the first time this October, Toussaint remains humble when he hears how others describe him.
“I don’t hear it that much; it’s only when other people tell me,” he said. “I’m always about what I’m doing next so I don’t give it that much thought. But I’m glad I’m taken as such and people see me that way.”
Yet as Elton John puts it: “When I meet someone like Allen Toussaint – that for me is like meeting, you know, someone the equivalent of the Dalai Lama because for me, he influenced the way I played the piano, he's a historical part of rock and roll.”
For those who came in late, Toussaint has been a key player in the music world over 50 years. He’s either produced, arranged, written for, performed with or had his songs covered by The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Elvis Costello, Patti LaBelle, Aaron and Art Neville, Joe Cocker, The Meters, Glen Campbell, The Band and Devo, among many others.
His instrumental Whipped Cream became a hit for Herb Alpert, he did the arrangements for Patti LaBelle’s Lady Marmalade, The Pointer Sisters had a smash with his tune Yes We Can and Sneaking Sally Thru The Alley was recorded by Robert Palmer and Ringo Starr.
And the Southern Knight (as he’s known) is still going strong, gaining plenty of inspiration travelling around the world after Hurricane Katrina.
“That was something I wasn’t doing before,” Toussaint said. “I collected many ideas, everywhere I would go, so I’m writing constantly every day all the time.
“I’m getting ready to do another album with [rock, jazz and folk singer] Joe Henry, which I’m looking forward to, although I’m running late on it. I would like to have said it would have been out eight months ago – I just can’t say right now when it will be released but I hope to do it before the end of the year.”
When asked what keeps inspiring him, Toussaint simply says: “It’s what I am and what I do. When I wake up in the morning, I do what I’ve been doing since I was 14. I feel very vigorous about it and I’ve been blessed after Hurricane Katrina to do so much travelling, which really broadened the inspiration reservoir tremendously.”
Out of all the musicians he’s performed with over the years, he cites Lee Dorsey, Ernie K-Doe, Aaron Neville and Irma Thomas as some of the most memorable, simply due to the fact they started early on and did “loads and loads of work together”.
“I must say when I first began to work with Patti LaBelle that was a real culture shock,” Toussaint said. “She was quite different to what I was accustomed to and it was a blessing for me to have so much theatre in the mix. My collaboration with Elvis Costello has also really been a shining light.”
Given he’s collaborated with so many people, Toussaint is still happy to work with new and interesting people, although couldn’t choose anyone offhand – if there was someone in particular he wanted to work with, he says he would be trying to get in touch with them.
“Everyone has a signature and when you get with someone and work with them in any capacity, something new happens that wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t come together,” he said. “It’s always very interesting; the whole artistic world.
“If I do a record for an artist and it sells, I really enjoy that because someone put a part of their career in my hands. I like the idea it worked because the idea is we can usually do something that has massive appeal. So whenever those things happen, even though I don’t focus on it for a long time, I’m grateful it does happen sometimes. And when it doesn’t, I sort of understand.”
Talk of collaborations leads to a discussion of the wealth of people who have covered Toussaint’s music, ranging from The Yardbirds, Iron Butterfly and The Doors through to the Jerry Garcia Band, Bo Diddley and Boz Scaggs.
When asked if has any favourites, he immediately jokes “All of them!” but after some consideration, he admits to liking Herb Alpert’s version of Whipped Cream and Ringo Starr doing Occapella.
“Bonnie Raitt has done some of my songs and any time she does anything, even if she sang Mary Had A Little Lamb, I would love it,” Toussaint swoons.
But he remains unsure of what to attribute to his longevity in the business.
“I really don’t know – that’s a very good question,” he mused. “Everyone does something and I just feel like this is what I’m supposed to do every day.”
Over the past half century, the music industry has changed considerably but Toussaint admits to still loving it.
“It’s constantly on the stairway going somewhere,” he said. “The business side has changed tremendously on how you move product. That kind of throws a wrench in the mechanism but the artistic part is in great shape. I love the artists and what they’re doing these days; there’s a lot of energy and effort and enthusiasm behind the acts I see out there.”
One final question – has he ever thought of retiring? “No way!” Toussaint fires back instantly. “This is too much fun.”
BY CHRIS THOMAS
Allen Toussaint headlines the Legends Of New Orleans extravaganza taking place at The Palace on Wednesday October 5.