In Memoriam: Allen Toussaint 1938-2015
To understand and fully appreciate the music of Allen Toussaint, who passed away on November 10th at the age of 77, is to look deeply into the heart of the music of New Orleans during the last half of the 20th Century as it influenced and shaped popular music. His contribution to American music is like the strong current of the Mississippi River, which forms his hometown into a crescent shape. Allen Toussaint was one of the city’s main currents. With his passing, not only has an era passed but the voice of some of the finest music of the modern era has also moved to the ages. It was handed down from the earliest days of the ragtime, jazz, and blues of New Orleans. Allen Toussaint was the Godfather of it all. It was the world he was born into and the one lived to its fullest. His style of arranging, his sweet, soft soulful voice, and his unique touch on the keys of the piano can be heard echoed in those early recordings where he learned his craft. But, it’s a sound that while pervasive was also subtle in its influence. Today his music remains tenaciously alive.
As Allen Toussaint is remembered one thing is clear: his legacy will continue to grow as the years pass us by. Allen Toussaint’s music will remain to innovate and inspire.
Unlike other American musical icons, his ego is nowhere near his legacy. It would be as though Louis Armstrong’s music were there but he remained unknown. Few in the world knew who Allen Toussaint was, but a multitude heard his music and felt his influence. As Toussaint himself said on his website, “I’m not accustomed to talking about myself. I talk in the studio with musicians. Or through my songs.”
During his half century in the music business he wrote and produced songs for other artists. He always gave the necessary kick and shine to the production and arrangements to make an enduring impact on the national charts.
Toussaint’s music subtly found its way into other artists work and into genres. When Leon Russell began to define his sound, there was the influence of Toussaint. When Elton John looked for a certain piano style, inevitably Toussaint would be referenced.
Toussaint was born in the working-class New Orleans neighborhood of Gert Town. He breathed his first in a tiny shotgun house. His parents raised him on a love for the music of his neighborhood. His father played trumpet. His mother welcomed a variety of musicians to the home and soon, they were teaching young Toussaint. Later, he would use both parents’ names as writers of many of his songs. During his childhood he was enraptured with the piano. His strongest influence was the second line syncopated style of Professor Longhair.
By the time Toussaint was 17 he was standing in for artists like Huey “Piano” Smith. He played piano parts for Fats Domino who was unable to make it to a session. He can be heard on Domino’s “I Want You to Know.”
In 1957 he began his career as a record producer with Lee Allen’s song “Walking with Mr Lee.” Soon, he was an important member of the New Orleans’ music scene as a producer, musician, and songwriter.
His first national recording was for RCA in 1964, The Wild Sound of New Orleans. The album included his first direct brush with success when the song “Java,” written by Toussaint and sax player Alvin “Red” Tyler, became a #4 hit song for Al Hirt.
During the ’60s Toussaint’s reputation as a songwriter, producer, and session player began to grow. He became an A&R man for a small record label. He found himself in demand by many of the New Orleans-based artists who were making the jump onto the national pop charts. During this period he wrote hits for Ernie K-Doe, Chris Kenner, and Aaron Neville. His song, “Lipstick Traces (on a Cigarette),” which was a hit for Benny Spellman, was later covered by Alex Chilton, Ringo Starr, and the O’Jays. In the early ’60s he wrote “Fortune Teller,” which was recorded by the Rolling Stones, The Who, and the Hollies.
“Fortune Teller” also began Toussaint’s influence on rock ‘n’ rollers. They loved his songs. Among the many popular artists of the ’60s to record Toussaint songs, probably the most notable was Otis Redding’s recording of “Pain in my Heart.” The song was also recorded on the Rolling Stones second album.
During the mid-’60s, following years of service in the military, he formed his own label with A&R songwriter Marshall Sehorn, which saw the release of the Lee Dorsey recordings of his signature hit songs “Working in the Coal Mine” and “Holy Cow.”
By the ’70s, Toussaint began to branch out and, much like the beginning of his career, became an artist in demand for his arranging skills, his studio production, and his unique songs. The difference was that the demand came some of the best and most popular artists in the music business. In 1977, Glen Campbell recorded his signature song “Southern Nights,” bringing it into the national spotlight as a cross-over hit.
Most memorable for rock fans was his work with the Band in 1971, when he wrote the horn parts for for their song “Life Is a Carnival.” The results were so good, Robbie Robertson hired him to write extended horn arrangements for their legendary New Years’ Eve shows at the Academy of Music in New York City. The show was released as Rock of Ages on the double live LP. The work he did came with some dues to pay. After Toussaint had carefully written horn charts for songs like, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” his brief case containing the charts were stolen on the flight from New Orleans to New York. According to lead guitarist Robbie Robertson, Toussaint spent days locked in a cabin near his home recreating the charts from memory during the coldest nights of New York state’s winter. Robertson also reported during his induction speech at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that Toussaint caught a severe ear infection during his days in the cabin writing horn parts. The results, as immortalized on Rock of Ages, is brilliant, adding beautifully to some of the best music the Band ever produced.
The early ’70s began one of his most important collaboration with the Meters, as writer, producer, and arranger. His work with the band brought the integration of the music of New Orleans onto the national stage with songs that dipped into rock, jazz, blues, funk, and psychedelia while keeping the heart and soul of the musical style of the Crescent City.
For the next 40 years Toussaint found himself working for some of rock’s most legendary acts, including major collaborations with Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello. His song “What Do You Want the Girl to Do?” was recorded by Bonnie Raiit, Lowell George, and became a hit song for Boz Scaggs. Warren Zevon would reach back in time to record “A Certain Girl.” In 2007, Allison Krause and Robert Plant recorded “Fortune Teller” for their Grammy award-winning album Raising Sand.
His most covered song—“Get Out of My Life, Woman”—became so popular among R&B musicians, it became a standard for touring and house bands throughout the country. It was covered by Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Iron Butterfly, Jerry Garcia, and the Derek Trucks Band. His ode to the civil rights movement, “Freedom for the Stallion,” was recorded by Bob Dylan during his Empire Burlesque sessions.
Since the late ’90s Toussaint carried himself well as a rock ‘n’ roll elder statesman touring a live show and always staying in the music as producer, arranger, and songwriter. In 1998 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Robbie Robertson.
In 2005 with Hurricane Katrina—which Toussaint referred to as his booking agent—he relocated to New York City after he lost his home and studio in the flood. He began a residency at Joe’s Pub where he re-established his solo artist credentials creating a stage show that brought in all the elements of his music. He began to reclaim his legacy and define his artistry for live audiences. The show is captured on the 2013 album Songbook. He began to tour internationally. His website bio aptly describes this important part of his career:
“Toussaint developed his act – resurrecting material he hadn’t touched in years, taking chances and improvising on established melodies, weaving personal anecdotes into his stage patter. He laced his music with memories of street characters and soul sisters, funky clubs, and big-time successes. His show became his story, and his story came together and began to flow, which brings us to the musical treasure before you.”
In 2013 Toussaint was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Obama.
With all that he achieved during his career, Toussaint will be remembered most as a musical citizen of New Orleans who brought its music into the modern era. He was an ambassador of the city’s soul, an artist who never forgot his origins and continually paid tribute to his roots. With his passing, the music only sounds stronger, the spirit of the song more resonate, and the energy of the recordings more passionate. He may be gone, but his music rolls on like the mighty Mississippi River. Allen Toussaint will be remembered as one of the key musicians of the final decades of the 20th century and the dawn of the 21st century who reminded us how good life can be when the music is honest and real. In that sense, through his legacy of music, Allen Toussaint lives on.
This article originally appeared in San Diego Troubadour