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Musical Royalty

Legendary New Orleans pianist and arranger Allen Toussaint talks about his first break and the time the floods came.

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Once you're aware of Allen Toussaint, you seem to encounter him everywhere.

His career started in 1950s R&B, writing great songs that crossed over to a new audience when they were covered by such '60s British invasion bands as Eric Clapton's Yardbirds, the Rolling Stones and the Who. He composed the iconic Herb Alpert instrumental, "Whipped Cream," which gained mass familiarity as the theme for the television show "The Dating Game."

Through the decades, musicians as varied as Glen Campbell, Jerry Garcia and the Derek Trucks Band covered his songs: "Southern Nights," "Workin' in the Coal Mine," "Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley." He worked on seminal recordings including Patty Labelle's "Lady Marmalade," Paul McCartney and Wings' "Venus and Mars," and Boz Scaggs' "Silk Degrees." His innovative horn arrangements for the Band's "Rock of Ages" concert are a key inspiration for the current generation on the Richmond scene, especially Matthew E. White's Fight the Big Bull and Spacebomb projects.

For five decades Toussaint was a behind-the-scenes force in his native New Orleans. Then came Hurricane Katrina.

"That was something else," he says. "Not just a drowning but a baptism." Like many, he was driven from the Big Easy to an apartment in New York for two years. "It was the longest time I ever spent away from home," he says. Tragedy became rebirth. "The energy of the world is flowing by on every street corner, in every language, every genre, every nuance."

He started new collaborations with a host of musicians: "The River in Reverse" with Elvis Costello was the first album recorded in post-hurricane New Orleans. The more traditional "The Bright Mississippi" featured an all-star lineup of jazz musicians -- Joshua Redman, Don Byron, Nicholas Payton, Brad Mehldau and Marc Ribot. Perhaps most significantly, he started playing solo piano gigs at New York's famed Joe's Pub. "That stage center art is still relatively new to me," Toussaint says. "It's another kind of inspiration."

Of his journey, he says: "You are never too deep to rise. I am just as excited as when I first started, I am inspired every day."

Toussaint got his first professional break at 17, subbing for Huey Smith on an Earl King gig. It was a gateway into one of the great musical communities of the mid-20th century, dominated by the syncopated genius of the great New Orleans pianist Professor Longhair.

"He was the leader, and we were disciples," Toussaint says. "But I tried to mimic everyone. I loved Ray Charles — and Albert Ammons, the boogie-woogie pianist. All those guys were wonderful. I thought everyone could play everything but me, so I had best get started."

He even visited Richmond in the early days of his career, playing behind Shirley and Lee (whose 1956 hit was "Let the Good Times Roll"). "I remember we passed a statue about some soldiers that was very popular," he says. "That's all I remember about Richmond."

But Toussaint will return next week in a featured role with Preservation Hall Jazz Band, whose mission is to keep vital the Crescent City and Dixieland roots of jazz.

"They play so well, in such a pure form you wish you had been around back then," Toussaint says. "They have been wonderful for us."

At one time the Preservation Hall players were almost as ancient as the music, but they've been replaced by a younger generation. "These guys are playing it as honestly as it ever was," Toussaint says. "It doesn't sound like a hybrid, but that wouldn't be so bad. It has the same feel that it had many years ago. They stick to the tradition, they are not mixing it up with the funk as we know it today."

Commitment keeps it fresh, and connecting with the great music of the past is a form of time travel. "When you are playing, you are inspired by that period," Toussaint says. "It has its own hidden agendas that rise up. … You will be surprised how much it moves you." S

Allen Toussaint performs Wednesday, Oct. 29, at 7:30 p.m., at Camp Concert Hall at the University of Richmond. Tickets are $10-$45. For information visit modlin.richmond.edu.

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