New Orleans songwriter, producer Allen Toussaint has died; New Orleans musicians remember the legendary artist


Allen Toussaint performing at the 2007 Big Easy Music Awards, where he received Entertainer of the Year. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Allen Toussaint performing at the 2007 Big Easy Music Awards, where he received Entertainer of the Year.

The heart, soul, brain and style of New Orleans music has died. Allen Toussaint — the architect of New Orleans funk and R&B, having written, arranged and produced countless New Orleans hits, and whose fingerprints are unmistakable throughout rock 'n' roll history — died in the early morning on Nov. 10 following a performance in Spain, reports WWL-TV. He was 77.

With his band The Flamingos (featuring neighbor Snooks Eaglin) based out of his parents' shotgun home in Gert Town, Toussaint played piano at gigs around town, later hanging around Cosimo Matassa's J&M Recording Studio with Dr. John, among other familiar New Orleans artists, picking up session gigs. He dropped out of high school to pursue his songwriting career.

In the early '60s, Toussaint was hired to play piano in place of an absent Harold Battiste at the Minit Records studios, penning priceless hits for Irma Thomas ("It's Raining," "Ruler of My Heart"), Ernie K-Doe ("Mother-in-Law," "A Certain Girl"), Benny Spellman ("Fortune Teller") and Lee Dorsey ("Ya Ya"), among others. After a brief stint in the Army, Toussaint returned with Dorsey's hits "Ride Your Pony" and "Working in a Coal Mine," among the first on Toussaint's new imprint Sansu. In the early '70s, he opened Sea-Saint studio in Gentilly.

"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 a 2013 interview with WWL-TV.

"He was able, especially so among the writers I've known, to write the songs that best fit the artists," Matassa told Alison Fensterstock in Gambit in 2007 (Matassa died in 2014). "A talented person can let you know who's boss, what it's all about and also get the best performance. [Toussaint would] come in with prearranged arrangements, and then adapt them based on what was going on with the musicians. He's a perfectionist. And he kept a fresh sound that was appropriate to every performer. It was astounding how he could create a song and arrange it and wrap it around a particular performer." 

Toussaint helmed the burgeoning New Orleans funk sound from The Meters, producing seven albums including the band's 1969 debut and its classic opening track "Cissy Strut," as well as the Mardi Gras Indian funk from The Wild Tchoupitoulas on its self-titled 1976 album. Toussaint also reunited with K-Doe, to pen 1970's "Here Come the Girls," and Dr. John, to produce Mac's definitive 1973 album In the Right Place.

He also expanded into pop and non-New Orleans music production, from LaBelle's 1974 hit "Lady Marmalade" to Glen Campbell and Paul McCartney, whose famous New Orleans visit in 1975 included recording sessions at Sea-Saint for Wings' Venus and Mars.
"The city's soul is alive and well in New Orleans, and I just love that. It's very important for the future." — Allen Toussaint in 2007

Toussaint's piano felt heavy — there's the dense bass on "Get Out My Life Woman" — and could roll as easily as it bounced, a powerfully funky set of moves adapting Professor Longhair for any mood and artist. His arrangements propelled a beat. The singer could live in the world he made for them.

His impeccable style was crisp, cool and a bit flashy, whether onstage under the sun at Jazz Fest or off — seemingly always dressed to the nines and cruising town in an unmistakably Toussaint 1974 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow, with the license plate "PIANO." 

Hurricane Katrina and the federal floods brought 5 feet of water into his New Orleans home. In 2012, Toussaint received a National Medal of Arts and Humanities from President Barack Obama for Toussaint's "contributions as a composer, producer and performer."

"After his hometown was battered by Katrina and Allen was forced to evacuate, he did something even more important for his city — he went back," Obama said. "And since then, Allen has devoted his musical talent to lifting up and building up a city. And today, he’s taking the stage all over the world, with all kinds of incredible talent, doing everything he can to revive the legendary soul of the Big Easy."

"He was like family — we’ve been knowing each other for 50-something years," Thomas told Gambit. Thomas had recently performed with Toussaint on a cruise last month and was set to perform with him later this year.

"He was a picture of health, that‘s why it’s such a shock to everyone," she says."He died doing what he loved, and that's bringing joy to people through music."

In a post shared on Facebook, Meters bassist George Porter Jr., who shared the stage with Toussaint at last month's Crescent City Blues & BBQ festival in New Orleans, said he was excited to share new music with Toussaint:
I got busy and did not send it, I always thought there was time, Allen seemed so happy and healthy. So sudden it is hard to believe. Thank You Allen Toussaint for the music that you gave me a chance to play with you, as well as the music that I have come to play because of what I learned from seeing up front and close how you could get the best out of an artist. You could get them to find stuff in themselves that they didn't know was there. You inspired me in so many ways. Your talent as a musician and a producer has been a major role model in how I approach my own music and how I interact with other musicians on stage and in the studio. Allen, Your music will live on and your teaching will continue to inspire. You are a true legend and have left a legacy like no other.
Dr. John — who with Toussaint received honorary doctorates from Tulane University in 2013 — "is heartbroken at the loss of his very dear friend," according to a statement to Gambit.

In a statement, Mayor Mitch Landrieu said, "He was an inspiring, prolific songwriter and performer whose unmistakable sound has forever defined our city's unique cultural heritage. ... Born and raised in the Gert Town neighborhood, Allen went on to travel the world and perform with many of today’s great musicians, but he always remembered his roots. 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."

In 2006, following work on the Grammy Award-nominated post-Katrina album The River in Reverse with Elvis Costello, Toussaint told Gambit. "[The storm] separated people physically, but time will take care of that. The spirit of New Orleans, that's forever."

"I will always be a resident of New Orleans," Toussaint told Gambit in a 2007 interview. "I would never have moved away for any reason. I am fortunate that because of what I'm noted for, artists have come wherever I am, so I've been able to stay here. And I am most optimistic about New Orleans. The city's soul is alive and well in New Orleans, and I just love that. It's very important for the future." 

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