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Allen Toussaint honored with National Medal of Arts

15th July 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Geraldine Wyckoff
Contributing Writer

On Wednesday, July 10, 2013, President Barrack Obama presented New Orleans’ own composer, producer, arranger, pianist and vocalist Allen Toussaint with the distinguished National Medal of Arts award in the East Room of the White House. It stood as a moment that not so long ago few could have visualized. A Black President of the United States and a one-time resident of this city’s Gert Town neighborhood shaking hands during a ceremony that celebrated the contributions of gifted artistic talents and humanitarians.

While Barry Manilow might be known for singing the lyrics, “I write the songs,” in New Orleans that man is Allen Toussaint. His list of hits reads like the history of this city’s rhythm and blues legacy. Imagine a world without Toussaint-penned tunes like Ernie K-Doe’s “Mother-in-Law,” Lee Dorsey’s “Working in a Coal Mine,” Benny Spellman’s “Lipstick Traces (On a Cigarette)” and a slew of others that he wrote under his own name and pseudonyms including Naomi Neville and Al Tousan.

“Allen wrote so many great songs for so many of us local artists that he kind of put us on the map,” says the Soul Queen of New Orleans, vocalist Irma Thomas who calls Toussaint “worthy” of the recognition and instrumental in her success. “To some extent, by putting us on the map he put New Orleans on the map.”

“It was with Allen Toussaint’s music as a songwriter and producer that in the early stages of my career I went from a predominately Black audience to a predominately white audience – what they now call crossover,” Thomas continues. “Cry On” started it but it really didn’t swing all the way over until (Toussaint’s composition) “It’s Raining.” Because of his influence and the music he wrote for me in those days, he created that situation and it’s been that way ever since.”

Toussaint, 75, joins other Louisiana musicians who have been recipients of the National Medal of Arts that is overseen by the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1998, pianist/vocalist legend Antoine “Fats” Domino was acknowledged for his contributions to the world of music and later it was bestowed on blues man, guitarist/vocalist Buddy Guy, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and the Pre­servation Hall Jazz Band. Perhaps coincidentally, trumpeter Herb Alpert, widely known as the leader of the popular group the Tijuana Brass, was honored with the arts award at the same ceremony as Toussaint who wrote the trumpeter’s hit, “Whipped Cream.” Another trumpeter, New Orleans own Al Hirt, also did well in selecting a Toussaint original, “Java,” that soared to the top of the charts.

“To me it’s just in his ability to do what he does so well,” Thomas says simply. “The fact that he loves it and puts so much time into it, I think it’s wonderful that he gets that medal. He does represent New Orleans in such a very unselfish way.”

To put a perspective on the caliber of artists with whom Toussaint shares in receiving this honor, they include such legends as producer Quincy Jones, saxophonist Sonny Rollins, folk musician/poet Bob Dylan, the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin, the great pianist and vocalist Ray Charles and jazz trumpet innovator Dizzy Gillespie plus many more. Toussaint is, indeed, in solid company.

One wonders if it weren’t for the devastation caused by the breaks in the levees and the flooding of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina whether Allen Toussaint, as great as he is, would have gained the deserved national recognition he’s received. His Grammy nominations for his collaboration with guitarist/vocalist Elvis Costello for River in Reverse and his own Bright Mississippi came after the storm.

“Allen really didn’t start doing any touring before Katrina,” Thomas observes. “He would do occasional shows for the Artists Against Hunger and Homelessness. (He along with vocalist Aaron Neville founded this New Orleans-based non-profit organization). That wasn’t where his head was. He just didn’t care for touring or doing live performances. It wasn’t until after Katrina that he really dove off into touring and doing gigs. Go figure…”

Allen Toussaint is no longer just a name written in small print, if at all, on 45 rpm records though nowadays so many of those are sought after classics. He’s not just the go-to guy to get a record produced at his Sea-Saint Studios as did LaBelle that hit hard with its smash, “Lady Marmalade.” Toussaint, a modest, polite, soft-spoken and always impeccably dressed man, is a Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame and Blues Hall of Fame inductee who rose to prominence quietly. Primarily working behind the scenes, Toussaint, who wrote the gentle “Southern Nights” made famous by singer Glen Campbell, always knew and knows how to give the world a taste of New Orleans in the humor of his lyrics and trill of the piano keys.

That Toussaint should be recognized by the nation “for his contribution as a composer, producer and performer” is both justified and remarkable. Just think, the guy who wrote the lyrics, “The worst person I know, Mother-in-Law…” for the outrageously eclectic Ernie K-Doe got props from the president of the United States.

“Congratulations big brother,” says a grateful Irma Thomas. Ditto that from all of those who have danced to and sung along with Toussaint’s music throughout his more than half-century career. There are many New Orleanians who would have been thrilled to have been in the White House when President Obama slipped the National Medal of Arts around Toussaint’s neck.

As Allen Toussaint wrote for his regular collaborator, the late, great Lee Dorsey, “Holy Cow!”

This article originally published in the July 15, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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