Before a quick wave and a smile to the audience at Teatro Lara in Madrid on Nov. 9, Allen Toussaint danced his hands across his piano for one last song, the irresistible, uptempo "Brickyard Blues." Toussaint — the architect of New Orleans funk and R&B, who wrote, 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. He was 77.
Toussaint grew up in a shotgun home in Gert Town, home base for his band The Flamingos, featuring neighbor Snooks Eaglin on guitar. Toussaint later picked up session gigs at Cosimo Matassa's J&M Recording Studio on Rampart Street, where Fats Domino, Dave Barth-olomew and Little Richard birthed rock 'n' roll.
In the early '60s, Toussaint penned priceless hits on the fledgling label Minit Records for Irma Thomas, Ernie K-Doe, Benny Spellman and Lee Dorsey, among others. Those songs were covered endlessly — Otis Redding tweaked "Ruler of My Heart" to "Pain in My Heart," also the name of his 1963 debut album, and The Rolling Stones, The Who and a fleet of British R&B artists, among countless others, introduced New Orleans to the world.
"Most of the songs that I've written, if it wouldn't have been for that artist, that song wouldn't have been written," Toussaint said in 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 Gambit in 2007 (Matassa died in 2014). "It was astounding how he could create a song and arrange it and wrap it around a particular performer."
Toussaint's piano felt heavy but could roll as easily as it bounced, a funky set of moves adapting Professor Longhair for any mood and artist. His arrangements propelled a beat. The singer could live in the world Toussaint made for them.
At his Sea-Saint studio in Gentilly, Toussaint helmed burgeoning New Orleans funk from The Meters, producing seven classic albums for that band as well as Dr. John's definitive Meters-backed album In the Right Place in 1973. Toussaint also opened up as a solo artist, offering 1975's soulful, psychedelic Southern Nights (the title track a massive pop-country hit for Glen Campbell) and a diverse catalog of work he continued to build until his death. Nonesuch Records plans to release a recently completed album from Toussaint next year.
His impeccable style was crisp, cool and a bit flashy, whether onstage under the sun 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." You'd see it outside a concert or a gas station. Perhaps you didn't notice him sitting next to you at Jazz Fest, or maybe you took a photo with him at a neighborhood festival — he's probably wearing a wide-brimmed hat and sandals and smiling warmly. The tributes following Toussaint's death have praised his humanity as much as his music, charmed by the affirming but quirky presence of a towering figure in American music sharing a moment with seemingly anyone who stopped to ask.
"He was a picture of health, that's why [his death is] such a shock to everyone," Irma Thomas told Gambit. "He died doing what he loved, and that's bringing joy to people through music."
"I will always be a resident of New Orleans," Toussaint told Gambit in 2007. "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."