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Allen Toussaint (1938–2015)

by Legacy Staff

Legendary New Orleans musician, songwriter and producer.

Legendary New Orleans musician, songwriter and producer Allen Toussaint died Tuesday, Nov. 10, of a heart attack. He was 77.

Toussaint’s musical genius won him a place in the hearts of many of his colleagues, even though he wasn’t widely known beyond the music world. His performing career, anchored by his vocals and piano playing, was almost a footnote to a lifetime of writing and improving songs made famous by others. He told The Guardian in a 2014 interview, “I never thought of myself as a performer. My comfort zone is behind the scenes.”


Behind the scenes, the songs he wrote were often longtime favorites to a public that may not have even heard Toussaint’s name. One of the earliest musicians to find success with a Toussaint-penned tune was fellow New Orleans native Ernie K-Doe, who had his first and only No. 1 hit in 1961 with Toussaint’s “Mother-in-Law.” Toussaint himself performed on the song as well, playing the piano solo. It marked the beginning of a string of hit singles for artists performing Toussaint’s compositions.

Benny Spellman recorded a 1962 two-sided single featuring “Lipstick Traces (On a Cigarette)” and “Fortune Teller,” both by Toussaint. Spellman charted the single, and both songs went on to become rock music standards, with covers by artists including Alex Chilton, the O’Jays and Ringo Starr for the A-side and the Rolling Stones, the Hollies and The Who for the enduring classic “Fortune Teller.” The following year, trumpeter Al Hirt had his biggest hit with Toussaint’s “Java,” and Otis Redding charted with “Pain in My Heart,” written by Toussaint but credited, as several of his songs were, under his mother’s name, Naomi Neville.

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Lee Dorsey frequently worked with Toussaint, both recording his compositions and tapping Toussaint as the producer for his records. Dorsey’s two biggest hits, “Ya Ya” (1961) and “Working in the Coal Mine” (1966) were by Toussaint. A new generation discovered Toussaint’s music when, in 1981, new wave pioneers Devo recorded “Working in the Coal Mine,” which charted in the Billboard Hot 100. Dorsey also recorded Toussaint’s “Yes We Can,” which the Pointer Sisters covered in 1973 as “Yes We Can Can,” becoming the band’s first big hit.

The Pointer Sisters were among a number of artists who, in the 1970s, kept Toussaint’s music in the mainstream as they recorded his tunes. In 1974, an amazing six different versions of his “Play Something Sweet (Brickyard Blues)” were recorded, including the hit single by Three Dog Night. Glen Campbell brought Toussaint to country music fans in 1976 when he recorded “Southern Nights.” Joe Cocker recorded “Fun Time,” while Rufus took on Toussaint’s “Keep It Together (Declaration of Love).”

Among the best-known songs with Toussaint’s stamp on them are two that he produced but did not write. Dr. John’s 1973 album, In the Right Place, was produced by Toussaint, who also played piano and other instruments on the recording. He wrote one song for the album – “Life” – but it was “Right Place Wrong Time,” boosted by Toussaint’s production, that became a classic.

A similar story describes Labelle’s 1974 album, Nightbirds, again produced by Toussaint, who contributed piano accompaniment and a single song, “Don’t Bring Me Down.” But it was the Bob Crewe/Kenny Nolan song “Lady Marmalade” that became a massive hit for the group, owing some of its success to Toussaint’s production (and plenty more to its suggestive lyrics).

In addition to his notable work as a songwriter and producer, Toussaint also recorded more than a dozen albums himself. He performed his own songs, including those made famous by others such as “Working in the Coal Mine” and “Southern Nights.” His albums were typically well-received by critics and dedicated fans, though they made little impact on the charts. In live performances, he charmed crowds with his well-loved songs and his talent at the piano, whether he was on television, at a festival or in a more intimate setting at a nightclub or bar.

Born Jan. 14, 1938, in the New Orleans neighborhood of Gert Town, Toussaint made the city his home for most of his life and became indelibly associated with its music scene and broader culture. He was a unique resident of a town populated by characters, adding stylistic flourishes to the city’s flavor, including his vintage Rolls-Royce with a vanity license plate reading “PIANO” and his habitual garb of handsome suits worn with sandals.

Only the destructive power of Hurricane Katrina could displace Toussaint from his hometown, and when the storm made landfall in 2005, Toussaint’s home and studio, named Sea Saint, were ravaged, and all of his possessions were destroyed. Toussaint was determined to stay in his city, but it wasn’t to be.

“I thought I would be here and take this hurricane like all of the rest,” he told State of Wonder, “except for martial law. We had to leave.” The necessity of evacuation sent him to New York City, where he spent several years.

His eventual homecoming put Toussaint back in the city that was his home, albeit in a rebuilt studio that was missing beloved old instruments. During his final years in New Orleans, Toussaint continued to work, writing, performing and recording.

Toussaint’s New Orleans roots were honored at his funeral, which culminated in a jazz procession with music by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. In the traditional jazz funeral style, the band began with a mournful dirge before breaking into more celebratory music.

Toussaint was a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as well as the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame. In 2013, President Barack Obama honored Toussaint with the National Medal of Arts.

Toussaint is survived by his children, Clarence “Reginald” Toussaint and Alison Toussaint LeBeaux, as well as several grandchildren.

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