Allen Toussaint: The Reluctant Performer
By David Nathan
May 1975, in person interview at Sea-Saint Studios, Clematis Street, New Orleans…
Allen Toussaint sits quietly deliberating, selecting his words, deciding on what he wants to say and how he wants to put it. A gentle, you feel, sensitive man who is very astute, very observant and very talented. This is the man who's been responsible for some of the true classics that soul (or any other) music has produced. The man behind "Working In A Coalmine", "Ride Your Pony", "Ruler of My Heart", "Nearer To You" (that immortal Betty Harris classic), "Land of 1,000 Dances", and dozens of others. The man whose name you'll find in the writing credits on records by such diverse folk as Rufus ("Whoever's Thrilling You Is Killing Me"), Sam & Dave ("Blinded By Love"), Betty Wright ("Shoorah! Shoorah!") and The Hues Corporation ("Freedom For The Stallion"). The same man who produced every hit The Meters had in the sixties and the man who helped put Labelle on the top of the charts with his fantastic production on the group's first CBS album, "Nightbirds". If they hadn't tagged Curtis Mayfield "The Gentle Genius", then the title should surely have gone to Allen Toussaint.
Without too much prompting, Allen tells you that yes, he is something of a reluctant performer. So why get into it in the first place, you ask hesitantly. "To be honest, I had never given the idea of recording myself any consideration. I simply did it by request. When it was first suggested to me, I thought about it, then agreed although I didn't ever feel like a recording artist myself. Generally, I had found that I could say what I wanted through other people and I never felt that I could give enough full devotion to it myself. It was Steve Tyrell at Scepter Records who first requested I cut anything on myself. Well, we did that album but I still found I was much too busy recording others to really concentrate on it and all that it involves. Then, we were talking with Warner Brothers — myself and my partner Marshall Sehorn — about placing artists with them. They considered, during the course of our discussions, that they might be interested in having me as an artist as well. Hence "Life, Love & Faith", our first album with them."
Here Allen pauses and shakes his head. You sense that, no, he didn't feel too happy with the album and he states categorically, "it was just too speculative. I just don't rate myself as an artist or a vocalist, I feel that I'm still looking for a comfortable vocal groove. And my experience with other artists made it hard for me to look at myself from the outside. It was like part of me was producer and the other part recording artist and the first part was telling the second part what to do! And whereas artists have particular favourite licks or vocal highlights which I can use when I'm writing material for them or producing, I don't have any myself. When I produce, I use my voice then simply to teach a tune, to convey what I want to create. But it is a craft, singing itself — and it deserves more work, more intentional study. You see, I write material specifically for people. Of course, songs will sometimes develop of their own accord but I work on specific projects. Yes, I get to meet the artist beforehand just so that I can have some idea of what I want to do with them. Just from conversation, I'll get an impression and I know then what to try and go for. Which is what makes it that much harder for me to produce myself. I feel that maybe this latest album, "Southern Nights" is closer to me and the actual song itself wasn't meant as a song. It just developed and I think it's probably the best thing I've done so far, just that one track."
Talk to Allen Toussaint about success and he tends to be mystified. "To me, each single project I tackle is the most important thing I'm doing at that time. And it's what happens when I'm in the studio, when I'm creating and working. What happens afterwards, that's beyond my control. Naturally, you want what you do to do well but all you can do is strive to do your best when you're actually in there creating." Labelle, he says, was just a fabulous experience. "No, I hadn't even heard the group before we went into the studios. But I spent a few days getting to observe them, talking to them. I know that made them nervous, because they were really ready. Some days we would just do nothing at all — and I could see it was upsetting them that we weren't in there creating. But when the time came, their energy was so high, they were so professional — it was just superb."
He confides that, with time, he is becoming more adjusted to the role of recording artist and performer. although he's quick to point out that producing other people is still his first love. "With this current tour with Little Feat, my thinking has altered. I feel that as I've gone into recording as an artist, I owe it to myself and to an extent, to the public (if they want to) to see me — I should at least give them the option. I may not want to do this forever — but I should at least give it a try. Plus I'm finding another feeling being out there in front of an audience. Yes, I was very very nervous about it because I don't have a stage personality. When you're out there, you have to do whatever you can. It's not like in a studio where you can 'punch in', you cannot manipulate — whatever you do the first time out there onstage, that's what comes out."
Allen still feels that singing as such has a different purpose from producing "you sing about what's happening and what is valid: a producer has to feel what a singer is about." Irrespective of how he may feel about any of his roles, Allen Toussaint is undoubtedly an extraordinarily talented individual. Although by his own reasoning, he still feels he has some way to go in terms of being a performer and recording artist in his own right, he will continue to create some of the finest and most individual music around today.