A producer, bandleader, arranger, songwriter, session musician and all-around musical eminence, Allen Toussaint impacted the New Orleans music scene of the Sixties in much the same way that Dave Bartholomew had in the Fifties. Toussaint, in fact, apprenticed under Bartholomew at sessions for such legends as Fats Domino, so it was a seamless transition when the R&B baton passed between generations in New Orleans. Born and raised in the Crescent City, Toussaint left his stamp on the city’s contemporary R&B scene. His greatest contribution was in not allowing the city’s old-school R&B traditions to die out but by keeping pace with developments in the rapidly evolving worlds of soul and funk. In addition, he brought the New Orleans sound to the national stage, and it remains a vital and ongoing part of our musical heritage to this day.
Toussaint came into his own as a studio auteur for the Minit and Instant labels from 1960-63. He produced, arranged and sometimes wrote a string of classic sides for such New Orleans R&B artists as Lee Dorsey, Jessie Hill, Ernie K-Doe and Chris Kenner. Many listeners heard New Orleans-style piano for the first time via Toussaint’s playing on Ernie K-Doe’s #1 hit, “Mother-in-Law.” “Fortune Teller,” written pseudonymously by Toussaint and recorded by Benny Spellman, became a virtual standard among British Invasion bands. The early Rolling Stones and Who, among others, included it in their live repertoire.
As writer Ed Ward put it, “Toussaint was the main exponent of what the locals called the carnival sound-a raucous, polyrhythmic beat that was solid but complex, like a rhythm and blues rumba crossed with the second-line rhythms of Professor Longhair.” Toussaint’s run was interrupted by a stint in the army from 1963-65. Upon returning to New Orleans, Toussaint picked up where he left off, forming Sansu, a production company, with partner Marshall Sehorn. A string of soul/R&B singles from singer Lee Dorsey followed in 1965-66, including “Ride Your Pony,” “Working in the Coal Mine” and “Holy Cow.”
Toussaint also groomed a quartet of top-drawer New Orleans musicians known as the Meters. They served as the Sansu house band while releasing funky instrumentals under their own name. In 1973, Toussaint and Sehorn built their own Sea-Saint studio, which attracted local musicians like Dr. John (“Right Place Wrong Time”) and the Neville Brothers, as well as established stars like Paul McCartney, Paul Simon and Robert Palmer. Labelle recorded their 1975 chart-topper “Lady Marmalade” at Sea-Saint with Toussaint. In addition to his endless resume of productions, various Toussaint-penned songs-published under his own name and the pseudonym Naomi Neville (his mother’s maiden name)-have been covered by such notables as the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, Bonnie Raitt, Boz Scaggs, Little Feat, Al Hirt, Herb Alpert and Glen Campbell.
It’s worth noting that although he was inducted in the “nonperformer” category, Toussaint is a talented pianist and performer who has recorded under his own name. His solo discography includes an instrumental album, The Wild Sound of New Orleans by Tousan, released in 1958. Two of his early instrumentals later became standards for other artists. “Java,” by Al Hirt, hit #4 in 1964, and “Whipped Cream” served as the title track of the third album by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, which topped the album chart for eight weeks in 1965. Toussaint also cut a trio of sleek, contemporary R&B albums for Warner Bros. in the Seventies. His induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame came two days after his 60th birthday. Mr. Toussaint was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Obama in 2013.
He is survived by his two children, Alison and Clarence.