Singer, songwriter, pianist, producer
Allen Toussaint likes to talk about the old days, when, as he related to Don Palmer in a 1986 Down Beat article, he and his friends would spend the day in the front two rooms of his parents’ shotgun house in New Orleans. Friends like Aaron Neville, Ernie K-Doe, Benny Spellman, and Irma Thomas would socialize and sing popular songs. Or Toussaint would write a song for Neville or Thomas and the others would sing behind him or her as they learned the song. Then they would head down to Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Studios, where Toussaint had begun directing sessions for Minuit Records in 1960, singing all the way. Sometimes they would even return to the house afterwards and sing some more.
Not too much has changed since then. J&M Studios closed and was replaced in 1973 by the state-of-the-art Sea-Saint Studios, owned by Toussaint and Marshall Sehorn, a New Orleans record producer since the late ’60s. But Toussaint is still writing songs and making records with his friends, who now sometimes hail from outside the Crescent City. He has scored gold records producing and arranging material for Paul Simon and Patti LaBelle, and Paul McCartney, Joe Cocker, and Maria Muldaur have all recorded at Sea-Saint. Toussaint’s solo career has been an on-again-off-again affair; nonetheless, he remains one of New Orleans’s most important impresarios and in recent years has had success with his work in theater.
Toussaint started playing piano when he was five or six, though he had only about two months of formal training, “and I don’t mean in succession,” he noted in Down Beat. His sister helped him to read music and soon he was learning Grieg’s piano concerto from a record, transposing it up a few keys so that his flat piano would be in tune with the recording. He counts New Orleans pianist Professor Longhair as his greatest influence, as does Toussaint’s longtime associate Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack. In a 1991 piece in Cultural Vistas, Toussaint remembered, “When I heard Professor Longhair, good heavens, [it was] just wonderful. When I heard that [music] it was just a shock to my life because before that things were fairly mild. [Even] boogie woogie, you know, would get there and it would stay there, and everything had a different kind of order, but Professor Longhair [was] wild and untamed.” In fact, Toussaint can be seen behind the keyboard in the 1982 documentary Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together, produced by Stevson J. Palfi, which traces the musical lineage passed down from Isidore “Tuts” Washington to Roy “Professor Longhair” Byrd to Toussaint.
For the Record…
Born January 14, 1938, in New Orleans, LA; children: three, including Clarence and Alison.
Contributed piano to Fats Domino recordings; toured with Shirley and Lee, 1955; solo recording artist, 1958—; began producing sessions at Minuit Records, 1960; with Marshall Sehom, founded label Sansu Enterprises, 1965; opened Sea-Saint Studios, 1973; composed music for theater, 1980s; appeared in documentary Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together, 1982; released Warner Bros, retrospective The Allen Toussaint Collection, 1991. Military service: U.S. Army, 1963-65, served as musician.
Awards: Named “One of the Top 200 Executives of Tomorrow” by Billboard, 1976; “Southern Nights” named most performed song of the year by BMI, 1977; Outer Critics Circle Award for best music in an Off-Broadway musical, 1986-87, for Staggerlee; gold records for work with other artists.
Addresses: Booking agent —New Orleans Entertainment Agency, 3530 Rue Delphine, New Orleans, LA 70131.
Toussaint was performing in clubs like the famous Dew Drop Inn while he was still in his teens. It was at that venue that Dave Bartholomew, the Imperial Records executive who worked on many of pianist-singer Fats Domino’s hits, recognized the young player’s gift for imitating current musical styles. Toussaint was soon laying down Domino-like piano tracks on songs like “I Want You to Know” and “Little School Girl,” onto which Domino would later dub his voice. He also toured briefly in 1955 with Shirley and Lee, but Toussaint soon returned to session work in New Orleans. There, while accompanying scores of singers at a three-day open audition, producers Murray Sporn and Danny Kesler realized Toussaint’s talent and arranged for him to cut his own album in just two weeks. In 1958, Toussaint’s all-instrumental The Wild Sounds of New Orleans was released by RCA and yielded the artist’s first hit, “Java,” soon remade to great effect by Al Hirt, much as Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass would later gain fame with Toussaint’s “Whipped Cream,” which became the theme for television’s popular Dating Game.
Toussaint’s most famous production hit with Minuit Records, at which he had become a fixture, was Ernie K-Doe’s “Mother-in-law,” which hit Number One on the national charts in the summer of 1961. Meanwhile, what came to be known as the “Toussaint Sound” recurred in local hits such as Aaron Neville’s “Over You” and Irma Thomas’s “It’s Raining.” Toussaint’s output at Minuit was curtailed in 1963, however, when he was inducted into the Army, where he served as a musician for two years. While he was in the service, Minuit was sold to interests outside the New Orleans area and Toussaint’s involvement would never be the same. Still, his time at Minuit and his exposure to the musicians there would have a lasting effect on him. As John Broven noted in his book Rhythm and Blues in New Orleans, “Toussaint was able to get away from the ensemble riffing sounds of Dave Bartholomew and also the Studio Band, mainly by allowing each instrumentalist a far freer role—at any moment the tenor would stutter through, the trumpet punchily interject, or the baritone moan a deep, bridging phrase. His own brilliant piano and the second line of the regular rhythm section of Chuck Badie and ex-Longhair drummer John Boudreaux provided the solid base.”
Aside from their groundbreaking work with Toussaint, these musicians were also important because they formed the A.F.O. Combo, a project that sought not only to play, but to earn royalties instead of flat union wages. With Toussaint shouldering piano duties, the group saw enough success to create some bad blood with others on the New Orleans music scene; but they disbanded after an unsuccessful attempt to move the operation to California.
Toussaint continued producing and arranging and started working with Marshall Sehorn in 1965; soon the two founded their own label, Sansu Enterprises. The mid-1960s saw the release of Lee Dorsey’s hits “Get Out of My Life Woman,” “Working in a Coalmine,” and “Holy Cow.” But Sansu was also home to the highly influential and now-revered Meters, composed of Art Neville, Leo Nocentelli, George Porter, and Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste, who served as the label’s house band while also putting out their own string of late ’60s hits, including “Sophisticated Cissy,” “Cissy Strut,” and “Ease Back,” which exemplified the best of the modern soulfunk sound. Toussaint told Audio’s Ted Fox, “The Meters were mostly a percussion group—not percussion instruments, but they played percussively. Everything they played was heavily syncopated.... Their songs were a conglomeration of firecrackers going off here, and pops there, explosions here. It was just fire.” The Meters backed Dr. John on “Positively” and LaBelle on “Nightbirds”—both major hits that served to renew interest in the New Orleans sound.
In 1970 Toussaint was signed by Sceptor Records and, after a 12-year hiatus, was persuaded to make his second LP, Toussaint, for the Tiffany imprint. He then released a string of recordings for Warner Bros. The 1978 album Motion displayed less of the New Orleans sound, however, perhaps because it was produced by Atlantic Records co-founder Jerry Wexler, who may have been trying to mold Toussaint the way he had Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin. In 1978, Toussaint again stopped recording his own material. Nevertheless, albums like 1975’s Southern Nights —which has been called Toussaint’s “Sergeant Pepper”—yielded song after song for other artists, including Glen Campbell, the Pointer Sisters, and Little Feat.
The mid- to late 70s was a period of phenomenal success for Toussaint. In 1976, Billboard named him “One of the Top 200 Executives of Tomorrow,” and in 1977, “Southern Nights” was recognized by the performers’ rights society Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI) as “The Most Performed Song of the Year.” Campbell’s rendition of the song was nominated for a Grammy Award and for song of the year by the Country Music Association. In 1978, the Nashville Songwriters’ Association International honored Toussaint’s “Creative Genius in Words and Music”—a rare distinction for a practitioner of New Orleans rhythm and blues.
But, the early 1980s were a slow time for Toussaint; Warner Bros, did not renew its contract with his Sea-Saint studios, for which Toussaint blamed himself. These years nonetheless afforded the artist time to explore theater music, serving as composer-lyricist for the stage production We Love You, William and the movie Black Samson. The music he wrote and performed in Vernel Bagneris’s Staggerlee won the Outer Critics Circle Award for best music in an Off-Broadway musical for the season 1986-1987. In 1991, the Broadway musical High Rollers Social and Pleasure Club’s short run at the Helen Hayes Theater earned another nomination for Toussaint’s efforts from the Outer Critics Circle, as well as a Tony nomination for the show’s star, Vivian Reed.
Though Toussaint may not do much touring, he continues to appear in Europe and Japan and remains active in New Orleans, playing at benefits or at the Jazz and Heritage Festival, where, in 1986, his closing performance set an all-time attendance record and where, in 1989, he debuted new songs with a 12-piece big band. That year Toussaint stated in Musician, “I’m finding performing fun now. It waatragic at one point. I’d felt my stuff was done in the studio to prepare the way for other folks to do it live.... Now I’d like to do even more performing. I’ve got a different focus when I’m onstage. I let people know that I’m not one of the stars. I’m the guy that wrote the songs, that’s all, and here I am.” In 1991, Warner Bros./Reprise released The Allen Toussaint Collection.
Toussaint spends much of his time at Sea-Saint studios, where his son Clarence serves as his chief engineer and his daughter Alison as his personal assistant. He continues to turn out hits as a new generation, including artists as varied as pianist-singer Bruce Hornsby and hip-hoppers Heavy D and the Boyz, are influenced by the style he pioneered as the chief architect and master of the New Orleans sound.
The Wild Sounds of New Orleans, RCA Victor, 1958.
Toussaint, Tiffany/Sceptor, 1970.
From a Whisper to a Scream, Kent, 1970.
Life, Love, and Faith, Warner Bros./Reprise, 1972.
Southern Nights, Edsel, 1975.
Motion, Warner Bros., 1978.
The Allen Toussaint Collection, Warner Bros./Reprise, 1991.
(Contributor, with Chet Atkins) “Southern Nights,” Rhythm, Country & Blues, MCA, 1994.
(With Crescent City Gold) The Ultimate Session, High Street, 1994.
The Stokes With Allen Toussaint, Bandy.
Bump City, Warner Bros.
(Contributor) New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival 1976, Island.
(With Kip Hanrahan) Conjure: Music for the Texts of Ishmael Reed, American Clave.
Broven, John, Rhythm and Blues in New Orleans, Pelican Publishing Company, 1978.
Audio, November 1987.
Billboard, March 21, 1987.
Cultural Vistas: Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, Winter 1991.
Down Beat, April 1986; October 1986.
Go Magazine, August 1985.
Living Blues, September/October 1989.
Musician, December 1989.
Spin, August 1992.
Variety, April 1, 1987.
Additional information for this profile was provided by the New Orleans Entertainment Agency, 1992.
Musician, music producer
Allen Toussaint made a name for himself in the music industry with such diverse talents as songwriter, singer, pianist, arranger, composer, producer, studio head, and talent scout. In a career spanning four decades, the New Orleans native has penned classics such as "Working in the Coal Mine" and "Southern Nights" and produced chart-toppers including funk's "Right Place Wrong Time" and disco's "Lady Marmalade." He has worked with artists from Fats Domino to Paul Simon to Elvis Costello and recorded several albums showcasing his funky vocals and fiery piano playing. In 1998, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Those who know him—fellow musicians, music junkies, musicologists—hail him as a musical treasure not only for his ability to mine the riches of R&B, blues, country, pop, and jazz to create soul-stirring, toe-tapping, feel-good music, but also for never forgetting his roots. Since the 1960s, Toussaint has a been a major force in creating, producing, and bringing the New Orleans sound to the national stage.
Found Early Calling as Piano Player
Allen Toussaint was born on January 14, 1938, in New Orleans, Louisiana. He first laid his eyes on a piano about six years later when an aunt sent an old upright to Toussaint's home for his sister. At that time, playing the piano was considered essential training for a young lady. Though his sister ended up in piano lessons, it was Toussaint who fell in love with the instrument. He told Keyboard. "For some reason, days [after the piano arrived], I understood the black keys and the white keys, and saw the structure." He learned to play by listening to records and picking out the melodies he heard. Nothing was off-limits and he avidly played anyone from Ray Charles to Liberace. However, he soon found his true inspiration in Professor Longhair, a New Orleans piano legend famous for his funky, unfettered style. "That just shocked me, to hear the piano go like that," Toussaint told Keyboard. "Of course, many of the old blues guitar players did that, but I was listening to piano players, and they usually stuck pretty straight to it. Professor Longhair had another reason and rhyme for everything. His language, his speed of operation, his mobility—everything was just totally different."
In 1955, after playing around town with local groups, 17-year-old Toussaint got his big break when he was asked to fill in for Huey "Piano" Smith in Earl King's band for a show in Alabama. Back in New Orleans, more high-profile appearances followed including several gigs at the legendary Dew Drop Inn. This led to a stint playing piano on several recording sessions for Fats Domino. In 1958, Toussaint recorded his first solo album, The Wild Sound of New Orleans, under the alias "Tousan" for RCA Records. The instrumental song "Java" was later re-released by Dixieland trumpeter Al Hirt who took the song to number one on the Billboard charts. Another early Toussaint instrumental, "Whipped Cream" became a Herb Alpert hit and then the theme music for the 1960s television show The Dating Game.
Toussaint moved behind the scenes in 1960 when he was hired to handle A&R (artist and repertoire) for New Orleans' Minit record label. Toussaint produced, wrote, arranged, and played piano on dozens of tracks released by a stable of top New Orleans talent including Ernie K-Doe, Irma Thomas, Jessie Hill, and Lee Dorsey. In 1961, Ernie K-Doe took Toussaint's "Mother-in-Law" to the top of the charts. In 1963, Toussaint's producing career was briefly interrupted when he was drafted into the Army. He served two years and by 1966 was back in New Orleans making music. He and buddy Marshall Sehorn formed the production company Sansu Enterprises and oversaw a string of hits for R&B singer Dorsey, including 1966's "Working in the Coal Mine," which Toussaint wrote, and which went to Billboard's number five spot, and which has been recorded over the years by groups as diverse as Devo and The Judds.
Became Synonymous with New Orleans Music
At Sansu, Toussaint began one of the most prolific partnerships of his career when he signed The Meters as the label's house band. The quartet has since become synonymous with the distinctive, bass-driven sound of New Orleans-style funk. Under Toussaint's production, they released a string of early hits including "Sophisticated Cissy," "Cissy Strut," and "Ease Back." On working with them, Toussaint told Keyboard, "With The Meters, you'd open the door and let them in, and close the door… the stuff that they were writing and putting together was so good, you didn't want to touch it." Though the group followed Toussaint when he and Sehorn opened the state-of-the-art Sea Saint Studios in 1973, a few years later amid rumors of creative clashing, Toussaint and the group went their separate ways. Meanwhile, Toussaint hit music gold when the song he produced for Dr. John, "Right Place Wrong Time," exploded onto the 1973 charts, instantly becoming a funk classic. Two years later, the Toussaint touch struck again with "Lady Marmalade," a mega hit for disco group Labelle. The spectacular success of these and other Toussaint hits made the studio a Mecca for top musicians from Paul Simon to Paul McCartney.
Toussaint's work as a producer kept him from pursuing his own musical career. "With so many other great New Orleans artists around," he explained on the NYNO Records Web site, "I've felt obliged to put my own projects on the back burner." Nonetheless, he found time to release a string of critically acclaimed albums including From a Whisper to a Scream, Love, Life and Faith, and Motion. The title track of his 1975 release, Southern Nights, later became a chart-topping country hit for Glen Campbell and was ranked as the "The Most Performed Song of the Year" in 1977. Despite appearing on dozens of compilations and concerts, it was not until 1996 that Toussaint released his next album, Connected. A funky cocktail of New Orleans piano and R&B, the album was the first for Toussaint's new label NYNO Records. Two years later, Toussaint was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was honored as a non-performer which prompted musician Elvis Costello to tell Esquire, "I'd argue with that definition. If you listen to the records that Allen's produced…he's all over them. His piano is really, really dominant on most of those records. And as an arranger and songwriter, he's someone who knocks me out every time."
At a Glance …
Born on January 14, 1938, in New Orleans, LA; children: Alison and Clarence "Reggie". Military Service: U.S. Army, 1963-65.
Minit Records, A&R, New Orleans, LA, musician, songwriter, producer, 1960-63; Sansu Enterprises, New Orleans, LA, producer and co-founder, 1965-73; Sea Saint Recording Studios, New Orleans, LA, co-founder and producer, 1973-; NYNO Records, New Orleans, LA, and New York, NY, founder and producer, 1996-.
New Orleans Artists Against Hunger and Homelessness, co-founder.
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, inductee, 1998; Louisiana Lifetime Achievement Award, State of Louisiana; Louisiana Legend Award, Friends of Louisiana Public Broadcasting; Entertainer of the Year, Big Easy Awards; Walk of Fame, Tipitina's New Orleans.
Office—NYNO Records, 1230 Avenue Of The Americas, New York, NY 10020; Web—www.nynorecords.com.
In August of 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Toussaint had stayed home to ride out the storm, but after seeing the destruction the storm left in its wake, he walked through knee-high water, hopped a bus to Baton Rouge, and caught a plane to New York. His house and studio had been destroyed. Long a supporter of community causes in his hometown, Toussaint wasted no time participating in several concerts to benefit the hurricane victims. At one, he and Costello bonded and the result was 2007's The River in Reverse. The pair had worked together before, but the album marked a highpoint for both of their careers. A collection of 13 songs, ranging from poignant to bluesy to R&B, the album rings with an undercurrent of protest for the wrongs New Orleans has suffered and a shimmering hope that they can be made right. The album received a 2007 Grammy nomination for Best Pop Vocal Album. Though it didn't win, The River in Reverse has proven that Toussaint, who has often been described as the embodiment of New Orleans music, is like the city and the music he loves so much, unforgettable and unstoppable.
The Wild Sounds of New Orleans, (as Tousan), RCA Victor, 1958.
Touissaint (From a Whisper to a Scream), Tiffany/Sceptor Records, 1971.
Life, Love and Faith, Warner Brothers/Reprise Records, 1972.
Southern Nights, Warner Brothers/Reprise Records, 1975.
Motion, Warner Brothers/Reprise Records, 1978.
Connected, NYNO Records, 1996.
The River in Reverse, with Elvis Costello, Verve Records, 2006.
Entertainment Weekly, June 9, 2006, p. 37.
Esquire, June 2006, p. 44.
Keyboard, November 1, 2006, p. 20.
"Allen Toussaint," NYNO Records,www.nynorecords.com/allen.shtml (February 11, 2007).