When Allen Toussaint died this week he was far from the city he loved. He had played a concert in Madrid and then suffered a heart attack. Toussaint was revived once, but a second attack took his life. Although he was an ocean away at the time of his death, the truth is that Allen Toussaint took New Orleans wherever he went, and any place he played was transformed into New Orleans for just a little while.
Toussaint was born in 1938, and he grew up in the Gert Town neighborhood of New Orleans. He started playing piano at age seven, and according to local legend he got his first big break ten years later when Huey “Piano” Smith couldn’t make a gig with the Earl King band and Toussaint subbed for him.
He began recording for RCA under the name Al Tousan because Toussaint was thought to be too exotic a name. By 1960 Toussaint was the main songwriter at Minit Records. He had his first major success there with”Mother-In-Law” which was a #1 hit for Ernie K-Doe in 1961. Other Toussaint-written and produced hits of the ’60s included Irma Thomas’ “Ruler of My Heart” (covered by Otis Redding as “Pain in My Heart”), Benny Spellman’s “Fortune Teller” (covered by the Rolling Stones) and “Lipstick Traces (On a Cigarette”), Al Hirt’s “Java,” K-Doe’s “A Certain Girl” (covered by the Yardbirds and Warren Zevon), Chris Kenner’s “I Like it Like That,” and Lee Dorsey’s “Working in a Coal Mine.”
In the early ’70s Minit Records was sold and Toussaint teamed up with Marshall Sehorn to found the Sea-Saint recording studio in Gentilly. Toussaint began to record as a solo artist again, releasing two wonderful albums, From a Whisper to a Scream, and Southern Nights. Although the public at large didn’t pay much attention to these efforts, musicians were tuned in to what Toussaint was doing and covered several songs from those albums.
The ’70s also saw Toussaint adapt to a changing landscape by beginning to lean on a funkier sound. He demonstrated this in his work with the the Meters, Dr. John, and the Wild Tchoupitoulas during this time. Toussaint also began to expand his horizons by working with artists who were not from New Orleans, including B.J. Thomas, Robert Palmer, Solomon Burke, Sandy Denny, and Willie DeVille.
Toussaint arranged the horns for the Band’s Cahoots album, and then for the concerts that resulted in their Rock of Ages album, and The Last Waltz film. His production work with LaBelle led to the smash hit “Lady Marmalade,” and he collaborated with Paul McCartney and Wings on the album Venus and Mars. In 1976 Boz Scaggs released his smash hit album Silk Degrees. Included on that album was Scaggs’ take on Toussaint’s “What Do You Want the Girl To Do?” The song has also been covered by Bonnie Raitt and Lowell George, among others. In 1977 Glen Campbell’s cover of Toussaint’s “Southern Nights” was a #1 hit on the Pop and Country charts.
There was renewed interest in Tousssaint’s work when hip-hop artists began to sample his music in the ’80s and ’90s.
Toussaint survived Hurricane Katrina in a New Orleans hotel, but his studio was destroyed, and he was forced to leave the city of his birth. He went first to Baton Rouge, and then on to New York City. There he became an ambassador for his city and its musical heritage. The deluge had barely receded when he teamed with Elvis Costello to record The River in Reverse, which was nominated for a Grammy as Best Pop Vocal Album. In 2009 Toussaint released his own album The Bright Mississippi, which he followed with Songbook in 2013.
Allen Toussaint was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998. In 2009 the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame came calling, and in 2011 he became a member of the Blues Hall of Fame.
“He was a true ambassador of our city who carried our spirit everywhere he went. The world has lost one of the greats, but his music will live on forever,” New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said.