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Of the Oakland Press

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The first piano Allen Toussaint played wasn't really his.

It was an "old upright" from an aunt, a gift for Toussaint's older sister to learn how to play at the family's home in New Orleans. But the then six-year-old had other ideas.

"I remember walking it up to it for the first time, and it was love at first touch," says Toussaint, who's now 70 and is one of the headliners at this weekend's Motor City Blues & Boogie Woogie Festival. "A beautiful note came out, and it was instant gratification. That was all I wanted to do from that point on."

And that's pretty much all Toussaint does in the intervening years, establishing himself as one of America's musical legends over the course of a 53-year career as a performer, recording artist, writer, producer, arranger and, of course, a pianist. He's put out albums of his own -- most recently 2006's "The River in Reverse" with Elvis Costello, with a standards collection due in 2009 -- but Toussaint is best-known for writing and/or producing others hits. Among his credits: Ernie Doe's "Mother in Law," Benny Spellman's "Fortune Teller," Chris Kenner's "Land of 1000 Dances," "Ya Ya" and "Working in a Coalmine" for Lee Dorsey and "Whipped Cream," which Toussaint wrote under the pseudonym Naomi Neville and which became the theme for the TV show "The Dating Game."

In fact, Toussaint says, he mostly prefers working with others rather than making music on his.

"Of course I love to just sit and play the piano," he notes, "but I like producing because 'cause that comes with arranging and making the whole thing work. There's a certain kind of magic that happens whenever you work with someone, so I consider the whole process just a marvelous undertaking."

With that in mind, Toussaint -- who recently moved back to New Orleans full-time after spending some post-Katrina years in New York City -- took us through a tour of some of his most celebrated collaborations:

Lee Dorsey: "Oh, he was a wonderful artist. I appreciate everyone I work with...He was a very spirited guy. He had such a degree of humor. His voice sounds like a smile. You could write things for him that were not so mature that a child wouldn't like it, too."

Irma Thomas: Next to Dorsey, Thomas was Toussaint's best-known muse during the '60s. "She's a queen, definitely. I hear her voice in my head many, many times, just walking down the street -- still. She was my first female source of inspiration."

The Meters: After a tenure as the house band at Toussaint's Sansu Enterprises in the late '60s, he helped turn the superlative New Orleans outfit into its own recording entity in 1969. "That was magic again. Everyone in the Meters group was playing percussion, so the sparks would fly everywhere. The nucleus of the Meters has always been Art Neville; even though they can go other (musical) places now, he is the actual nucleus, as far as I'm concerned, of the Meters machine."

Paul McCartney & Wings: When the former Beatle came to New Orleans to work on his 1976 "Venus and Mars" album, he called Toussaint to play keyboards and help with horn arrangements. "He knows a lot about New Orleans music, and if he was gonna do something with some of that feel he wanted to come down here where it all was. I must say he did it in very fine form and was just a wonderful human being as well as a superb musician and producer. He had his whole schedule mapped out very well, and where he thought I was applicable he used me. I was glad he did it that way; there was no extra thing for me to do at all!"

The Band: The legendary rockers first tapped Toussaint for its 1971 album "Cahoots" and later used him to arrange horn parts for the 1972 live album "Rock of Ages" and "The Last Waltz" concert and film project. "They knew about me before I knew about them -- of course, it didn't take me long to find out they were quite notable. Robbie Robertson...first called me to do the (horn) arrangement on the single 'Life is a Carnival.' Later on, when it was time for the 'Rock of Ages' album, they gave me a call and said they would like me to arrange horns on the whole album, and the rest is history, of course."

LaBelle: Toussaint produced the vocal trio's 1975 album "Phoenix," which featured the chart-topping hit "Lady Marmalade." "I knew the name LaBelle was out there, but I hadn't kept up with the ladies from record to record. The record company commissioned me to produce that (album), and I said yes right away. They brought such spirit and such flight to the studio; every performance they did, even the outtakes, were just wonderful -- even when we were learning the songs, when they'd sit beside me on the piano stool, softly singing their lines, everything sounded suitable for framing."

Elvis Costello: Toussaint has collaborated with Costello on several of the British auteur's albums as well as on "The River in Reverse" with frequent collaborator Costello. "I think (Costello) is the busiest man in show business -- and any other business. With the kind of collaboration we did and how good it felt, I would imagine at some point we'll do something again. I would gladly look forward to that, even though we haven't planned anything yet."

Devo: Even though he says Bonnie Raitt tends to do his favorite covers of his songs -- "It sounds so final once she does something." -- Toussaint was a big fan of the electro-pop group's cover of "Working in a Coal Mine" for the 1981 "Heavy Metal" film soundtrack. "It was very surprising, but I loved it dearly that they took it to their world and introduced it to their world. I just through it was great, just right on."

The 10th Annual Motor City Blues & Boogie Woogie Festival takes place at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday (Oct. 3 and 4) at the Music Hall Center. 350 Madison Ave., Detroit. Tonight's show features Allen Toussaint, Pinetop Perkins with Willie "Big Eyes" Smith and Bob Seeley. Saturday's lineup includes Bobby Rush, Otis Clay and Little Sonny Willis with Eddie Burns. General admission tickets are $35 per night, $60 for both. A $75 per night VIP ticket includes special seating and a complimentary buffet. Call (313) 887-8486 or visit www.amrf.net.

Web Site: www.amrf.net

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