Dr. John: On his departed friend Allen Toussaint, and Wednesday’s Hollywood Bowl salute

Dr. John

Headlining “Yes We Can Can: An Allen Toussaint Salute” at the Hollywood Bowl on Wednesday, Dr. John will celebrate the life and music of his close friend, one of the true greats of not just New Orleans music but of modern American music. Toussaint died at age 77 in November of a heart attack after a concert in Madrid. For nearly six decades their lives and sounds were intertwined, as session players on some of their city’s essential songs, Toussaint later producing Dr. John’s breakthrough 1973 album “In the Right Place,” the two sharing a tight bond beyond mere friendship and respect as they stood as two of the most prominent figures in New Orleans music. If not the most prominent.

But Dr. John is a little vague about the first time he encountered Toussaint.

“Well, it’s hard to dope it,” he says today.

He was just Mac Rebennack back then, maybe still Malcolm, and still many years from taking on the Dr. John the Nite Tripper voodoo mystic persona. But it was certainly at least 55 years ago, and likely in a New Orleans recording studio, on a session they’d both — if out of their teens, then just barely — been hired to play.

“I remember playing on a record that Lee Dorsey did, with Allen on piano,” says Rebennack, who back then was primarily a guitar player.

“I had worked with James Booker and Huey ‘Piano’ Smith,” he says, citing two of the true pioneers of modern New Orleans piano music. “All kinds of piano players. But I hadn’t worked with the likes of Allen, and that was a special thing.”

Allen Toussaint

Allen Toussaint

[Working] with the likes of Allen,
that was a special thing.

He’s also a bit uncertain about the last time he saw Toussaint. Among notable occasions in recent years, though, were them performing at each other’s respective tribute concerts held at the ornate Deco-era Saenger Theatre in New Orleans. And in May 2013, the two were awarded honorary doctorates by Tulane University. The other person so honored that day? The Dalai Lama.

“Leave it to Allen to come up with something like that,” Rebennack says, a bit mysteriously. With an appreciative laugh, he says, “He was a spiritual guy from the jump.”

It was very much a mutual admiration society, Toussaint a few years ago declaring Dr. John as New Orleans’ “best ambassador since Louis Armstrong.”

Whatever and whenever their first and last meetings may have been, the focus Wednesday will be on the richness, musical and spiritual, found in the years between, one true giant honoring the other. Joining the celebration will be Irma Thomas, the Soul Queen of New Orleans, who also had a long collaborative relationship with Toussaint, plus the Allen Toussaint Band (including his son, Clarence, on percussion) and hot NOLA funk ensemble Galactic.

“We gonna play a bunch of his songs and gonna play some of the stuff he produced on me, tell some stories,” Rebennack says in his distinctive, gruff Rebennackian patois. “I’m gonna play some of his songs like ‘Brickyard Blues,’ ‘Get Out of My Life Woman.’ We gonna do them. ‘Go Tell the People,’ that’s the song he wrote for [the 1974 Dr. John album] ‘Desitively Bonnaroo.’ That’s a great thing.”

Summing up Toussaint’s legacy in one evening isn’t possible, so great was his impact and presence as not just the key shaper of New Orleans music, but a force in modern American music. Seriously. Take a look at his credits here. It could take a while to get through them all. It’s okay. We’ll wait.

But just for a start: As a producer, songwriter and performer he was behind some of the essential hits of several eras: Ernie K-Doe’s “Mother-in-Law,” Lee Dorsey’s “Working in the Coal Mine,” Thomas’ “It’s Raining,” LaBelle’s “Lady Marmalade,” the Pointer Sisters’ “Yes We Can Can,” Glen Campbell’s “Southern Nights,” the horns on Paul McCartney & Wings’ “Venus and Mars” album and the Band’s “The Last Waltz” concert and good portions of the Dr. John and Meters catalogs. Hey, he even wrote “Whipped Cream” — you know: the Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass hit that was the theme for the TV show “The Dating Game.”

Toussaint was also for anyone in New Orleans as a genial presence, sure to turn up at almost any club, or to be seen strolling around town or driving around in one of his two Rolls Royces (license plates: PIANO and SONGS). And he was always dapper, in a sport coat and slacks and — his signature — sandals over sock, even when walking on the oft-muddy grounds of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. And he was always happy to stop and chat with adoring fans and pose for photos. (The last time this writer encountered him was in the sloshy swamp at 2015’s Fest as he checked out the performance by the Who, who back in the ‘60s recorded his song “Fortune Teller,” also recorded by the Rolling Stones. Standing there he received a steady stream of fans, mostly lovely young women wanting to take selfies with him.)

It’s impossible to overstate his significance, even going through the glowing eulogies that came after his death, such figures as Paul McCartney and Keith Richards citing him among the greatest songwriters and producers of the 20th century.

“He seemed like an elegant prince out of history,” said Elvis Costello, with whom Toussaint made the duo album “The River in Reverse” in 2005, the first set recorded in New Orleans after the flood. Costello devoted much of his 2016 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival set to honoring Toussaint with songs and tales.

But most profoundly, those who saw him up close knew that his greatest love was his city, only intensified after it was devastated by the flood.

Joe Henry, who produced “The River in Reverse,” the 2009 largely instrumental “The Bright Mississippi” and its follow-up, this year’s “American Tune” — recorded just weeks before Toussaint’s death, spoke to this writer recently about being with them musician as he spoke to CNN shortly after the levees broke.

“I was sitting next to him,” Henry recalled. “He said, ‘You have to keep in mind, this is not so much a drowning, but a baptism.’”

And then there’s this, about Toussaint’s role in New Orleans’ revival: “After his hometown was battered by Katrina and Allen was forced to evacuate, he did something even more important for his city — he went back. And since then, Allen has devoted his musical talent to lifting up and building a city. And today, he’s taking the stage all over the world, with all kinds of incredible talent, doing everything he can to revive the legendary soul of the Big Easy.” The speaker? President Barack Obama, as he bestowed the National Medal of Arts on Toussaint.

But given that it’s his night Wednesday, we’ll let the last words here be Toussaint’s:

“My music is homegrown from the garden of New Orleans. Music is everything to me short of breathing. Music also has a role to lift you up — not to be escapist, but to take you out of misery.”

||| Live: Tickets for Wednesday’s tribute are still available here.