New Orleans great on Maui
During an interview on Elvis Costello’s TV show, “Spectacle,” Elton John was asked about some of his influences, including legendary New Orleans musician Allen Toussaint.
“When I meet someone like Allen Toussaint, that, for me, is like meeting someone of the equivalent of the Dalai Lama,” John said. “Because he influenced the way I played the piano. He’s a historical part of rock ‘n’ roll.”
Though he might not be widely known, this veteran musician has been responsible for many hits, and his music has been covered by an array of artists, from the Rolling Stones and Robert Plant to Bonnie Raitt and Boz Scaggs.
Over the years, Toussaint has received a number of prestigious awards, including induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, immortalization with a life-size bronze statue erected in New Orleans’ Musical Legends Park, and a National Medal of the Arts bestowed in July by President Barack Obama at the White House.
“Allen Toussaint is being honored for his incredible contributions to the rhythm and blues and jazz music of his beloved New Orleans,” said the president. “Today, he’s doing everything he can to revive the legendary soul of the Big Easy.”
“That was the highlight of my entire career,” Allen Toussaint enthuses. “I can’t think of any higher honor than the president to have rendered such a statement to me. He and his lovely wife were so gracious. It was just a wonderful event.”
Acclaimed as a producer, composer, arranger and pianist, the 75-year-old musician spotlights his career on a new album/DVD, “Songbook,” recorded live in New York City. Classics he performs solo include “It’s Raining,” “Lipstick Traces,” “Freedom for the Stallion” and his trademark “Southern Nights,” made famous by Glen Campbell.
“I fell in love at 6 and a half,” he says about his passion for the piano. “I knew as a very young child this is all I want to ever do. I didn’t know anything about it being a business, but I knew the musical aspect was for me and nothing else. I would wake up in the morning to get to music one way or another. And I still wake up to do something musical every day.”
Legendary New Orleans pianist Professor Longhair became one of his primary influences. “Professor Longhair was a most profound inspiration,” he says. “His playing was so different from anything else I had been trying to play. I studied a lot of people’s playing, everything on the radio. But when I heard Professor Longhair, I said, ‘Wherever he’s going, I want to go.’ “
Such was his early proficiency that in the 1950s he was asked to play piano on some tracks on a Fats Domino record, filling in for the absent star.
“Fats Domino was in Europe performing, and his producer had a deadline to get the record out,” Toussaint explains. “I played on three songs as if he was playing on them. I knew all of Fats Domino’s music. It went very well, and months later Fats Domino told me, ‘I don’t know whether that was you or me playing.’ That was a really high compliment.”
Having gained a glowing reputation in the New Orleans region, Toussaint was amazed to discover his music had crossed the Atlantic when the Rolling Stones recorded one of his compositions, “Fortune Teller,” in 1964.
“I was very surprised and elated that my music was so far reaching,” he recalls. “I thought what we were doing was pretty local. It was a pleasant surprise; I was very grateful.”
Rock legends The Who later released a cover of “Fortune Teller” on their seminal recording, “Live at Leeds,” and in 2007, Robert Plant teamed with Alison Krauss for a terrific swampy version.
“They did a wonderful job,” he notes. “To think that, after all of these years, they breathed new life into it. That was wonderful.”
Over the years, many artists have mined his extensive songbook, including The Doors and the Jerry Garcia Band with “Get Out of My Life, Woman;” Bonnie Raitt – “What is Success” and “What Do You Want the Boy to Do?;” Ringo Starr – “Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley” and “Occapella;” and Boz Scaggs – “Freedom for the Stallion” and “Hello My Lover.”
Soul singer Lee Dorsey scored a hit in 1966 with Toussaint’s funky composition, “Working in the Coal Mine.” Fifteen years later Devo reconstructed it for the movie soundtrack “Heavy Metal.” “I definitely loved Devo’s version,” he says. “I had never thought of it that way with a high pitch.”
Another of his songs, “Yes We Can Can,” became an uplifting funk classic for the Pointer Sisters on their 1973 debut album.
“I wasn’t thinking politically or anything like that,” he says. “I wrote it for Lee Dorsey to sing. I thought it was a good thing to say. I loved the Pointer Sisters’ version; they really got on it in a marvelous way.”
Toussaint’s arranging talents were secured by The Band, who hired him to arrange horn parts on their studio albums “Cahoots” and “Rock of Ages,” as well as the legendary “The Last Waltz” concert filmed by Martin Scorsese.
“Arranging horns for The Band was a milestone,” he says. “It was monumental. Many people who had never heard of me before began to take stock because The Band was such a wonderful group.”
And then a famous Beatle came calling.
In 1975, Paul McCartney journeyed to New Orleans with Wings to collaborate with Toussaint on their hit album, “Venus and Mars.”
“Paul McCartney knew about New Orleans by reputation,” he explains. “He loved the music scene here and being around many of the artists he had admired since he first got started, like Earl King and Professor Longhair. He’s such a marvelous producer, writer and player; we were very glad to have him. He knows how to go towards the magic with music, and he knows when he gets there.”
More recently, Toussaint was involved in two blues-based collaborations, playing piano on Cyndi Lauper’s Grammy-nominated “Memphis Blues” project and Eric Clapton’s “Clapton” album in 2010.
“Cyndi Lauper is a true diva, such a musician,” he reports. “It was a pleasure to work with her. And Clapton is such a giant; who wouldn’t want to do that. Anyone would love to play with him.”
Asked what he thinks defines New Orleans’ unique musical style, he explains: “There’s a lot of syncopation in New Orleans’ music, and there’s even some humor. We definitely have a smile in our music; and some influence from the second line street band parades lives in our music. And also we have the frenzy of the Mardi Gras Indians in our music, a lot of percussive syncopation. We stride at a slightly slower pace than the rest of the country. Geographically we’re down South, where the pace is a little slower, and we hold onto the old-world charm a little more.”
And as to the state of the city’s culture post-Hurricane Katrina?
“The musical culture is in great shape,” he affirms. “We were up to the task after Katrina as far as rebuilding parts of the city, but the spirit never left. We were baptized for a moment. The music scene is in great shape, and some things are better than before.”
Multi-Grammy-nominated vocalist Nnenna Freelon performs at 7:30 tonight at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s Castle Theater. Freelon has a well-deserved reputation as a mesmerizing live performer. A PopMatters review hailed her as “the best voice in jazz.” And it’s been said she has the ample range of Sarah Vaughan and the beguiling charm of Nancy Wilson.
Studying with legendary jazz instrumentalist Yusef Lateef, Freelon developed her singing style by listening to horn players. After earning a Grammy nomination for her debut album, later records included “Maiden Voyage,” where she celebrated female songwriters such as Dorothy Fields, Laura Nyro and Buffy Sainte-Marie; and the superb “Soulcall,” where she explored various influences, from gospel and soul to hip-hop and funk.
During the second decade of her illustrious career, Freelon continued to expand her role as a jazz singer, creating tributes to Stevie Wonder and Billie Holliday. Then in 2010, the innovative “Freedom Suite” saw her collaborate with hip-hop quartet the Beast.
“Genres are boring,” Freelon reported. “There’s only two kinds of music: good music and the other kind. My standards are to make the best music and to be involved in the best creative experience as I can.”
Tickets for tonight’s show are $12, $32 and $42, plus applicable fees. Call the MACC at 242-7469 to charge by phone or visit www.mauiarts.org.