Obituary: Allen Toussaint, musician

Allen Toussaint, New Orleans musical genius whose songs won many other artists chart success. Picture: AP
Allen Toussaint, New Orleans musical genius whose songs won many other artists chart success. Picture: AP
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Born: 14 January, 1938, in Gert Town, Louisiana. Died: 10 November, 2015, in Madrid, aged 77.

Allen Toussaint was one of the great American musicians of the latter half of the 20th century, and someone who came to embody the spirit of the New Orleans style through his eloquent and energetic blend of rhythm ‘n’ blues, soul and jazz. He worked as a songwriter, a producer, a musician and as a solo artist in his own right, and his music crossed boundaries, both through his enthusiasm for working with musicians outside his home city’s milieu, and through cover versions of his songs from the most unlikely of sources.

In a purely populist sense, Toussaint’s most iconic moments came with these covers, many of which are familiar to millions. Fortune Teller, written under the pseudonym Naomi Neville (his mother’s name) and first recorded in 1962 by Benny Spellman, has become a rock standard, with versions recorded by the Rolling Stones, the Who, and Robert Plant and Alison Krauss on their 2007 Raising Sand album. Southern Nights was a 1977 US number one hit for Glen Campbell. Play Something Sweet (Brickyard Blues) was recorded by Little Feat, Three Dog Night and Glasgow singer Frankie Miller, for whom it was written. Miller’s 1974 second album High Life was produced by Toussaint.

Another of Toussaint’s signature tracks was Working in a Coalmine, a US top ten hit in 1966 for New Orleans prizefighter-turned-singer Lee Dorsey, whose career was largely masterminded by Toussaint as his producer. Toussaint also wrote and recorded Dorsey’s much-covered hits Get Out of My Life, Woman and Holy Cow; the 1970 single Yes We Can Part 1 wasn’t a success, until the Pointer Sisters released it as the appropriately-titled hit Yes We Can Can in 1973.

Dorsey was just one of the New Orleans artists who owed Toussaint their success. He wrote and produced for Ernie K-Doe, Art and Aaron Neville and Irma Thomas (her Ruler of My Heart was covered by Otis Redding as Pain in My Heart), first for local labels Minit and Instant, and later for his and Marshall Sehorn’s Sansu imprint. For the latter his regular house band were The Meters, whose albums and funk classic singles Cissy Strut and Look-Ka Py Py Toussaint also produced. He and the group masterminded Dr John’s 1973 New Orleans blues classic In the Right Place and its 1974 follow-up Desitively Bonnaroo, and Robert Palmer’s debut album Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley (1974).

It shows the depth and versatility of Toussaint’s career that his obituary could be filled with a roster of his work, and their significance alone could stand as testament to what he achieved throughout his life. He played on Paul McCartney and Wings’ Venus and Mars album in 1975; co-produced Labelle’s 1974 album Nightbirds, and therefore the enduring disco-funk classic Lady Marmalade; and arranged stirring, emotive live and recorded horn parts for The Band throughout the 1970s, including on their 1976 The Last Waltz concert, released as the Martin Scorsese-directed film of the same name two years later.

Toussaint’s ability to pick out a song for any occasion is hard to underestimate. Called up for two years of military service in 1963, he wrote a song called Whipped Cream and recorded it with his military band under the name The Stokes in 1964. A year later it was covered by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, and became one of The Dating Game’s theme songs. Here Come the Girls, now more familiar in the UK as the soundtrack to a Boots advert, is one of his, recorded in 1970 by Ernie K-Doe. Hip-hop artists including Jay-Z and Outkast also sampled him in later years.

Born in the working class New Orleans neighbourhood of Gert Town to Clarence and Naomi (he also used his father’s name as an early composing pseudonym), Toussaint was raised in a “shotgun” house alongside his older siblings Vincent and Joyce. He taught himself piano from the age of six on his aunt’s upright, partly by listening to local musician Professor Longhair on the radio, and played around town as a teenager. He earned recognition when he filled in for the unavailable Huey “Piano” Smith on a Fats Domino session, and released his first album, the instrumental The Wild Sound of New Orleans, on RCA in 1958. Despite his success over the following two decades and more, the sound and the comfort of his home city was something he never left behind.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Toussaint focused largely on recording and playing with artists from the city both new and established. He was in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, and afterwards moved to New York for a brief time. Recorded with Elvis Costello, his Grammy-nominated 2006 record The River in Reverse was the first major album recorded in the city after the storm, and he played and arranged music for the post-Katrina television drama Treme, whose creator David Simon called him “one of the finest composers who ever created American music”.

Toussaint died of a heart attack at his hotel in Madrid following a concert earlier that evening. He is survived by son Clarence, daughter Alison and grandchildren. He became a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998 and was awarded America’s National Medal of Arts by President Obama in 2013.

The first person who called him a genius was his father, a railyard mechanic forced to give up his own musical dreams by the demands of life, when he read one of his 13-year-old son’s first compositions. He wouldn’t be the last.