A pillar of the New Orleans music scene, Allen Toussaint was a talented performer, songwriter and producer. He started out as a piano player in his teen years. Toussaint worked for Minit and Instant record labels in the early 1960s and then went on to form his own company Sansu Enterprise and run his own recording studio. He wrote numerous hits in the 1960s and 1970s, including Glen Campell's number one smash "Southern Nights." His later work includes 2006's The River in Reverse, a collaboration with Elvis Costello, and the 2009 jazz album The Bright Mississippi. Toussaint died in 2015 at the age of 77.
Early Life and Career
Born on January 14, 1938, in New Orleans, Louisiana, Allen Toussaint was an influential force in R&B and rock music. His parents, Clarence and Naomi, gifted him with their love of music. He taught himself how to play piano as a child. He drew inspiration from another New Orleans great, Professor Longhair. In an interview with Keyboard magazine, he said that “Professor Longhair had another reason and rhyme for everything. His language, his speed of operation, his mobility—everything was just totally different.”
As a teen, Toussaint graduated to playing piano in a local group with guitarist Snooks Eaglin. He landed one of his first breaks from producer Dave Bartholomew who brought him to work on sessions for Fats Domino in the late 1950s. Toussaint also toured with New Orleans bandleader Huey "Piano" Smith around this time. In 1958, he released his first album, The Wild Sound of New Orleans, under the name Tousan. One of its tracks, "Java," later became a hit for trumpeter Al Hirt.
New Orleans Music Legend
In 1960, Toussaint began working for the Minit and Instant record labels as a songwriter, producer and arranger. He penned Ernie K-Doe's number one hit "Mother in Law." After serving in the U.S. Army from 1963 to 1965, Toussaint started up his own production company called Sansu Enterprises with Marshall Sehorn. They later formed Sea-Saint Studio, which was used by such top local talent as Dr. John as well as such international stars as Paul McCartney and Paul Simon. Toussaint also produced Patti LaBelle's disco smash hit "Lady Marmalade" and penned Lee Dorsey's successful single "Working in the Coal Mine" among other projects.
Toussaint still found time to make his own music. He released several albums in the 1970s, including a 1971 self-titled work, Life, Love and Faith (1972) and Southern Nights (1975). These records featured such songs as "From a Whisper to a Scream," "Soul Sister," "On Your Way Down" and "What Do You Want the Girl to Do?" and "Southern Nights." "Southern Nights" later became a number one hit for country singer Glen Campbell in 1977. Other artists to record their own take on Toussaint's songs included the Rolling Stones and Bonnie Raitt. In 1998, Toussaint was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for his work as a songwriter and producer.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina destroyed both Toussaint's house and his studio. He temporarily relocated to New York and went to work on a new project with Elvis Costello. The pair created the well-received album The River in Reverse, which was released in 2006, and Toussaint also toured with Costello. This collaboration breathed new life into Toussaint's career as a performer. He began to play more concerts and recorded the 2009 jazz album The Bright Mississippi. Toussaint also released several live recordings of his performances at the New Orleans Jazz Fest over the years. In 2013, he put out Songbook, which featured one of his performances at the famed New York City club Joe's Pub.
Toussaint passed away at the age of 77 after performing a concert in Madrid, Spain, on November 9, 2015. The music world quickly responded to the loss of this great musical genius. Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards called him "one of the greatest songwriters New Orleans ever produced," according to the Los Angeles Times. Paul Simon wrote on his website that "Allen Toussaint was my dear friend. The most gifted, gracious and generous man that you could ever want to meet."
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