NOVEMBER 10, 2015 – Musician/songwriter/composer/producer ALLEN TOUSSAINT (b. January 14, 1938 in Gert Town, Louisiana) died at age 77 of a heart attack at his hotel and was pronounced dead on his arrival at hospital while on tour in Madrid, Spain following a concert at the Teatro Lara on Calle Corredera Baja de San Pablo. He had been due to perform a sold-out concert at the EFG London Jazz Festival at The Barbican on November 15th with his band and Theo Croker, and was also scheduled to play with Paul Simon at a benefit concert in New Orleans on December 8th.
He was survived by his two children; Clarence (better known as Reginald) and Alison, both of whom managed his career in recent years; and several grandchildren.Thanks to his work with numerous other artists, Toussaint bore an enormous amount of responsibility for the sound of R&B in the Crescent City from the ’60s on into the ’70s. His productions kept with the times, moving from rollicking, earthy soul in the ’60s to gritty, rambunctious funk in the ’70s. As a composer, Toussaint proved himself a consistent hitmaker, penning more than a few gems that have since become R&B standards and been covered by countless artists working in many different styles. In keeping with that across-the-board appeal, Toussaint worked in some supporting capacity for a wide variety of rock and blues legends, particularly from the ’70s on. On top of all that, Toussaint waxed his own records from time to time, enjoying a creative peak in the ’70s with several albums that highlighted his laid-back vocals and elegantly funky piano work.A giant in the New Orleans musician scene, he wrote “Southern Nights,” a #1 hit for Glen Campbell in 1977. The Daily Telegraph described Toussaint as “a master of New Orleans soul and R&B, and one of America’s most successful songwriters and producers,” adding that “self-effacing Toussaint played a crucial role in countless classic songs popularized by other artists.” He had written so many songs, over more than five decades that he admitted to forgetting quite a few. Even if he wasn’t always the most visible figure, Toussaint’s contributions to New Orleans music (and to rock & roll in general) were such that he earned induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998.The youngest of three children, Toussaint grew up in a shotgun house in the Gert Town neighborhood, where his mother, Naomi Neville (whose name he later adopted pseudonymously for some of his works), welcomed and fed all manner of musicians as they practiced and recorded with her son.
His father, Clarence, worked on the railway and played trumpet. He first touched a piano at the age of six, he recalled. “I walked over reluctantly and touched it, from a slight distance, I don’t know whether I thought it would bite or not, but I must say I got such a pleasant sound,” he told Bill Capo in a 2013 WWL-TV interview. He said he soon began mimicking songs he heard on the radio, before his sister taught him how to read music and then he began performing with neighborhood bands. The front room of the family home on College Court (now memorialized with a plaque) became a practice room and recording studio, both for young Allen and his musical friends and collaborators. Toussaint also took informal music lessons from an elderly neighbor, Ernest Pinn. In his teens he played in a band, the Flamingos, with the guitarist Snooks Eaglin, before dropping out of school. A significant early influence on Toussaint was the syncopated “second-line” piano style of Professor Longhair.After a lucky break at age 17, in which he stood in for Huey “Piano” Smith at a performance with Earl King’s band in Prichard, Alabama, Toussaint was introduced to a group of local musicians led by Dave Bartholomew, who performed regularly at the Dew Drop Inn, a nightclub on Lasalle Street in Uptown New Orleans. His first recording was in 1957 as a stand-in for Fats Domino on Domino’s record “I Want You to Know,” on which Toussaint played piano and Domino overdubbed his vocals. His first success as a producer also came in 1957 with Lee Allen’s “Walking with Mr. Lee.” He began performing regularly in Bartholomew’s band, and he recorded with Fats Domino, Smiley Lewis, Lee Allen and other leading New Orleans performers.After being spotted as a sideman by the A&R man Danny Kessler, he initially recorded for RCA Records as Al Tousan. In early 1958 he recorded an album of instrumentals, “The Wild Sound of New Orleans,” with a band including Alvin “Red” Tyler (baritone sax), either Nat Perrilliat or Lee Allen (tenor sax), either Justin Adams or Roy Montrell (guitar), Frank Fields (bass), and Charles “Hungry” Williams (drums). The recordings included Toussaint and Tyler’s composition “Java”, which first charted for Floyd Cramer in 1962 and became a #4 pop hit for Al Hirt (also on RCA) in 1964. Toussaint also recorded and co-wrote songs with Allen Orange in the early 1960s.In 1960, Joe Banashak, of Minit Records and later Instant Records, hired Toussaint as an A&R man and record producer. He also did freelance work for other labels, such as Fury. Toussaint played piano, wrote, arranged and produced a string of hits in the early and mid-1960s for New Orleans R&B artists such as Ernie K-Doe, Jessie Hill, Chris Kenner, Art and Aaron Neville, the Showmen, and Lee Dorsey, whose first hit “Ya Ya” he produced in 1961.Toussaint considered Irma Thomas a muse and wrote two of the songs that became her standards, including “It’s Raining” and “Ruler of My Heart.”“Most of the songs that I’ve written, if it wouldn’t have been for that artist, that song wouldn’t have been written,” he said in a 2013 WWL-TV interview. “It can take anywhere from 15 minutes to never (to write a song),” he said in a 1989 interview with Angela Hill.
“A song like ‘Mother-in-Law’ took me about 20 minutes but I must say two or three days before I decided I was going to write a song with that melodic line. But the actual song itself took me 20 minutes.”Toussaint was drafted into the US Army in 1963 but continued to record when on leave with his backing band the Stokes. One of their tunes, written under his pseudonym Naomi Neville titled “Whipped Cream,” was covered by Herb Alpert in 1965 for an instrumental hit, which was in turn later adopted as the theme for TV’s “The Dating Game.” Toussaint credited about twenty songs to his parents, Clarence and Naomi, sometimes using the pseudonym “Naomi Neville.” These include “Fortune Teller,” first recorded by Benny Spellman in 1961, and “Work, Work, Work”, recorded by the Artwoods in 1966. Alison Krauss and Robert Plant covered “Fortune Teller” on their 2007 album “Raising Sand.”The early to mid-1960s are regarded as Toussaint’s most creatively successful period. Notable examples of his work are Jessie Hill’s “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” (written by Hill and arranged and produced by Toussaint), Ernie K-Doe’s “Mother-in-Law”, and Chris Kenner’s “I Like It Like That.” A two-sided 1962 hit by Benny Spellman comprised “Lipstick Traces (on a Cigarette)” (covered by the O’Jays, Ringo Starr, and Alex Chilton) and the simple but effective “Fortune Teller” (covered by various 1960s rock groups, including the Rolling Stones, the Nashville Teens, the Who, the Hollies, the Throb, and ex-Searchers founder Tony Jackson). “Ruler of My Heart,” written as Naomi Neville, first recorded by Irma Thomas for Minit in 1963, was adapted by Otis Redding under the title “Pain in My Heart” later that year, prompting Toussaint to file a lawsuit against Redding and his record company, Stax (the claim was settled out of court, with Stax agreeing to credit Naomi Neville as the songwriter).
Redding’s version of the song was also recorded by the Rolling Stones on their second album. In 1964, “A Certain Girl” (originally by Ernie K-Doe) was the B-side of the first single release by the Yardbirds. The song was released again in 1980 by Warren Zevon and (as “A Certain Guy”) in 2007 by Mary Weiss, the former lead singer of the Shangri-Las.After his discharge in 1965, Toussaint joined forces with Marshall Sehorn to form Sansu Enterprises, which included a record label, Sansu, variously known as Tou-Sea, Deesu, or Kansu, and recorded Lee Dorsey, Chris Kenner, Betty Harris, and others. Dorsey had hits with several of Toussaint’s songs, including “Ride Your Pony” (1965), “Working in the Coal Mine” (1966 (later covered by Devo and the Judds), and “Holy Cow” (1966). The core players of the rhythm section used on many of the Sansu recordings from the mid- to late 1960s, Art Neville and the Sounds, consisted of Art Neville on keyboards, Leo Nocentelli on guitar, George Porter on bass, and Zigaboo Modeliste on drums. They later became known as the Meters, who served as the Sansu house band while releasing funky instrumentals under their own name. Their backing can be heard in songs such as Dorsey’s “Ride Your Pony” and “Working in the Coal Mine,” sometimes augmented by horns, which were usually arranged by Toussaint. The Toussaint-produced records of these years backed by the members of the Meters, with their increasing use of syncopation and electric instrumentation, built on the influences of Professor Longhair and others before them, but updated these strands, effectively paving the way for the development of a modern New Orleans funk sound. Toussaint continued to produce the Meters when they began releasing records under their own name in 1969.In 1971, Toussaint recorded his first solo album in over a decade for Scepter, calling it simply Toussaint (it was later reissued in the UK as “From a Whisper to a Scream,” after its best-known track). In 1973, he moved up to Reprise for “Life, Love and Faith,” and he and Sehorn opened a state-of-the-art recording studio in New Orleans called Sea-Saint in the Gentilly section of eastern New Orleans, which became the site for most of his subsequent projects. He began recording under his own name, contributing vocals as well as piano.
His solo career peaked in the mid-1970s with the albums “From a Whisper to a Scream” and “Southern Nights.”In addition to his solo records, Toussaint was getting more high-profile offers for outside work during the first half of the ’70s. Toussaint began to work with artists from beyond New Orleans artists, such as B. J. Thomas, Robert Palmer, Willy DeVille, Sandy Denny, Elkie Brooks, Solomon Burke, Scottish soul singer Frankie Miller and southern rocker Mylon LeFevre. He arranged horn music for the Band’s albums “Cahoots” (1971) and “Rock of Ages” (1972) and later for the documentary film “The Last Waltz” (1978).As part of a process begun at Sansu and reaching fruition in the 1970s, he developed a funkier sound, writing and producing for a host of artists, such as Dr. John (backed by the Meters, on the 1973 album “In the Right Place” which contained the hit “Right Place, Wrong Time”) and an album by the Wild Tchoupitoulas, a New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians tribe led by “Big Chief Jolly” (George Landry) (backed by the Meters and several of his nephews, including Art and Cyril Neville of the Meters and their brothers Charles and Aaron, who later performed and recorded as the Neville Brothers). One of his compositions, “Here Come the Girls,” recorded by Ernie K-Doe in 1970, formed the basis of the Sugababes’ 2008 hit “Girls.”
The record’s experimentalism signaled a growing desire to branch out in the Meters camp, though, which would soon cause the band’s split with Toussaint and, eventually, each other. The absence of their unerring sense of groove was noticeable on Toussaint’s final solo LP for quite some time, 1978’s “Motion.”Also in 1973, his “Yes We Can Can” was covered by The Pointer Sisters for their self-titled debut album; released as a single, it became both a pop and R&B hit and served as the group’s introduction to popular culture. Two years later, Glen Campbell covered Toussaint’s “Southern Nights” and carried the song to #1 on the pop, country and adult contemporary charts. It was nominated for song of the year by the Grammy Awards and the Country Music Association. Another Toussaint creation, “Get Out of My Life, Woman,” remains an R&B favorite, often played by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Iron Butterfly, Jerry Garcia and many others.During this time he teamed with Labelle and produced their acclaimed 1975 album “Nightbirds,” which contained the #1 hit “Lady Marmalade”. The same year, Toussaint collaborated with Paul McCartney and Wings for their hit album “Venus and Mars” and played on the song “Rock Show.” Boz Scaggs recorded Toussaint’s “What Do You Want the Girl to Do?” on his 1976 album “Silk Degrees” which reached #2 on the U.S. pop albums chart. The song was also recorded by Bonnie Raitt for her 1975 album “Home Plate” and by Geoff Muldaur (1976), Lowell George (1979), Vince Gill (1993), and Elvis Costello (2005). In 1976 he also collaborated with John Mayall on the album “Notice to Appear.” In addition, “Play Something Sweet (Brickyard Blues)” was a hit for Three Dog Night, and Raitt cut a well-received version of “What Is Success.”In 1987, Toussaint was the musical director of an off-Broadway show “Staggerlee” which ran for 150 performances. The Allen Toussaint Collection, a fine overview of his major-label recordings in the ’70s, was released in 1991. In 1996, Toussaint formed a new label, NYNO, and recorded a full album of new material at his Sea-Saint studio titled “Connected.” Like many of his contemporaries, Toussaint found that interest in his compositions was rekindled when his work began to be sampled by hip hop artists in the 1980s and 1990s. Toussaint was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998.“Going Places,” attributed to Allen Toussaint’s Jazzity Project, appeared in 2005, but was followed by tragedy. Most of Toussaint’s possessions, including his home and recording studio, Sea Saint, were lost during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He initially sought shelter at the Astor Crowne Plaza Hotel on Canal Street. Following the hurricane, whose aftermath left most of the city flooded, he left New Orleans for Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and for several years settled in New York City.His late-blooming career as a performer began when he accepted an offer to play a regular Sunday brunch session at Joe’s Pub an East Village venue. Though he earned rave reviews as a songwriter, arranger and producer, Toussaint was rarely interested in performing, at least not in the early days. “I was always a little reluctant about the audience thing. When I think about it, I guess whatever ‘shy’ means, it covers a part of me,” Toussaint said. Interviewed in 2014 by The Guardian′s Richard Williams, Toussaint said, “I never thought of myself as a performer… my comfort zone is behind the scenes.” That changed after Katrina, as he developed his own act, which included not only performing but weaving stories from his New Orleans childhood and musical career.His first television appearance after the hurricane was on the September 7, 2005, episode of “The Late Show with David Letterman” sitting in with Paul Shaffer and his CBS Orchestra.
Toussaint performed regularly at Joe’s Pub through 2009. He eventually returned to New Orleans and lived there for the rest of his life.His Joe Henry-produced album “The Bright Mississippi” was released by Nonesuch Records in 2009, and “The River in Reverse,” Toussaint’s collaborative album with Elvis Costello, was released in May in the UK on Verve Records by Universal Classics and Jazz UCJ. It was recorded in Hollywood and, more notably, at the Piety Street Studio in the Bywater section Toussaint’s native New Orleans, as the first major studio session to take place after Hurricane Katrina. In 2007, Toussaint performed a duet with Paul McCartney of a song by New Orleans musician and resident Fats Domino, “I Want to Walk You Home,” as their contribution to “Goin’ Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino.”In 2008, Toussaint’s song “Sweet Touch of Love” was used in a deodorant commercial for the Axe (Lynx) brand. The commercial won a Gold Lion at the 2008 Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival. In February 2008, Toussaint appeared on “Le Show,” the Harry Shearer show broadcast on KCRW. He appeared in London in August 2008, where he performed at the Roundhouse. In October 2008 he performed at Festival New Orleans at The O2 alongside acts such as Dr. John and Buckwheat Zydeco. He performed annually at the event, and was the artist featured on the festival poster in 2009. Sponsored by Quint Davis of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and Philip Anschutz, the event was intended to promote New Orleans music and culture and to revive the once lucrative tourist trade that had been almost completely lost following the flooding that came with Hurricane Katrina.
After his second performance at the festival, Toussaint appeared alongside Louisiana Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu. In December 2009, he was featured on Elvis Costello’s “Spectacle” program on the Sundance Channel, singing “A Certain Girl.”Toussaint performed at the White House four times and though he never won a Grammy, he was nominated six times and presented with a Grammy Trustees Award in 2009. That same year, he was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame. He appeared on Eric Clapton’s 2010 album “Clapton” in two Fats Waller covers, “My Very Good Friend the Milkman” and “When Somebody Thinks You’re Wonderful.” He was inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame in 2011. In 2013 he was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama. He was named an honorary doctor of fine arts by Tulane University, alongside Dr. John and the Dalai Lama in 2013. The solo live album “Songbook” with performances dating from 2006, appeared on Rounder in 2013. Although Toussaint continued to perform, “Songbook” was the last album he released while living.Also in 2013, he collaborated on a ballet with the choreographer Twyla Tharp. Toussaint was a musical mentor to Swedish-born New Orleans songwriter and performer Theresa Andersson. Toussaint performed instrumentals from his album “The Bright Mississippi” and many of his older songs for a taping of the PBS series “Austin City Limits” which aired on January 9, 2015.Toussaint was always the epitome of cool, most often seen wearing colorful suits and leather sandals, and for many years driving either his Rolls-Royce (which bore the license plate “PIANO”) or his Mercedes-Benz (license plate “SONGS”). In his latter years, as Toussaint branched out musically, he also launched a record label: NYNO Records, whose artists included the late Raymond Myles, as well as James Andrews, Oliver Morgan and the New Birth Brass Band.
In 2016, he posthumously won the Pinetop Perkins Piano Player title at the Blues Music Awards. His final recording “American Tunes” titled after the Paul Simon song, which he sings on the album, was released by Nonesuch Records on June 10, 2016.He was always writing, and said in a 2006 interview that he found inspiration nearly everywhere he looked. “Everyday life is inspirational, if you’re just open to it and enjoy the scenes and the interaction of people as they interact with each other. There are new things being performed every day if you just look around and enjoy what’s happening, you’ll never run out of inspiration.”