Allen Toussaint, Iconic New Orleans Songwriter and Producer, Dead at 77

10 Nov 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Allen Toussaint – seven of his greatest songs.

Legendary New Orleans musician and composer Allen Toussaint, who penned such classics as “Working in a Coal Mine” and “Lady Marmalade,” has died after suffering a heart attack following a concert he performed in Spain. Allen Toussaint was New Orleans music’s renaissance man – equally adept as writer, arranger, producer and performer, and a man who crossed styles with alacrity.

New Orleans R&B legend Allen Toussaint, whose songwriting and studio work made him one of the most important and influential figures on the fertile Crescent City music scene, has died at the age of 77. In 1958, at age 20, Toussaint recorded his debut album The Wild Sounds of New Orleans under the name Tousan (he thought people wouldn’t know how to pronounce Toussaint – it sounded like Too-sant). In 1963, Toussaint wrote and produced Ruler of My Heart for Irma Thomas, creating a song that sounds lush at first – trilling piano, a cooing chorus – but is soon revealed to be dependent on little more than the gentle shuffle of brushes on drums, a lightly strummed guitar, a skipping bassline, and Thomas’s deliciously restrained vocal. His songs have been recorded by eminent musicians for the past 50 years, including Lee Dorsey, The Neville Brothers, Bonnie Raitt, Robert Palmer, Lowell George, Otis Redding, Dr John, Irma Thomas and Elvis Costello.

Toussaint was born in New Orleans’ Gert Town, a working class neighbourhood of the city, where he lived in a “shotgun” house — so-called because you could stand at the front door and fire a shotgun through to the other side of the house. Otis Redding would later reinterpret it as Pain in My Heart, turning it into a more typical Southern soul song, but in Thomas and Toussaint’s version you can hear New Orleans: something stylish, yet spectral.

Toussaint, a superlative songwriter, producer, pianist and arranger (and a fine singer, too), was a New Orleans native who helped spread the music-rich city’s inimitable sound across the world. He also helped that sound evolve. “His greatest contribution was in not allowing the city’s old-school R&B traditions to die out but by keeping pace with developments in the rapidly evolving worlds of soul and funk,” said the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which inducted Toussaint in 1998. As The Post’s Marc Fisher wrote when Toussaint received a National Medal of Arts: “He’s an alchemist who took a local sound and made it universal — sparking imitations and echoes in the work of the Rolling Stones, Glen Campbell and scores of hip-hop producers.” The Rock Hall described Toussaint as “a producer, bandleader, arranger, songwriter, session musician and all-around musical eminence.” The Hall added that “although he was inducted in the ‘nonperformer’ category, Toussaint is a talented pianist and performer who has recorded under his own name.” But Toussaint was known best for his work with other artists (he produced Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade,” Dr. Other big Toussaint compositions include “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley,” recorded by Robert Palmer; “Get Out My Life Woman;” and “Southern Nights,” which was a No. 1 hit for country singer Glen Campbell.

He has never lost his love for the piano playing of Professor Longhair (he calls him his “Bach of popular music”) and said he is happier in the background, where he has built a formidable reputation as a skilled arranger and producer. He wrote it, under the pseudonym Naomi Neville, for Benny Spellman in 1961, and on that recording the Toussaint trademarks are plain – the piano is pushed to the fore, the percussion uses maracas and what sound like castanets as well as drums, horns are used carefully. He modestly says that “my life hasn’t been performing; it’s been in the studio”, but he is a charismatic performer, as his Grammy awards shows He has also starred in the recent David Simon HBO series Treme, about New Orleans. For all that he was a musicians’ musician, Toussaint was also a writer of hits, and Fortune Teller was the one everyone in the UK saw as their potential hit.

At heart, Here Come the Girls is nothing but a horn hook, repeated over and over and over – what a horn hook, though! – but it’s Toussaint’s production touches that make it magical: the wonderful backing vocals, the slyly funny lyric (“I can live without coffee / I can live without tea / And I’m livid ’bout the honey bee”), the staccato bassline. The Meters had been Toussaint’s house band for Sansu, and struck out on their own in the late 1960s, with Toussaint as producer, though they continued to work as a backing band for scores of artists. Partly, of course, that was because they weren’t showmen; partly it was because the Meters specialised in instrumentals; partly it was because their music was perhaps too spare, too sophisticated to grab a wider audience.

In fact, Gram Parsons’ desire to make what he called “cosmic American music” was perhaps more fully realised by Toussaint, because he cast his net wider. The title track incorporated a psychedelic-style phased vocal alongside its piano balladry; Last Train was more characterisically funky; Country John had the syncopation; When the Party’s Over was a soul ballad.

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