The House With 88 Keys
A New Orleans music legend recalls his childhood piano and the love-filled 'shotgun' house where he grew up.
Allen Toussaint, 75, has written dozens of hits—including "Southern Nights," "Working in the Coalmine," and "Whipped Cream." In July, he was presented with a 2012 National Humanities Medal by President Obama. Mr. Toussaint's new album, "Songbook" (Rounder), was released Sept. 24. He spoke with reporter Marc Myers.
For the first 24 years of my life I lived with my parents in Gert Town—a poor section of New Orleans that was rich in spirit. All my young memories are in that dingy-blond 'shotgun' house on College Court. They called it a shotgun house because you could stand in the front and shoot a shotgun straight through it. That's how small it was.
The house had a front room, two bedrooms and a kitchen. My older brother, Vincent, and I slept on a Duofold sofa that opened to a bed, and my older sister, Joyce, slept in one of the two bedrooms. Everyone in the neighborhood knew each other. If your mother forgot to leave you the key to the front door, you bothered your neighbors, since everyone's skeleton key worked in all the locks.
When I was 6½ years old, my aunt's Story & Clark upright piano was brought to our house for my sister to play. My sister took several lessons but didn't take to it. Her teacher used to hit her hands when she made mistakes. Eventually I started touching the keys and picked out melodies that I had heard on the radio. Soon my sister showed me how the notes on the keyboard corresponded to music on the page, and I started making up songs.
Our upright wasn't much of a piano—it was a half-step flat the entire time we owned it—but that piano was everything to me. It was dark mahogany, almost black, with rouge crimps all over it. I took about eight piano lessons before my teacher gave up on me. I loved boogie-woogie and hillbilly music and gospel too much.
Everything changed for me when I heard Professor Longhair, a New Orleans blues singer and piano player. I dropped everything, and just played piano and wrote songs. Fortunately the radio was very close to the piano, so I could turn the dial, listen and play along. I stayed on the piano all the time. When company would come over, my mother had me come out to play a boogie-woogie.
The first song I wrote on that piano was a simple little duet for trombone and trumpet. I was about 10. I was inspired by a trombone duet solo on Benny Goodman's "Love Walked In." I never named my song—I wasn't that bold yet. I've not heard it played to this day. I wouldn't even know where it is at this point.
At home, I was treated royally, and my parents were very encouraging about my playing and composing. My parents—Clarence Toussaint and Naomi Neville—loved each other very much. I felt loved and even liked. We all felt we belonged to each other, to our family, instead of to the outside world.
My daddy was a mechanic on the L&N Railroad. He fixed locomotives. He was strong-willed and a strong man physically. He loved fixing things. Anything that was broken in our family came over to our house for repairs, including cars. My dad and I talked a lot. He was a very serous, wise man. I beat him at checkers only once. It brought a smile to his face.
One day when I was 13, I went into his bedroom where he was reading and showed him a trombone part I had written. My dad had been a professional musician but had to drop the trumpet to get a better job and take care of his family. He didn't improvise but he could read music. My trombone part was for a small ensemble: trombone, trumpet and sax. When my father looked over the music, he gave me a compliment that from then on made me feel very positive about what I was doing. He looked up, kind of smiled and said, "You're a genius." To a little boy that word felt great.
On my 14th birthday, I was playing piano and suddenly stopped. I turned my body to the left, straddled the seat and rested my elbows on my thighs. For whatever reason, I said to myself, "I'm 14 and every 10 years I'm going to check back with this 14 year old and tell him how I'm doing." I have no idea how I came up with that, but from then on I had those chats. They don't last long. I talk to myself as though that 14-year-old is still at the piano. I often say how surprised I am at how far I've come. The 14-year old at the piano just listens—but he always seems as surprised as I am.
A version of this article appeared September 27, 2013, on page M12 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The House With 88 Keys.
The Song Book