When Allen Toussaint, New Orleans songwriter, producer, pianist and, after Hurricane Katrina, a belated world-traveling solo act, received his National Medal of Arts award last month at the White House, his entire career flashed through his mind.
That career includes Toussaint’s principal participation in the creation of so many classic recordings: Ernie K-Doe’s “Mother-In-Law,” Jessie Hill’s “Ooh Poo Pah Doo,” Lee Dorsey’s “Working In The Coal Mine” and recordings by Elvis Costello, Dr. John, Irma Thomas, Chris Kenner, The Band and Labelle.
President Barack Obama presented 24 Medals of Arts and Humanities. In addition to Toussaint, recipients included “Star Wars” director George Lucus, opera star Renée Fleming and trumpeter Herb Alpert, who recorded the Toussaint-composed “Whipped Cream.”
“I have received awards before,” Toussaint said last week. “I’ve always been grateful for every reward, but this was the pinnacle of all.”
Toussaint’s Medal of Arts honor follows the honorary doctorate he received in May at Tulane University’s commencement as well as a star-studded 75th birthday celebration at Harrah’s Casino in April. His prior accolades include inductions into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2012 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998.
At the Tulane University commencement in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Toussaint joined the Dalai Lama, U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey and New Orleans’ Dr. John as honorary doctorate recipients.
One of those only-in-New Orleans scenes happened at the commencement when Toussaint and Dr. John performed, and the Dalai Lama danced.
“No way did I imagine the Dalai Lama having his second-line umbrella over his head,” Toussaint said. “That is historical as well as hysterical.”
It was special, too, that Toussaint and Dr. John, who came up together in New Orleans’ 1950s and ’60s music scene, received their honorary doctorates during the same ceremony.
“It felt so right for us to be there together, because we had been together as teenagers,” Toussaint said.
Toussaint, despite his annual performances with his band and singers at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, didn’t really emerge as a solo act until floodwaters engulfed his Gentilly home in 2005.
“Since Katrina, this kind of performing is really another life for me,” he said. “I have begun to really enjoy it and understand it. And I’m able to use it for inspiration for new ideas and approaches to music.”
Exiled from New Orleans after the flood, Toussaint got an apartment in New York City and began playing brunches as a solo singer-pianist at Joe’s Pub.
“I was a bit hesitant at first,” he recalled. “Because it was foreign territory for me, to just get up and do a gig solo piano for an hour. I was used to just waiting in the studio for the red light to come on. But I began to do it and it became quite rewarding. I’m so glad it happened. That’s one of the blessings from Katrina.”
Producer Paul Siegel, a Toussaint fan, suggested the solo show be recorded. Rounder Records is releasing the resulting “Songbook” CD and DVD on Sept. 24. The performances were recorded at Joe’s Pub in the fall of 2009.
Toussaint, who says he was reborn after Katrina, plans to continue his late-arriving solo career.
Nevertheless, his comfort zone remains behind the scenes, working in a supporting, teaching and coaching role for artists who are passionate about performing.
“It’s been quite rewarding coming up front and stage center and doing my performances,” he said. “However, I don’t forget that the reason I’m out front now is because of whatever happened back there behind the scenes. Being in the studio, those hours we spend alone writing and arranging the horn parts and the string parts, I love all of that part of it.”