Obituary: Allen Toussaint
Self-effacing songwriter whose R&B hits were performed by the Stones, Eric Clapton and The Who
Published 22/11/2015 | 02:30
Allen Toussaint, who has died aged 77, was a master of New Orleans soul and R&B, and one of America's most successful songwriters and producers; his compositions were covered by everyone from the Rolling Stones to Glen Campbell and he wrote so many over more than five decades that he admitted to forgetting quite a few.
The self-effacing Toussaint played a crucial role in countless classic songs popularised by other artists. He wrote and produced 'Ruler of My Heart' (1963) for Irma Thomas as well as the Ernie K-Doe hits 'Mother-In-Law' (1970, on which he also played the piano) and 'Here Come the Girls' (1979). He was responsible for Lee Dorsey's 1966 classic 'Working in the Coal Mine' (later covered by The Judds and Devo), while his instrumentals, 'Java' and 'Whipped Cream', were chart hits in the 1960s for Al Hirt and Herb Alpert respectively.
His 'Fortune Teller', written under the pseudonym Naomi Neville for Benny Spellman in 1961, was covered by the Rolling Stones and virtually every other up-and-coming 1960s band, while his 'Southern Nights' became a hit for Glen Campbell in 1977. He produced Dr John's 1973 hit 'Right Place, Wrong Time'; and 'Lady Marmalade', which became a disco hit in 1975 for the vocal trio Labelle (and later featured in the film Moulin Rouge); he also wrote the Pointer Sisters' 1973 hit 'Yes We Can', possibly the inspiration for President Barack Obama's later campaign slogan.
Later in his career Toussaint often topped the bill at the New Orleans Jazz Festival, but he preferred writing for others and was always happier in the recording studio than on the road.
"So much music goin' on, I was afraid to come out," he once explained. Although he often played the piano on others' recordings, when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998, it was as a "non-performer".
That all changed after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005. The storm destroyed his home and studio and Toussaint himself went missing for several days. He found a temporary home in New York, where he began performing regular solo gigs at Joe's Pub in Greenwich Village, and later devoted his musical talent to helping to rebuild his native city.
In 2006, he released a Katrina-themed record with Elvis Costello called The River in Reverse, and embarked on a series of overseas tours. Katrina, he once joked, had proved to be his "best booking agent".
Toussaint proved to be a delightful performer, interspersing a poetic stream of consciousness about life and love through the riffs, trills and boogies of traditional New Orleans R&B.
He was so laid back that at one show at the Barbican he allowed a fan sitting in the front row to take over the lead vocals on 'Brickyard Blues', while he, smiling benignly, played the piano accompaniment.
The youngest of three children of a railway mechanic and amateur trumpeter, Allen Toussaint was born in Gert Town, a working-class district of New Orleans, on January 14, 1938 and brought up in a "shotgun" house (so-called because it was possible to fire a shotgun through the front door and out the other side).
He taught himself to play the piano on his family's upright.
At the age of 13 he joined the Flamingos, an R&B band that also included the guitarist Snooks Eaglin, before replacing Huey "Piano" Smith in the Shirley & Lee band.
After dropping out of school, he was hired as a session pianist by Dave Bartholomew, musical director for Fats Domino, who was cutting tracks for Domino while the "Fat Man" was on the road, and needed someone who could duplicate Domino's style. Toussaint's debut as a solo artist, under the name Al Tousan (RCA Records felt that his French name would be too difficult to pronounce) was the instrumental album, The Wild Sounds of New Orleans (1958).
But his work as a session musician also allowed him to develop his talents as a songwriter. When Minit Records was formed in New Orleans in 1960, the 22-year-old Toussaint became the label's musical director and the hits poured out for local artists including Jessie Hill, Irma Thomas and Chris Kenner.
Even after the "British invasion" of the mid 1960s killed off much of the market for New Orleans-style R&B, Toussaint's career rolled on as he founded his own studio and record label, produced the Meters, Dr John and Patti LaBelle, and watched as his songs were recorded and re-recorded many times over. "The Rolling Stones showed me the way to the bank," he recalled.
He combined soulful rhythms with buoyant pop melodies, with classical and gospel influences, and resisted easy categorisation. "Some people have said about my music, that it's not funky enough but it's not something else enough, too black to be white and too white to be black," he observed. "They need to know whether to file it in the Pavarotti file or the Jessie Hill file."
Others who covered his songs included The Who, Jerry Garcia, The Doors, The Yardbirds, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Elvis Costello and Joe Cocker.
Toussaint's later recordings included Life, Love and Faith (1972), Southern Nights (1975), Connected (1996) and The Bright Mississippi (2009). In 2013 he released Songbook, an album featuring the New Orleans musician performing a revelatory review of his long career.
When, the same year, President Obama presented Toussaint with the National Medal of the Arts, partly in recognition of his work to help rebuild New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina, he was typically modest: "I'm still trying to learn how to play the piano," he claimed, "at least play it better than I did the day before."
He died of a heart attack shortly after performing a concert at the Lara Theatre in Madrid. He had been due to perform at a sell-out concert at the EFG London Jazz Festival on November 15.
Allen Toussaint, who died on November 10, was married and divorced twice. He is survived by a son and two daughters.