Tuesday, November 10, 2015
Allen Toussaint, the versatile producer, songwriter, pianist and singer who was a fixture of New Orleans R&B, died after appearing in concert in Madrid on Monday night, November 9, 2015. He was 77.
Alison Toussaint-LeBeaux his daughter confirmed his death. Javier Ayuso, a spokesman for Madrid emergency services, told The Associated Press that rescue workers had been called to Mr. Toussaint’s hotel early Tuesday and were able to revive him after a heart attack, but that Mr. Toussaint later stopped breathing en route to a hospital.
In concert, in the studio or around his beloved New Orleans, Mr. Toussaint (pronounced too-SAHNT) was a soft-spoken embodiment of the city’s musical traditions, revered as one of the master craftsmen of 20th-century American pop.
“In the pantheon of New Orleans music people, from Jelly Roll Morton to Mahalia Jackson to Fats — that’s the place where Allen Toussaint is in,” said Quint Davis, the longtime producer of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, where Mr. Toussaint played almost every year since the mid-1970s.
Mr. Toussaint’s career began when he was a teenager in the ’50s and his jaunty piano playing caught the ear of Dave Bartholomew, Fats Domino’s producer. It continued to the present, with a late-blooming love for performing live and collaborating with rock and pop musicians like Elvis Costello.
Mr. Toussaint had his greatest impact in the ’60s and ’70s, when, as both songwriter and producer, he worked on records, like Ernie K-Doe’s “Mother-in-Law,” Lee Dorsey’s “Working in the Coal Mine” and Jessie Hill’s “Ooh Poo Pah Doo,” that described everyday pleasures and nuisances with empathy, wit and a loose, funky swing.
During the ’70s Mr. Toussaint’s studio, Sea-Saint, which he founded with the producer Marshall Sehorn, became renowned for recordings by the Meters, Dr. John and Labelle, and attracted international pop stars like Paul McCartney and Robert Palmer. Mr. Toussaint, then still a largely behind-the-scenes figure in music, also found his way to No. 1 on the pop charts in 1977 when Glen Campbell recorded a cover of his song “Southern Nights.”
Mr. Toussaint’s inspiration, he often said, was New Orleans itself, and over the years he became an unofficial musical ambassador for the city, where for decades he maintained a modest home in a middle-class neighborhood.
At Jazz Fest, as the Jazz and Heritage Festival is known, he usually performed in a bright and elaborately decorated coat. Even offstage, Mr. Toussaint had an eccentric dandy style; he drove a Rolls-Royce with the license plate PIANO and favored pinstriped suits and purple silk shirts paired with Birkenstock sandals.
“It’s who we are,” Mr. Toussaint said of New Orleans, in an interview last year published by the Red Bull Music Academy. “The food we eat, the history, Mardi Gras Indians who rehearse all year around, the second-line brass bands who strut that stuff, the syncopation, the humor, and the slightly slower pace than the rest of America — the way we mosey along rather than running the race.”
On Tuesday Paul Simon, with whom Mr. Toussaint was scheduled to give a benefit concert in New Orleans on Dec. 8, recalled their long history together, which goes back to recording sessions in the early ’70s, when Mr. Toussaint played piano for him and wrote chord charts for his musicians.
“We were friends and colleagues for almost 40 years,” Mr. Simon wrote in an email. “We played together at the New Orleans jazz festival. We played the benefits for Katrina relief. We were about to perform together on Dec. 8. I was just beginning to think about it; now I’ll have to think about his memorial. I am so sad.”
Allen Toussaint was born on Jan. 18, 1938, in Gert Town, a working-class neighborhood of New Orleans. His parents, Clarence and Naomi, were songwriters. By his early teens he was playing piano with the guitarist Snooks Eaglin, and he got his first break when he substituted for the New Orleans bandleader and pianist Huey Piano Smith on tour in 1957.
The next year, Mr. Toussaint recorded “The Wild Sound of New Orleans,” an album of instrumentals released by RCA Victor under the name Tousan. It was no hit, but it later gave him a taste of success as a songwriter: One song on the album, “Java” — for which Mr. Toussaint shared credit with Alvin Tyler and Freddy Friday — was covered by the trumpeter Al Hirt in 1963 and reached No. 4 on the Billboard pop chart.
In 1960, Mr. Toussaint became the house producer, arranger and songwriter for the Minit label, where he worked with Irma Thomas, Aaron Neville, Benny Spellman and others. After serving in the Army from 1963 to 1965, he returned to music, establishing Sansu Enterprises, a publishing company and group of record labels, with Mr. Sehorn.
The sound that Mr. Toussaint developed in the ’60s built on the rollicking piano style of earlier New Orleans figures like Professor Longhair, with arrangements that melded deep R&B grooves with touches of pop.
“Allen was the crucible of New Orleans music,” said the producer Leo Sacks, who in the 1990s recorded a gospel singer, Raymond Myles, who was later signed to Mr. Toussaint’s NYNO label. “Allen’s call-and-response choruses were catchy and clever, his harmonics were rich and gospel-flavored. And no one had his handiness with a hook.”
Many of Mr. Toussaint’s songs would eventually be covered widely, including “Fortune Teller,” which became a standard among British Invasion rock bands in the mid-’60s; it was recorded by the Who and the Rolling Stones, among others.
“I was so glad when the Stones recorded my song,” Mr. Toussaint once told an interviewer. “I knew they would know how to roll it all the way to the bank.”
During the ’70s Mr. Toussaint recorded three albums for labels under the Warner Bros. umbrella, but the popularity of his style of R&B waned with the rise of disco. He continued to write and record for independent labels, and in 1998 was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
After Hurricane Katrina, Mr. Toussaint’s career took another turn when he relocated to New York. He began to make regular appearances at Joe’s Pub, the intimate East Village nightclub, and recorded “The River in Reverse,” a collaboration with Mr. Costello that was a response to the hurricane and the destruction of New Orleans. He also toured with Mr. Costello, an experience that inspired him to play concerts much more widely than he ever had before, according to Mr. Davis of Jazz Fest.
“The River in Reverse” was nominated for a Grammy Award for best pop vocal album, but it did not win; Mr. Toussaint’s only Grammy was a Trustees Award, a career prize, in 2009. In 2013, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts in a ceremony at the White House.
In addition to his daughter, Mr. Toussaint’s survivors include a son, Clarence Reginald; a brother, Vincent; and six grandchildren.
Posted by Michael Godin at 5:08 PM