Allen Toussaint: A New Orleans Legend's Survival Story

Excerpted from the magazine for

Like many natives of New Orleans, Allen Toussaint is an old hand when it comes to hurricanes.

So, as Hurricane Katrina approached the Gulf Coast Aug. 29, Toussaint, 67, was not one to become too alarmed. He made his usual preparations, shoring up his home against the impending storm, and, as the forecast worsened, sought out the safety of a large downtown hotel.

But after the Crescent City began to flood, Toussaint, like tens of thousands of others, became a refugee, desperate to escape Katrina's devastation. Thankfully, his story has a happy ending, as he described to Billboard.

For many, Toussaint is the quintessential New Orleans musician. Beginning in the late 1950s, he wrote dozens of hits under his own name and the pen name Naomi Neville (his mother) for artists like Ernie K-Doe ("Mother-in-Law"), Aaron Neville ("Tell It Like It Is") and Lee Dorsey ("Workin' in a Coal Mine").

As he matured, Toussaint scored with hits for Dr. John ("Right Place, Wrong Time"), Glen Campbell ("Southern Nights"), Three Dog Night ("Brickyard Blues"), Bonnie Raitt ("What Do You Want the Girl to Do?") and many others.

The producer, songwriter, pianist, arranger and singer was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998.

Now ensconced temporarily in a New York hotel, Toussaint says he has heard from friends and colleagues like Paul Shaffer, who asked him to sit in Sept. 7 as a surprise musical guest on "Late Show With David Letterman." Toussaint has also been involved in several New York benefit concerts.

Q: You stayed in New Orleans as Katrina approached. Tell us how you fared.

A: Well, Sunday, before the hurricane hit, I was at home. I had planned to ride the storm out, although I knew it was going to be a biggie. I've been through all of the hurricanes, and I've seen the usual damage, the lesser and the more. But this time I knew by the reports that I shouldn't stay in my residence [near the fairgrounds], so I boarded up the windows as usual with numbered boards—because we've been through so many of these, I have boards stored in places and store them till the next [time].

So, on Sunday the 28th, I decided to check into the Crowne Plaza Astor Hotel on Canal Street, fourth floor. I thought that would be a safe place to be until the storm would come and go as hurricanes have done before.

And of course, on Monday the 29th, Katrina hit. It immediately resulted in power outages and no running water, but I had brought plenty of water, and the hotel recommended filling up the bathtub just in case, and I did things as advised.

After the storm had passed, outside the hotel, on Canal Street, there was water just a little above the gutter. Which looked a little hopeful -- like, once this goes down maybe we can return home. And I was able to go out the back door and walk around the French Quarter, which is the highest land spot in New Orleans, and there was no water into the quarter -- not even in the gutters -- which I was glad to see. Again, more hopeful.

But I remained at the hotel because I didn't know the condition at other places, and it was not recommended that anyone try and return home.

But on the 31st was when everything worsened, when there was a break in that levee at the 17th Street canal, which started the water to rising like never before. In fact, when I went out the front door, I could see water seeping through the cement where you wouldn't ever see water. It was very cruddy-looking water, looked almost like crude oil.

Q: What happened next?

A: I knew I wouldn't be returning home. So I decided I had best consider evacuating, which I had no intentions [of doing] before then. So I rolled my pants up and waded through the water, which was up to your calf on Canal Street, and walked around the corner to the Monteleone Hotel, where it wasn't nearly as wet, and I purchased a bus ticket to Houston. We waited for four hours, but no buses.

So, I saw a friend of mine who was walking down the street, and he informed me that those buses had been confiscated by some authorities to go over to the Superdome. However, he had a chartered school bus. So I paid a fee and boarded that bus to the Baton Rouge airport, where I spent the night. And of course there I could board a flight out.

And that morning, at 5:55 a.m., due to the kindness of my friend Josh Feigenbaum [of NYNO Records] and his constant message of "come to New York, come to New York," I boarded a Continental flight, connected in Houston, and here I am.

Q: It must have been hard for you to take it all in.

A: It was almost surreal. But let me say: As bad as it was, and as bad as it is, since it happened in my city and ultimately I was safe, I was glad I was there to witness it firsthand. I've seen all the hurricanes that've come through, and I saw the biggest.

Q: How about your family? Your band? How are they doing?

A: I'm glad to say my son and daughter and their families are safe. When the weatherman announces anything near "hurricane," they're gone! They're out of there! They left early, and I'm glad they did. They have their children and many more things they have to be responsible for than me just moving on my own. And of course they're always trying to get me to go, but I stay at home. But this time, it was not a possibility.

I haven't yet talked personally with my band, but my son and daughter have been in communications, and they got out. They're movers. My camp also spoke with Irma Thomas. She was [out of town] on a gig, and the Neville Brothers were in Buffalo [N.Y.].

Q: What does the future of the New Orleans music scene look like to you?

A: As soon as the powers that be say we can return, under any condition, I'll be back. I'll be in New Orleans.

Excerpted and expanded from the Sept. 24, 2005, issue of Billboard. The full original text is available to subscribers.

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