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Allen Toussaint 

Soul survivor

That it took a hurricane and the devastation of New Orleans for the music world to rediscover Allen Toussaint is one of the few silver linings to emerge from that ongoing national tragedy.

For the uninitiated, Toussaint is a veritable living document of New Orleans' music tradition, and an influential player in both rock and R&B. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998 for his overall contributions to American music as a songwriter, performer, arranger and producer. He's been a hit-maker since the 1950s, and the list of performers he's worked with and written for reads like a roll call of music history throughout the second half of the 20th century: Fats Domino, Etta James, Dr. John, the Rolling Stones, the Band, Paul Simon, Patti LaBelle, Bonnie Raitt, Elvis Costello -- to name only a few.

Toussaint got his start playing piano for Earl King and Domino. His playing style evolved from a mix of Domino and Professor Longhair, another Crescent City music legend. Thereafter, Toussaint became a fixture on the New Orleans R&B scene, producing, writing and performing on a string of hits for artists on the city's Minit Label in the 1960s, including Ernie K-Doe, Irma Thomas, the Neville Brothers and Benny Spellman. Toussaint later co-founded Sansu Enterprises, which produced a series of hits for Lee Dorsey and his rhythm section, the Meters.

Toussaint hit his stride in the 1970s, when he founded the Sea-Saint Recording Studio, which became the New Orleans equivalent of the fertile Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama. In addition to releasing his own well-received records, Toussaint penned some of the most notable hits of the disco and funk eras, though his songs often defied easy classification. He wrote Dr. John's "Right Place, Wrong Time," LaBelle's "Lady Marmalade" and Glen Campbell's "Southern Nights" during that period. He also produced records by the likes of Albert King, Etta James, Ramsey Lewis and John Mayall, and provided horn arrangements for such classic records as the Band's Rock of Ages and Paul Simon's Kodachrome. Toussaint's songs have been covered by artists that run the stylistic gamut, from Herb Alpert, the Rolling Stones and DEVO to the Judds, Bonnie Raitt and Robert Palmer.

It seems only fitting that a man whose music has been embraced by such a variety of artists grew up in a tradition of diversity.

"I came up imitating most people I heard on the radio," Toussaint told NPR in 1988. "After I became totally saturated with it, I would sit [at the piano] and randomly play around and little melodies came and that started my writing."

This June, another generation of music fans will learn that Toussaint remains a vibrant force on the music scene well into his sixth decade. After Katrina destroyed his New Orleans home, Toussaint temporarily relocated to New York City and helped put together several benefits for the devastated city. During one of them, he renewed his acquaintance with punk laureate-turned-retronuevo pop stylist Elvis Costello. The curious pair will release The River in Reverse (Verve) on June 6 -- the results of a whirlwind October 2005 writing and recording session. The record features new takes on seven songs from Toussaint's catalog, five new songs co-written with Costello, and the latter's title cut.

The River in Reverse is a soulful marriage of Costello's Attractions group and Toussaint's horn section, and Toussaint plays piano throughout with the Attractions' Steve Nieve switching to B3 organ. Overseeing production was singer/songwriter Joe Henry, whose work with Solomon Burke on 2002's Don't Give Up on Me helped introduce that R&B legend to another generation of listeners.

As the humble Toussaint has done for much of his career, he credits New Orleans' indomitable spirit. He formed a new label, NYNO, in 1996, focusing on artists from his native city. Rather than dwell on all the negatives that arose in Katrina's aftermath, Toussaint prefers to view it as an opportunity to renew interest in his hometown's rich musical history.

"The music scene is just on an intermission for the moment," he told NPR last September. "I think it'll even bring some attention to people who may have not been as involved, or may have not looked that way in a while.

"In fact, I must say that inspiration comes in all colors and forms and sizes. In a way, it's very inspiring."

For Your Ears (and Eyes)

• Allen Toussaint: Connected (NYNO)

• Various Artists: Finger Poppin' & Stompin' Feet: 20 Classic Allen Toussaint Productions for Minit Records 1960-1962 (Capitol)

• Allen Toussaint: From a Whisper to a Scream (Kent)

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