When asked who wrote vocalist Irma Thomas’ 1963 hit “Ruler of My Heart,” later covered by Otis Redding and The Rolling Stones as “Pain in My Heart,” Thomas’ bassist answered, “You can’t turn a corner in New Orleans without bumping into Allen Toussaint.”
In fact, it’s hard to turn a musical corner just about anywhere in American pop, rock ’n’ roll, R&B or funk from the late ’50s onward without encountering the influence of Toussaint—composer, producer, arranger, pianist, singer, sideman and 1998 Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame inductee.
Consider “Jada” (recorded by Al Hirt), “Whipped Cream” (Herb Alpert), “Southern Nights” (Glenn Campbell), “Mother-In-Law” (Ernie K-Doe), “Yes We Can Can” (Pointer Sisters), “Get Out of My Life Woman” (Lee Dorsey)—all Toussaint compositions, and just the tip of the tip of the iceberg. Add production and/or arranging credits with the likes of Paul Simon, The Band, LaBelle (“Lady Marmalade”), Dr. John (“Right Place, Wrong Time”) and The Meters, and you begin to get an idea of Toussaint’s reach.
This Saturday on Civic Plaza, you’ll get a happy earful when the Allen Toussaint Quintet is presented in a free Summerfest concert by the City of Albuquerque in partnership with the New Mexico Jazz Festival.
Now in the sixth decade of his career, Toussaint has long been famous for declining to be famous, preferring to stay in the background, out of the spotlight.
Katrina, however, had other plans, sending Toussaint to New York City, where he played regularly at Joe’s Pub, appeared in benefit concerts and released a highly praised CD, The River in Reverse, with Elvis Costello in 2006.
“It’s feeling great,” Toussaint, now back in New Orleans, says about taking center stage. “I must say that my whole life has been spent somewhere else, in the studio in particular. But I think it’s the ultimate of what we do to be right before the people, and that’s what you get when you’re performing onstage, and it’s gratifying.”
Toussaint, for all of his accomplishments, does not rush to take credit for the rock ’n’ roll sound he helped create. He often reflects credit back to one of his New Orleans idols, Henry Roeland Byrd—aka Professor Longhair, Fess for short—whom Toussaint dubbed the “Bach of Rock.”
Even today, some 60 years after first hearing Fess, Toussaint, rock’s Mozart, still finds him fascinating and inspiring.
“Fess’ music and his inventions and his place in the whole musical stairsteps was so profound and original,” he says. “There were several things that Fess did that were just far enough from each other to be considered something new, but still very much Fess, that could only have come from him.”
Infused with Fess’ rhythms and inventions, Toussaint wrote much of his early music on the spot when material was needed to fill out a session. Nonetheless, the groove, the hook, the simple joy catches the ear and sticks.
A good portion of his work resonates on a deeper level, as Costello discovered in pulling together tunes for their CD. “He went and sorted through my catalog and found some songs that he thought were totally applicable to the times we are in,” says Toussaint.
One of them, “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further,” written in 1970, lights up a dark chapter in the African-American experience with a gentle and irrepressible optimism.
“I’m so glad we were able to breathe a new breath into that song,” Toussaint says. “I don’t know why I wrote it, but I do know that that was the period. Even if it wasn’t right up-front cerebral, it was signs of the times on what I was seeing around with the way people were interacting with one another and whatnot.
“But I never saw things in a bad way,” he adds. “It always seemed like it’s a grooving way that we’re on the way somewhere.”