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The Great New Orleans Musician Allen Toussaint Passes From Our Midst

Allen Toussaint, the great songwriter and New Orleans gentleman musician, has passed from our midst. Growing up I did not know who he was or even that he was the artist who wrote the songs that I loved and listened to.

It was only later that I realized his sounds and songs really supplied part of the soundtrack of my early life, along with the Beatles and artists of the 60s.

The Great New Orleans Musician Allen Toussaint Passes From Our Midst

But one thing about New Orleans music that the Beatles and the rest could never capture was this mysterious essence that Toussaint knew how to bring forth. The song that really encapsulates this is “Ruler of My Heart” first sung by Irma Thomas and covered by artists from Linda Rondstadt to Norah Jones. But nobody can do this song like Irma.

(This video is a live version with Thomas at the mike and Toussaint at the piano. Watching Irma sing this gives me chills.)

The song is magical and the arrangement is simple. But it’s that arrangement that is so mysterious, brooding, moody and just seems to echo from the streets, homes, trees, river, the air and life of the Crescent City. Perhaps if you are not from here you might not get this.

The thing that really grabs this reflection of the essence of the city is the background chorus, something sweet and at the same time sad and moaning. Sad maybe is not even the right word, no, it’s the wind, the breeze that comes off the river, comes from the swamps, perhaps oozes its way into our world from the spirits.

Toussaint was able to capture this.

And when I think of him and what he has done for the music of the city of New Orleans Ruler of My Heart is the song I think of. For I feel it really captures the essence of what he was all about.

His songs have been covered by many artists including the Rolling Stones, Glenn Campbell who had a hit with “Southern Nights,” and the Tijuana Brass who recorded “Whipped Cream” which appeared on their Whipped Cream and Other Delights, the number pop album of 1965.

Toussaint made a lot of money off these hits and he had two Rolls Royces to prove it. Here was a kid who grew up in a shotgun house in Gert Town and rose to worldwide fame and garnered admiration and respect from world-renowned contemporary artists.

I met him three times in the last ten years. The first was at the 2009 Jazz Fest in the Economy Hall tent when he just showed up in the back by the dance floor. I recognized him and went up and shook his hand. I could immediately tell that here was someone of uncommon character, someone with such warmth and grace.

Allen Toussaint New Orleans musician at Jazz Fest

Allen Toussaint at 2009 Jazz Fest with Julie Barreda of Destination Kitchen.

Few people there knew who he was and they probably wondered why there was a small line of people coming up to get a photo with this nattily-dressed man. (This was in the days before the selfie was all the rage, not many years ago.)

What impressed me was he was so gracious and self-possessed, and appeared to not be in a hurry to get outta there as other celebrities probably would have been. No, he just stood there calmly and welcomed whoever wanted to come up and get a photo with him.

It was then I realized that here was a true gentleman, something that I think is not only rare in our world but rare in the entertainment industry. He just exuded this incredible warmth. And I just stood there watching how he interacted with people. It was quite a lesson in grace.

I saw him once again at the Neutral Ground Coffee House where I was told that he would appear occasionally after having a meal at Geatreaux’s which is right around the corner. He snuck in quietly, sat and listened to the act that was up at the mike.

And of course he was gracious again when folks came up to shake his hand. He was in no hurry to leave.

The last time I saw him was again at the Neutral Ground when I was the one up at the mike singing. He came in toward the end of my set and probably was there for the last ten minutes of it. He sat on the couch and listened attentively.

No one bothered him or came up to him. I ended my set with my song “I Love New Orleans” and when I was done walked over to him and shook his hand. This is what I was hoping: I was thinking he would say “Hey, I love that song. Let’s talk about you coming in and recording it for me,” or “Gee that’s a great song. I’d love to record that.”

But that didn’t happen, in fact, I don’t think he even commented on my music or my singing. But he was gracious as ever and after shaking a few hands he and the woman he was with left. So I can honestly say that Allen Toussaint has heard me play. (Ha, ha.)

With his passing we have lost an amazing artist and gifted New Orleanian. I think musical genius is not too strong a word to use for his talents and what he has added to the pantheon of New Orleans music.

I think he’s right up there with Louis Armstrong and all the other musical greats that this city has produced. Allen Toussaint will be missed but he lives on in all his great and enduring songs and how he touched the lives of so many people in New Orleans and the world.

You can read more about Allen Toussaint in this article from the Huffington Post.

Posted in New Orleans Culture, New Orleans History, New Orleans Life, New Orleans Music.

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The Return of the Caribbean Room at the Pontchartrain Hotel – John Besh Brings Back a Classic

One of my fondest memories growing up in New Orleans was going to the Caribbean Room at the Pontchartrain Hotel on St. Charles Avenue. We didn’t go very often but went often enough I remember it.

I remember the beautiful murals on the walls, but heck I couldn’t tell you right now what they were murals of. You can take a look in image below. It’s interesting that in doing a search on the Internet for this most famous restaurant frequented by kings and queens, movie stars and celebrities there are very few images to be found.

Beautiful murals grace still grace the Caribbean Room

Beautiful murals grace still grace the Caribbean Room

Whether the food was good or not I don’t remember but it was celebrated and honored. The long-time chef of the restaurant (I was going to say “joint” but the excellence of place does not allow it to fit in that category) was Louis Evans who created many of the dishes that we recognize today as being iconic New Orleans food.

The famous Caribbean Room chef Louis Evans who created many of the iconic New Orleans dishes

The famous Caribbean Room chef Louis Evans who created many of the iconic New Orleans dishes. He was also well-known for his fantastic red beans and rice.

But here is the one thing that I do remember, one of the most fabulous desserts on the planet: the Mile High Pie. Yep, after all of the lovely dishes were served and you were already too full they bring you out this massive, nearly impossible-to-eat pie. At least I could never finish it.

But somehow you felt like royalty when they set this amazing, beautiful dessert in front of you. Then if that weren’t enough they topped it with chocolate. Oh my God. If I was able to eat half of it I was lucky.

mile high pie

The amazing Mile High Pie, the Caribbean Room dessert classic.

Really, the crowning achievement to the wonderful meal, the fabulous surroundings and the great service was getting that Mile High Pie.

For some reason the Caribbean Room fell out of favor when it was taken over by another establishment. The quality went down, it wasn’t the same. I don’t know why anyone who would take over such an iconic restaurant would try to cut corners and squeeze more money out of the restaurant, but that is what happened. People stopped going and it just fell off the radar.

When I heard recently John Besh was taking it over I knew that not only would the Caribbean Room regain its former glory, maybe not with the exact same dishes that were served before, but the beauty of the room would remain, as would the excellent service, but no one can doubt that the Mile High Pie will be back. Maybe even better than before.

And a little bit of NFL history happened right in that room because the Caribbean Room is where the deal was signed that created the Saints football team.

It’s about time this place reopens and takes its place right along side Commander’s Palace and other great New Orleans restaurants.

Thanks, John Besh, for bringing back a classic!

You can read more about what’s happening with John Besh and the Caribbean Room at

Posted in New Orleans Life.

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Little White Kid Blows Everyone Away Singing the Blues with Talent On Loan From God

New Orleans has been called the home of the blues although it really did not originate here as it was born in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. It’s a black musical idiom from Africa tempered in the heat and challenges of living in the South. But it grew up in New Orleans and was incorporated into Jazz. In fact without the blues there really would be no Jazz. That’s what I think anyway.

Little White Kid Blows Everyone Away Singing the Blues with Talent On Loan From God

This kid has an awesome voice. Notice the shocked expression on the guy behind the counter.

This kid has an awesome voice. Notice the shocked expression on the guy behind the counter.

Blues singers come in all shapes and sizes,and colors, and this kid, this little white kid in a guitar shop blows everyone away with his blues singing. Where does that come from, how does that happen? Did his parents listen to the blues in utero? What?

Anyway, be prepared to be blown away. Gave me goosebumps just listening to it. This kid has a fully developed blues singing voice, heck, what am I talking about. He’s got a great voice all around. That is talent on loan from God.

I don’t know where this video was taken, what city or part of the country. Just goes to show that in the US blues is a universal language and it has infused every bit of our popular music.

In fact, without the blues there would be no popular music, or at least there would be but it would be kinda boring. There’s be no rock and roll, no rock or bluegrass or country music. The Blues is the base of it all. And this kid’s got it. Wow.


Posted in New Orleans Life.

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New Orleans Recovery After Katrina – Rebuilt or Just Gentrified? — Watch

For the last 10 years stories of New Orleans recovery seems to be a national pastime. Would we do it right? Of course, “right” has a lot to do with what side of political spectrum you are on.

We hear a lot about gentrification. Why has that become a bad word to some? If people have the means to buy up property and fix up houses and buildings that are falling down, and spruce up neighborhoods that are going to seed why is that considered such a bad thing?

New Orleans Recovery After Katrina – Rebuilt or Just Gentrified?

One of the rebuilt neighborhoods out of torn down projects, a positive aspect of New Orleans recovery.

New Orleans recovery since Katrina — One of the beautiful, rebuilt neighborhoods out of torn down projects.

Yes, it is too bad that some people can’t afford to live in their neighborhoods any more. And sorry that the projects, that concentrated poor people in one area thus making it more likely you’d be a victim of crime and also creating a breeding ground for criminals who could terrorize not only poor people but the rest of the populace as well, have been replaced by beautiful homes for mixed income residents. Sorry about that.

Seems to me it has a lot to do with personal responsibility and opportunity. I did a piece on St. Roch Market that’s referenced in this video. They present it as if it’s an unfortunate thing that this building, that had been there for generations was an eyesore, falling down and not being used, is now a beautiful spot that provides opportunities for small businesses and jobs for people who work their stands.

And it’s such a terrible thing, as this video implies, that it’s in a predominantly black neighborhood and that there are no blacks using it. But when we were there a few weeks ago there was a mixed-race Asian and black couple who had a fantastic food stand. And the oyster shucker was black who was serving gulf oysters that didn’t cost any more than oysters almost anywhere else.

I didn’t see any sign on the door that says “Blacks not welcome.” Yet, that’s what the video seems to imply. Are they saying that because a place is fixed up really nice blacks won’t like it and they won’t patronize it, and that poor black neighborhoods shouldn’t have nice looking buildings? That blacks really prefer to be in run-down buildings and frequent run-down establishments?

As I see it gentrification is all about opportunity and not about trying to move anyone out of any neighborhood. A property comes up for sale, someone has the means to buy it and fix it up, why can’t they do that? Simple as that. And if it improves the neighborhood all the better.

Since Hurricane Katrina New Orleans recovery is booming in some areas and stagnant in others. But cities are a living breathing thing. Neighborhoods change sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.

Posted in New Orleans Life.

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A Fun Saturday Afternoon at Newly Refurbished St. Roch Market in New Orleans

It’s nice to see the revival of St. Roch Market, one of the great New Orleans neighborhood markets. For years I’ve passed by this place on St. Claude Avenue and it’s been all boarded up, with paint peeling and windows broken. It looked like a nice building that was just going to waste. It’s been in a seedy, low-rent neighborhood with not much going on. And after Hurricane Katrina it seemed to look even worse.

A Fun Saturday Afternoon at Newly Refurbished St. Roch Market in New Orleans

st roch market new orleans

St. Roch Market Before

st roch market new orleans after

St. Roch Market After it’s recent refurbishment

But since that huge storm that brought with it a lot of flooding, misery and destruction there has been a great rejuvenation of the area, new buildings going up, old buildings being bought and renovated, new business coming in. And finally the St. Roch Market, originally built in 1875, has been refurbished and re-opened. And let me tell you it’s a great, fun place to go.

One Saturday a friend of mine and I decided to take a ride out to the other side of town and check this place out. It was easy parking in the free lot right next door. The outside of the building is freshly painted, repaired and gleaming with big windows.

The Layout

As we walked in those big windows fill the space with tons of light and gives it a really upscale, upbeat, fresh, happy feeling to the place. With walkways on either side of columns that line the center of the building, food counters line the walls.

St. Roch Market on the inside

St. Roch Market down the middle – note the oyster bar to the right

Small tables for eating and chatting are scattered around the center columns. The day we went the place was abuzz with activity. It so happened it was the day of the Red Dress Run and several visitors where attired appropriately.

There were two guys all decked out and I thought how nice they look and it did not seem strange at all to see them wearing red dresses. After all this is New Orleans. Then I remembered, oh yeah, this is Red Dress Run day. Right.

Our Brief Rapast

I got a dish from the Koreole counter, a fusion of Creole and Korean food served up by a Korean lady and her creole husband. I got the Bim Bim Bowl, a mixture of rice and chicken and other veggies, seasoned and spiced to perfection. In fact, just writing about it makes me hungry.

The purveyor of the Bim Bim Bowl

Kayti Williams – the purveyor of Koreole and the Bim Bim Bowl

I sat at one of tables and ate while my friend was getting his own meal at another counter. I didn’t pay much attention to what he got since what I had was so good I was only focused on nibbling every last little teeny morsel of delicious chicken off the bones.

A World of Ersters

After we’d finished out meal we moseyed over to the oyster bar of the Curious Oyster Company where they were serving not only freshly shucked oysters from the gulf but from several other places around the country as well. We ordered a dozen gulf oysters that we seasoned only with some lemon juice.

After all our oysters from the Gulf of Mexico are the best hands down.

After all, our oysters from the Gulf of Mexico are the best hands down. I don’t eat em with that red sauce in the middle… why ruin a good oyster?

I am not one to mix up a little sauce of tobacco, ketchup and horseradish that a lot of folks like to do. To me it only covers up the oyster flavor, you can’t really appreciate the oystery nuance with all that stuff all over it. I just like to eat it raw raw.

After we slurped those down our friendly shucker, a handsome black fella who said he’d been shucking since he was 18 and with powerful Popeye-like forearms to prove it, had us sample oysters from around the country. These were from New York, California, Washington State, and the Atlantic coast. Who would’ve thought oysters could taste so different. Wow. And because they have to fly them in fresh the price is kinda hefty, the real reason we originally went for the local oysters.

But after tasting these “foreign” oysters with their strange aftertastes, some oily-tasting, some with a strange bitterness, I realized that we here in the south have the best oysters in the whole country. Ours are smooth-tasting and mild with just the right kind of briny-ness.

These other oysters seem to have a kind of “ick” factor to them. I feel sorry for these people in other parts of the country who have to eat them. I remember when I lived in the Pacific Northwest and would occasionally have their oysters. At first I was impressed with the massive size, which made me think I was getting a bargain. But being able to compare them side by side with a gulf oyster, well, there is no comparison. The gulf oyster wins hands down.

Pricey Rents?

After we’d had our fill of oysters we gave our shucker a nice tip and a fist bump then headed over to the butcher counter and bought some freshly-made hog’s head cheese. I ask the woman behind the counter how was business and she said it was OK, just making enough to pay for the booth.

Then I asked her how much she was paying a month to rent the space. I don’t remember what she told me but I remember that I thought it was exorbitant and told her so. At the grocery counter at the door they were selling watermelon and other produce for ridiculously high prices. Who would buy such things when you could go a few blocks to the supermarket and get it a lot cheaper?

St. Roch is owned by the city, so I don’t know why they think they have to have such high rents. Seems counter-intuitive.

Anyway, we had a great couple hours there at St. Roch Market. Glad it’s come back, glad it’s again one of our great New Orleans markets. We’ll have to revisit. I’ll definitely get the Bim Bim Bowl again, maybe this time I’ll get two.

Check out St. Roch Market at their website.

Posted in Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans Business, New Orleans Food, New Orleans History, New Orleans Landmarks, New Orleans Life, New Orleans Neighborhoods, New Orleans Restaurants.

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