New Orleans music great Allen Toussaint has died following a heart attack at age 77
According to his Facebook page, Toussaint was on tour in Spain, with plans to play in Belgium, London and Madrid.
Madrid emergency services spokesman Javier Ayuso says rescue workers were called to Toussaint’s hotel early Monday morning and managed to revive him after he suffered a heart attack.
But Ayuso says the 77-year-old Toussaint stopped breathing during the ambulance ride to a hospital and efforts to revive him again were unsuccessful.
Toussaint is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Blues Hall of Fame and the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame. He received the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama in 2013.
Allen Toussaint obituary
Versatile New Orleans musician – pianist, singer, songwriter, producer and arranger – who after Hurricane Katrina flourished as a performer
Allen Toussaint performing at Lara theater in Madrid, which was to be his final performance. Photograph: Jaime Massieu/EPA
Just over 50 years ago a generation of young British musicians, including the members of the Rolling Stones, grappled with the distinctive descending chord progression of Fortune Teller, a rhythm and blues hit written by the New Orleans pianist Allen Toussaint, while memorising its hip, humorous lyric. This was one of the many songs, including Working in the Coal Mine, Southern Nights, Yes We Can Can and Get Out of My Life, Woman, that poured from his pen.
Toussaint, who has died after a heart attack aged 77, was one of popular music’s great backroom figures: a talent scout, record producer, studio owner, singer and arranger. His early proteges included the singers Lee Dorsey, Irma Thomas and Ernie K-Doe, and he went on to collaborate with some of the great names of rock, including the Band, Paul McCartney, LaBelle, Robert Palmer and Elvis Costello.
Showing a precocious understanding of the predatory machinations of the music industry, He formed his own companies at the start of his career and took firm control of his own destiny – at least until his home and its contents were washed away by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The disaster forced him to embark on an unexpected but highly successful second career as a performer.
Toussaint was born in Gert Town, a district of New Orleans populated mostly by African Americans. Both his parents loved music. His father, Clarence, a railway worker, played the trumpet with a big band at weekends and his mother, Naomi, loved opera. As a child Toussaint became steeped in gospel music and, inspired by Albert Ammons and Pinetop Smith, learned to play boogie-woogie on the piano, before exposure to the records of another pianist, Professor Longhair, reshaped his ambitions. His mother sent him at the age of eight for piano tuition in the junior music school of Xavier University of Louisiana, Gert Town. After barely half a dozen lessons, however, she withdrew him. “It’s too late,” he remembered her saying. “The boogie-woogie’s got him.”
He was 13 when he and a friend, Snooks Eaglin, who played the guitar, formed a group called the Flamingos, playing at school dances. At 17 he attracted attention while playing at the Dew Drop Inn in New Orleans, and deputised for Huey “Piano” Smith, a local hero, with the band of the guitarist Earl King. Soon he was recruited by the local bandleader Dave Bartholomew, Fats Domino’s musical director and a noted talent-spotter. His first hit as a producer, in 1957, came with the saxophonist Lee Allen’s Walking With Mr Lee.
In 1958 he recorded his debut album, The Wild Sound of New Orleans, a set of piano-led instrumental pieces on which he was billed as Tousan. Two years later he was hired to recruit and groom new talent for the Minit label, where his early productions included Jessie Hill’s wild Ooh Poo Pah Doo, Chris Kenner’s I Like It Like That and the Showmen’s It Will Stand. He wrote and produced Fortune Teller and Lipstick Traces (On a Cigarette) for Benny Spellman, Mother-in-Law for Ernie K-Doe, and Ruler of My Heart and It’s Raining for Irma Thomas.
In 1961, his production of a semi-nonsense song called Ya Ya opened a long string of successes with the singer Lee Dorsey. “He had a happy voice and he wasn’t too cool to sing a humorous song,” Toussaint said, adding that his own compositions were usually tailored to the personality of the singer. “Many times I wait until the artist is near and I can see them, see how they feel about themselves, how they would like to feel about themselves.”
Toussaint was drafted into the US army in 1963, but a windfall came when the popular trumpeter Al Hirt had a Top 5 hit with Java, a tune from Toussaint’s first album. Another of his instrumental pieces, Whipped Cream, became the title track of an album by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass in 1964.
After two years in the army he returned to the studio with undiminished success, producing the early recordings of the Meters, featuring Art Neville, including Cissy Strut and Look-Ka Py Py. In 1970 he was encouraged to try a career as a singer, releasing the first of three albums for the Warner Brothers label. He provided horn arrangements for the Band’s famous 1971 concerts at the Academy of Music in New York, and produced In the Right Place, a hit album for his old protege Mac Rebennack, better known as Dr John.
In 1972, with his business partner, a sales and promotion man named Marshall Sehorn, he founded Sea-Saint Studio. There he produced the young British soul singers Robert Palmer, Jess Roden and Frankie Miller. Little Feat recorded his blues-ballad On Your Way Down, and Boz Scaggs had a hit with the plaintive What Do You Want the Girl to Do. In 1974 Toussaint arranged and produced LaBelle’s New Orleans-flavoured disco classic Lady Marmalade, and a year later he played on McCartney’s album Venus and Mars.
After fleeing the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, he spent two years exiled in New York. There he collaborated with Elvis Costello on an album about the disaster called The River in Reverse (2006), and his late-blooming career as a performer began when he accepted an offer to play a regular Sunday brunch session at an East Village pub. “I never thought of myself as a performer,” he told me last year. “My comfort zone is behind the scenes.” But his gentle voice, his exquisite piano-playing, the vast repertoire of songs full of wry wisdom, his dandyish wardrobe and his elder-statesman charm made him a great attraction at festivals and clubs around the world. In 2013 he collaborated on a ballet with the choreographer Twyla Tharp and received the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama.
It was in a Madrid hotel room, shortly after a performance, that he died. He had been due to perform in London this Sunday and in New Orleans next month with Paul Simon, at a benefit for a charity for the hungry and homeless that he co-founded in the city 40 years ago.
He is survived by a daughter, Alison, a son, Clarence, and six grandchildren.
• Allen Toussaint, musician, born 14 January 1938; died 9 November 2015
More About Allen
from Allen Toussaint website:
A New Orleans music legend recalls his childhood piano and the love-filled ‘shotgun’ house where he grew up.
Allen Toussaint, 75, has written dozens of hits—including “Southern Nights,” “Working in the Coalmine,” and “Whipped Cream.” In July, he was presented with a 2012 National Humanities Medal by President Obama. Mr. Toussaint’s new album, “Songbook” (Rounder), was released Sept. 24. He spoke with reporter Marc Myers.
For the first 24 years of my life I lived with my parents in Gert Town—a poor section of New Orleans that was rich in spirit. All my young memories are in that dingy-blond ‘shotgun’ house on College Court. They called it a shotgun house because you could stand in the front and shoot a shotgun straight through it. That’s how small it was.
The house had a front room, two bedrooms and a kitchen. My older brother, Vincent, and I slept on a Duofold sofa that opened to a bed, and my older sister, Joyce, slept in one of the two bedrooms. Everyone in the neighborhood knew each other. If your mother forgot to leave you the key to the front door, you bothered your neighbors, since everyone’s skeleton key worked in all the locks.
When I was 6½ years old, my aunt’s Story & Clark upright piano was brought to our house for my sister to play. My sister took several lessons but didn’t take to it. Her teacher used to hit her hands when she made mistakes. Eventually I started touching the keys and picked out melodies that I had heard on the radio. Soon my sister showed me how the notes on the keyboard corresponded to music on the page, and I started making up songs.
Our upright wasn’t much of a piano—it was a half-step flat the entire time we owned it—but that piano was everything to me. It was dark mahogany, almost black, with rouge crimps all over it. I took about eight piano lessons before my teacher gave up on me. I loved boogie-woogie and hillbilly music and gospel too much.
Everything changed for me when I heard Professor Longhair, a New Orleans blues singer and piano player. I dropped everything, and just played piano and wrote songs. Fortunately the radio was very close to the piano, so I could turn the dial, listen and play along. I stayed on the piano all the time. When company would come over, my mother had me come out to play a boogie-woogie.
The first song I wrote on that piano was a simple little duet for trombone and trumpet. I was about 10. I was inspired by a trombone duet solo on Benny Goodman’s “Love Walked In.” I never named my song—I wasn’t that bold yet. I’ve not heard it played to this day. I wouldn’t even know where it is at this point.
At home, I was treated royally, and my parents were very encouraging about my playing and composing. My parents—Clarence Toussaint and Naomi Neville—loved each other very much. I felt loved and even liked. We all felt we belonged to each other, to our family, instead of to the outside world.
My daddy was a mechanic on the L&N Railroad. He fixed locomotives. He was strong-willed and a strong man physically. He loved fixing things. Anything that was broken in our family came over to our house for repairs, including cars. My dad and I talked a lot. He was a very serous, wise man. I beat him at checkers only once. It brought a smile to his face.
One day when I was 13, I went into his bedroom where he was reading and showed him a trombone part I had written. My dad had been a professional musician but had to drop the trumpet to get a better job and take care of his family. He didn’t improvise but he could read music. My trombone part was for a small ensemble: trombone, trumpet and sax. When my father looked over the music, he gave me a compliment that from then on made me feel very positive about what I was doing. He looked up, kind of smiled and said, “You’re a genius.” To a little boy that word felt great.
On my 14th birthday, I was playing piano and suddenly stopped. I turned my body to the left, straddled the seat and rested my elbows on my thighs. For whatever reason, I said to myself, “I’m 14 and every 10 years I’m going to check back with this 14 year old and tell him how I’m doing.” I have no idea how I came up with that, but from then on I had those chats. They don’t last long. I talk to myself as though that 14-year-old is still at the piano. I often say how surprised I am at how far I’ve come. The 14-year old at the piano just listens—but he always seems as surprised as I am.
A version of this article appeared September 27, 2013, on page M12 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The House With 88 Keys.
Bio – Allen Toussaint
Allen Toussaint (born January 14, 1938) is an American musician, songwriter and record producer and one of the most influential figures in New Orleans R&B.
Like the Mississippi River that gives New Orleans its crescent shape, the city harbors a free-flowing music scene, awash in its own history and ever open to outside streams of influence. Time is fluid there as well – sounds of the past flow amicably with newer musical styles. An inordinately high percentage of music-makers reside there. Regardless of instrument or style, many command the same admiration other municipalities reserve for civic leaders and sports heroes. To this day in New Orleans, high school boys carrying a trombone or trumpet – more than a football – get the girls. And the city’s top piano players are still addressed as professors.
Allen Toussaint is a senior member of that titled fraternity, a renowned songwriter and producer, who’s celebrated for his distinctively deft and funky feel on the piano and still active after more than fifty years in the business. No fading golden oldie is this piano professor, though many of his successes reach back that far.
The list of those who have benefited in one way or another from the Toussaint’s touch is staggering in its historic and stylistic range, stretching from the late 1950s to the present day, with no end in sight. His studio productions have sold millions of discs and downloads. His catalog of songs has generated hits on the pop, R&B, country and dance charts – many remain on heavy rotation in various radio formats. His tunes continue to pop up as TV themes and advertising jingles. He has an ever-growing international circle of fans, and though normally reluctant to tour, he’s become a more familiar figure at music festivals and popular nightclubs around the world.
Though Toussaint has begun to travel far and wide as of late, he never stays away from New Orleans for long – and his music never does. In so many ways, his enduring career serves as an ongoing tribute to the city of his birth.
Allen Toussaint’s biography begins humbly. He was born in 1938 in New Orleans’s Gert Town, a working class neighborhood that straddles Washington Avenue between Earhart Boulevard and Carrollton Avenue, and was raised by his mother Naomi and father Clarence. He’s the “C. Toussaint” credited as songwriter on some early tunes; she’s the “N. Neville” whose name appears more often. Toussaint inherited their love of music, taught himself piano, and caught a couple of breaks as a teenager – joining a local R&B band that also featured guitarist Snooks Eaglin; sitting in for Huey “Piano” Smith with Earl King; laying down piano parts at a Fats Domino session that the Imperial Records star could not make.
Like many musicians of his generation (and those to come) Toussaint drew heavily on the syncopated blues and trill-filled patterns invented in the 1940s by Professor Longhair, aka Henry Roeland Byrd. To this day, most in New Orleans simply refer to him as “Fess”; with musical accuracy and a typically deft turn of a phrase, Toussaint hails him “The Bach of Rock”. When onstage, Toussaint rarely fails to credit his mentor, offering a rendition of “Tipitina,” Fess’s signature tune, mentioning the debt all modern piano professors share.
If Fess is New Orleans’s Bach, Toussaint is its Amadeus: an instrumentalist of uncanny sure-fingeredness and a prodigious inventor of melodies that remain fresh in the ear for years. The parallel is furthered as he also happens to be a master crystallizer of traditional and innovative styles; those classic New Orleans street parade rhythms never sounded more modern than they did after he was done updating them.
Toussaint later proved to have a poet’s ear for lyrics, plus a honey-toned singing voice – unusually smooth and upper-register for one who is essentially a bluesman. Yet his debut on record was an album of instrumentals for the major record company RCA. In 1958, The Wild Sound of New Orleans by “Tousan” included “Java,” later a huge pop hit for trumpeter Al Hirt, and the boogie “Whirlaway,” a marvel of top-gear piano precision.
The late ’50s were the wild and fiercely competitive days of R&B and early rock and roll. “Indie” labels were popping up all over. One would make a bundle for a moment, then disappear; others persevered. Toussaint learned fast – about publishing and song copyrights, and how to hang on to them. In the early ’60s, he assumed the position of session supervisor for Minit and Instant Records, writing and producing singles for a variety of local artists. Some – like Irma Thomas’s “It’s Raining” and Art Neville’s “All These Things” – became local hits. A few – Ernie K-Doe’s “Mother-In-Law” and Chris Kenner’s “I Like It Like That” – broke big on the national charts.
From the outset, Toussaint was able to imbue his songs with an ageless quality that successive, melody-savvy generations appreciated – and covered. His tune “A Certain Girl,” a 1961 single by K-Doe, was the B-side of the Yardbirds debut single in ’64; in 1980, Warren Zevon – no slouch himself as a songwriter – chose to record it too. Impressively evergreen among Toussaint’s songs is the single-chord gem, “Fortune Teller.” Initially a Benny Spellman hit in ’62, the Rolling Stones and the Hollies recorded it in their early years, and the Who performed it on their famous Live at Leeds album in 1970. As recently as 2007 Robert Plant and Alison Krauss made it a part of their Grammy-winning album Raising Sand.
With Toussaint, no experience was wasted, not even a two-year stint in the military that began in 1963. In ’64, he took his army band into the studio and under the name of The Stokes recorded “Whipped Cream,” a snappy instrumental with a jaunty horn line and a distinctive trumpet lead. Herb Alpert jumped on the melody a year later for the Tijuana Brass, recording it note-for-note, creating a hit single, a memorable album cover and a theme song for the TV sensation The Dating Game.
By the height of the ’60s, Toussaint was New Orleans’s premier producer. Partnering with record promoter Marshall Sehorn, a veteran of independent R&B companies, he built his own studio, dubbed it Sea-Saint, and established a series of record labels. As popular black music styles evolved from 1950s R&B to more soulful sounds and became powered by ever-funkier rhythms, so Toussaint’s productions – with Lee Dorsey (who served as Toussaint’s primary muse and voice), the Meters, Dr. John and others – morphed into a progressively heavier sense of syncopation, drawing heavily on New Orleans’s distinctive street parade beats.
Toussaint’s songwriting as well assumed a broader, sophisticated perspective. Some tunes focused on daily, workaday realities and urban life: “Workin’ In The Coal Mine,” “Night People,” “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley.” Others were more reflective, delivering messages of social protest and racial uplift: “Yes We Can,” “Freedom For The Stallion,” “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further.”
One song in particular – “Get Out Of My Life, Woman” – was so effective in defining a new, relaxed kind of beat, that for a number of years every touring ensemble and house band seemed to have it in their repertoire; it remains an R&B perennial, favored by the likes of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Iron Butterfly, Jerry Garcia, and most recently, the Derek Trucks Band. In the early ’70s, Toussaint wrote “Play Something Sweet (Brickyard Blues)” for Scottish pub rocker Frankie Miller; with its equally funky groove and irresistible lyric it inspired versions by Three Dog Night, Maria Muldaur and B.J. Thomas.
Through the ensuing decade, Toussaint’s schedule book was never empty, as a litany of rock, R&B and even country stars made their way to Sea-Saint. His ability to write, produce and conjure radio hits from performers in any popular genre – or to simply come up with just the right horn line or song structure – made him an in-demand producer, composer and arranger. He worked with local New Orleans acts as well as such luminaries as Paul McCartney, LaBelle, the Band, Albert King, and Little Feat, on whose 1975 tour Toussaint performed as the featured opener.
During this period, Toussaint’s star as a recording artist began to rise, as he released a number of albums on major labels – From A Whisper To A Scream, Life Love and Faith, Southern Nights, Motion – that are all considered essential New Orleans classics today. They were filled with tunes that revealed a highly individual, astute worldview: “What Is Success,” “On Your Way Down,” “Southern Nights,” “What Do You Want The Girl To Do,” “Night People.”
Soon, many of Toussaint’s most personal songs became fodder for the pop and rock world, covered by Boz Scaggs, Lowell George, Bonnie Raitt, and Robert Palmer among others – not that he or his accountant were complaining. Even Toussaint’s most autobiographical composition – the atmospheric and wistful “Southern Nights” – was retooled as a bouncy, barroom number by Glen Campbell in 1977. It was a crossover smash, topping both the pop and country charts and earning a nomination for Country Song of the Year.
After the high-flying successes of the ’70s, the following two decades saw Toussaint primarily focusing on hometown productions and performances, serving as musical director for Vernel Bagneris’s off Broadway play Staggerlee in 1985, and generating but one album under his own name – Mr. Mardi Gras: I Love A Carnival Ball – in ’87. In ’94 Toussaint joined a New Orleans R&B dream team that included old friends Earl Palmer, Red Tyler, Lee Allen, Mac Rebennack, and Edward Frank, to record The Ultimate Session under the moniker Crescent City Gold.
Two years later, with new partner Joshua Feigenbaum, he launched NYNO Records, producing critically hailed albums that delivered an overview of New Orleans’ best, rising talent of the day including gospel singer Raymond Myles, trumpeter James Andrews, R&B veteran Oliver Morgan, zydeco guitarist Paul “Lil’ Buck” Sinegal, and the New Birth Brass Band.
In the last fifteen years, Toussaint has experienced a growing resurgence of activity and recognition. Since ’96, he’s recorded seven albums and collaborated with the likes of Elvis Costello and Eric Clapton. He’s been sampled by such hip-hop heavyweights as O.D.B., Biz Markie, KRS One and Outkast, and appeared nationally on TV and radio – often on the urging of such longtime fans as Paul Shaffer and Harry Shearer, and on the HBO series Treme. He’s been Grammy® nominated and inducted into a number of Halls of Fame. Most recently, President Obama himself awarded him the National Medal of Arts in a special White House ceremony.
The weight of all these awards and appearances could not compare to the impact of Hurricane Katrina in 2005; Toussaint wryly calls the storm his booking agent, crediting it for rebooting his career as a performer after flooding him out of home and studio. Urged by Feigenbaum and other friends up north, Toussaint, relocated to New York City and began to perform solo concerts, using Joe’s Pub on Lafayette Street as a home base. Buoyed by a groundswell of support, he worked at something that years of success in the studio had allowed him to avoid: getting truly comfortable on the stage by himself, laying claim to his own songs.
Modesty had a lot to do with it; Allen Toussaint still is not the first person one would go to for information on Allen Toussaint. “I’m not accustomed to talking about myself,” he once explained during a gig, “I talk in the studio with musicians. Or through my songs.”
But over time, 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.
The what, when and how of this collection is comprehensively explained by its creator Paul Siegel – a veteran video producer, and lifelong enthusiast of Toussaint’s work. As this DVD is an important historical document and an overdue personal testament from a musical genius to his fans, it also stands as a tribute to Siegel’s passion for a man who – like too many of New Orleans’s heroes – often evades the national radar.
What the world needs to be reminded of, New Orleans never forgets. The wild sounds of Toussaint are inextricably interwoven into the city’s legacy; he’s still unveiling new songs, taking on projects and making appearances – like guesting on Trombone Shorty’s breakout album Backatown in 2010. He stands as one of the city’s most storied citizens. Strolling in the French Quarter, dropping into Tipitina’s or the House of Blues, Toussaint is always recognized and addressed with respect. He carries himself with an understated nobility – understated that is, save for the bright, color-coordinated suits and fisherman sandals: a Southern gentleman with Caribbean flair.
Nearly eight years after Katrina, New Orleans continues to recover, and Toussaint has returned permanently to the city he never truly left. Give him the heat and the humidity, the spice and the rice, the funky sound of a Second Line and the cool feel of a southern night. “I apologize,” Toussaint sings, with the hint of a wink, “to anyone who can truly say that he has a found a better way.”