Of the many legendary R & B figures that New Orleans has turned out Allen Toussaint is among the most important and least-known. For most of his career he worked primarily as a songwriter and producer, and while he’s made albums over the years—including a potent handful of releases during the early 70s, several of which have been reissued by Water Records—his own recording career never brought him major success. He was never the strongest vocalist in a city chockablock with them, so it was people like Lee Dorsey, Irma Thomas, Chris Kenner, Ernie K-Doe, and Benny Spellman who scored hits with his tunes.
Following a stint in the military in the early 60s Toussaint started his own production company and label, Sansu Enterprises, which recorded plenty of Crescent City greats and employed the Meters, in their earliest days, as a house band. He’s continued to write and produce over the decades, although with less frequency. In the wake of Katrina he’s been a tireless supporter of his native city, exploiting his reputation and connections to land financial support for the hurricane’s victims, particularly musicians. He’s been living in New York since the flood, but hopes to return home and rebuild his studio. Earlier this year he made a fine collaborative album with Elvis Costello called The River in Reverse (Verve), one of the rare listenable albums Costello's made in the last decade or so. Toussaint wrote or cowrote all but one of the 13 tunes, played piano on the whole thing, and even sang lead on one track. The pair played at Ravinia this past summer, but on Monday, December 18, Toussaint will make a rare solo appearance at Steppenwolf, fronting a quintet. Since this is part of the theater’s multi-disciplinary Traffic series I’m sure Toussaint will also tell quite a few stories about his years in New Orleans and what life has been like for the last 15 months.