Allen Toussaint's vast impact on music the last 50 years is sometimes underappreciated because much of his best work has come behind the scenes. And that's just fine with the softspoken, 75-year-old New Orleans songwriter and producer, whose greatest songs – from "Working in the Coalmine" to "Southern Nights" – were often popularized by other artists.
Now he's touring as a solo act, including two concerts Friday at Space in Evantson. He's comfortable with the idea now, but it was a leap for Toussaint when he began playing solo at Joe's Pub in New York City after his home and studio in New Orleans were devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The producer has since moved back to New Orleans, but says his time in New York marked a turning point in his career.
"When I first started doing Joe's Pub, every moment was reluctant," he says. "It was tough for me. My comfort zone was the studio — I had that scene down, getting that environment and spirit right. But for them to announce you and it's just you, and the people are right there, it's a whole different world for me. The first few times, I didn't know if I was giving people what they deserve. I actually missed the arranged and produced versions of my songs, and seeing the backing voices working together. But I'm glad I had another chance to do it, and another. And I began to enjoy it. I'm glad to say it's getting better and I even have a good time sometimes."
Toussaint's modesty belies the brilliance of his solo performances. Accompanying himself on piano, where he develops counterpoint melodies and cross-currents of rhythm that suggest three people are sitting at the instrument instead of just one, Toussaint sings in a high, mellifluous voice that epitomizes New Orleans soul. Some of the best performances from his extended Joe's Pub residency are preserved on a recent album, "Songbook" (Rounder), another landmark in a career full of them. In many ways, the solo shows take Toussaint back to his childhood, when he essentially taught himself to play on an old, out-of-tune upright piano in his parents' home.
"The main thing was to mimic everything I heard on the radio," he says. "I tried to play everything I heard -- blues, R&B, gospel, even classical. I remember learning a Grieg piano concerto in the wrong key, because my piano was a bit flat. I flipped around the dial and heard hillbilly — Red Foley, Ernest Tubb – and boogie-woogie, gospel. Music babysat me through my childhood."
His talent got him into studio sessions as a teenager, playing piano alongside another up-and-comer named Dr. John.
"When I was 13, I started in a neighborhood band with Snooks Eaglin, the blind guitarist, and we started playing small gigs, record hops," he says. "At 17, I was called to pinch hit for (New Orleans piano legend) Huey Smith in Earl King's band at the Dew Drop one night. Everyone in the band was older, so it was my rite of passage into the adult world. I wasn't nervous. If a song was played on the radio, I knew it, and Earl King's records were all over the radio."
Toussaint went on to write, arrange or produce countless classics, including Lee Dorsey's "Ya Ya," Irma Thomas' "It's Raining," Chris Kenner's "I like it Like That" and "Fortune Teller," which has been recorded by the Rolling Stones and Robert Plant-Alison Krauss on their Grammy-winning "Raising Sand" album.
His own recordings weren't huge commercial hits but are revered by New Orleans music connoisseurs. Though reluctant to write from a particularly personal perspective, "Southern Nights" proved a rare exception and one of his most enduring songs. The title track of his 1975 album, it later became a massive hit for Glen Campbell, and Toussaint plays an extended version on "Songbook," turning it into a childhood reverie about visiting relatives in the Louisiana countryside.
"That piece wasn't really a song," he says. "It was to share something very dear to me. It's ironic about the way it came to be. I had every song finished (for what would become the 'Southern Nights' album) but I was holding out. Van Dyke Parks visited me, because he knew I was having problems taking the responsibility to say I had finished the album, because then it would be critiqued and I was afraid of that. He sat on my couch and said, 'Imagine you're going to die in two weeks. What do you want people not to miss about you?' Then I wrote 'Southern Nights,' so that anyone who hears that record would know something essential about the people and the land that shaped me. I sang it through a Leslie speaker because I wrote it in F sharp, which is a bit high for my voice. I felt I didn't have the right to even move the key. I wanted to set it up in the treetops and move it up to the air, because it just felt right. When I do that song now, I live that moment in my life."
Greg Kot co-hosts "Sound Opinions" at 8 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m. Saturday on WBEZ (FM-91.5).
When: 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Space, 1245 Chicago Ave., Evanston
Tickets: $15; evanstonspace.com