Toussaint infused New Orleans sound into pop music

New Orleans
Allen Toussaint plays the National Anthem at the Superdome. Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

The French Quarter Festival, which showcases local music, could not have scored a better opening headliner this year than with the hometown artist whose creativity has nurtured the New Orleans sound for over a half century. (Listen to the show that complements this post.)

Allen Toussaint was a teenager when he first sat in on Earl King’s band and regularly scored gigs at the legendary Dew Drop Inn.

It wasn’t long before he found his way to the center of the known Rock n’ Roll universe at the time, Cosimo Matassa’s studio, where he laid down piano tracks on recordings by Fats Domino, Huey “Piano” Smith, and Aaron Neville. But it was when he joined Minit Records that his creativity became apparent to the world. Using his parent’s living room as rehearsal space and testing ground for new material, he assembled a parade of hit singles by Jessie Hill, Irma Thomas, Lee Dorsey and this blog’s patron saint, Ernie K-Doe.

Ernie K-Doe best recordings were aided by the songwriting, arranging and producing of Allen Toussaint.

As a keyboard savant, Toussaint could accurately reproduce and synthesize the city’s revered legacy of piano professors, especially the style of Professor Longhair. But as a songwriter and arranger, he was able to weave the full panoply of New Orleans rhythms, vocal traditions and spirit into a clean appealing style for the pop market. In fact, he, along with K-Doe, were responsible for the sole number 1 pop chart hit recorded in New Orleans,  “Mother-in-Law.” (A song written before Toussaint was married and had one.)

Later, he started his own record labels providing a platform for local and national musicians to access the New Orleans sound. With The Meters as his studio house band, Toussaint was a key force behind the New Orleans funk sound that developed in the 70’s. A prolific songwriter, his music has been performed by The Rolling Stones (“Ruler of My Heart”), The Who (“Fortune Teller”), Bonnie Raitt (“What Do You Want the Boy To Do”), Devo (“Working in the Coal Mine”),  Al Hirt (“Java”), The Doors (“Get Out of My Life Woman”),  Jerry Garcia (“I’ll Take a Melody”), Glen Campbell (“Southern Nights”), Robert Palmer (“Sneaky Sally through the Alley”), The Pointer Sisters (“Yes, We Can Can”) and many more.

Linda and Paul McCartney performing with Allen Toussaint in his New Orleans studio in 1975.
Linda and Paul McCartney performing with Allen Toussaint in his New Orleans studio in 1975.

In 1973, Toussaint had a big hand in producing and performing on Dr. John’s album “In The Right Place.” Two years later, Linda and Paul McCartney moved their entourage to New Orleans to collaborate with Toussaint in his New Orleans studio on their album “Venus and Mars.”

He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998, the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2009, and the Blues Hall of Fame in 2011. If there’s any question of whether being a senior statesman of New Orleans music has diminished his chops, you need only look as far as his grammy-nominated, post-Katrina collaboration with Elvis Costello, “The River in Reverse,” for evidence that at 77, he still has it.

In addition to being a producer, bandleader, arranger and songwriter, Toussaint is an accomplished pianist and stands with the great New Orleans piano “professors.” Toussaint will take the stage at the French Quarter Festival on April 9 at 3:45 p.m. but you will be able to catch his music on my next show this Monday. (Here’s the recorded show)

Larger than Life K-Doe is patron saint of this blog

Meet Ernie K-Doe, a New Orleans performer and a character in a city of characters. He is now officially designated: Patron Saint of this Blog.

I have no idea what the criterion is to be a blog’s patron saint or even if this is a good idea. I suspect for someone who called himself Emperor of the World, Ernie might consider this gig slumming.  Then again, from what I’ve read, he was a generous and warm fellow despite his boastful swagger.

Ernie K-Doe’s claim to fame is the song Mother-in-Law (written by Allen Toussaint) which became the best-selling record in America in May 1961, topping the pop chart for one week and the R&B chart for five weeks.  No other New Orleans artist has ever reached the top with a song recorded in New Orleans. Fats Domino sold a mountain of records but never had a number one hit.

And Ernie K-Doe never let you forget his claim to fame. Not in his performances nor in his outrageous stints as a volunteer deejay for community radio stations WWOZ and WTUL–where his code phrase was “Burn K-Doe Burn.” He would say there are only two songs that will stand the test of time: Star Spangled Banner and Mother-in-Law.

But its not his R&B career that qualifies him as patron saint though it is an essential part of his resume. It has more to do with his stint as a community radio deejay given that this blog supports my radio show Sweeney’s Gumbo YaYa.  But what puts him over the top for patron canonization is what the Times-Picayune describes as “a robust and unexpected second act as an eccentric, only-in-New Orleans icon.”

Ernie’s turning point was meeting Antoinette Dorsey Fox–a woman with many talents including her ability to sew outlandish outfits to match his personality and to provide love and focus to a man who had taken the textbook life crash of a one-hit wonder.

Ernie in full Emperor regalia outside Mother-in-Law Lounge

Antoinette opened the Mother-in-Law Lounge at 1500 N. Claiborne Street in the shadow of Interstate 10 where K-Doe could perform as well as tend bar.  The lounge became a kitschy memorial to his career, including outsized murals of K-Doe and a jukebox that played his hit every 20 minutes — sometimes accompanied by the real-time K-Doe who kept a wired microphone nearby.

Despite being renovated after Katrina, the lounge closed after Antoinette died in 2009. Kermit Ruffins later bought it and reopened it this year with many of the murals restored.

I recommend reading Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans by Ben Sandmel. The New Orleans writer/folklorist makes it easy to feel a connection to Ernie even though we’ve missed our chance to meet or see him perform. He died in 2001.

Not that death stopped him. A local sculptor was able to adapt a mannequin into a life-size and lifelike rendition of Ernie. For a few years after his death, Antoinette dressed and brought the statute to gatherings around town, including a fundraiser for the benefit of New Orleans cemeteries.  In 2002, the benefit was held at Saint Alphonsus Catholic Church where I once subbed as an altar boy in the 60’s. Apparently the church was also used by Anne Rice as a setting in her novel The Witching Hour.

Antoinette with the Ernie K-Doe statue

Sandmel takes the story from here:   

“Although decommissioned as a place of worship and then reinvented as an arts center, Saint Alphonsus kept its full array of Catholic statuary in place. This holy horde looked on as the Madame Tussaud-esque K-Doe was plunked down in its sacred midst. A bodyguard named Cisco accompanied Ernie’s effigy. He stood stock-still by his charge’s side lest anyone should feel prone to K-Doe kleptomania. But almost everyone else at the church was in frenetic motion.  A zydeco band set up in front of the altar and cranked out upbeat two-steps and slow, low-down blues. This irresistibly danceable blend inspired the cemeteries’ more extroverted friends to twirl, bump and grind by the baptismal font, with their Lestat costumes and Goth garb all a-flutter.  At evening’s end Antoinette disassembled and packed up the statue like all mannequins, it is sectional–with the disarming comment, ‘I’m working poor Ernie to death!’”

Ernie and Antoinette

Poor Ernie. Now you gotta be my patron saint as well. I’ll be playing Ernie’s Certain Girl — a New Orleans favorite on the September 15th show on KAOS starting at 10 a.m.

POST SCRIPT: And I’ll honor his birthday on the February 23rd show.