Allen Toussaint’s Joyful Sounds Transcended Genre

allentoussaintLegendary New Orleans producer, songwriter and pianist Allen Toussaint passed away at the age of 77 Monday night after a concert in Madrid, and the world is suddenly a lesser place without him.

Toussaint (pronounced Too-SAHNT) was more of a behind-the-scenes guy than a frontman and so wasn’t as well-known as he should have been. But he left an indelible mark on Rock, as well as on jazz and R&B, adapting his rollicking New Orleans-style piano playing and arrangements to new and different musical frontiers.

But more than that, he was a beautiful man, gentle and soft-spoken, who preferred to let his music do the talking. Always impeccably dressed in fine suits, he epitomized dignity and class, and throughout his career he penned songs that brought attention to the plight of the working poor. Everyone who knew him called him an exceedingly generous man with his time and his talents.

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He was a child prodigy on the piano, learning the tricks of the trade at the feet of Rock & Roll pioneer Professor Longhair. He started getting gigs 60 years ago in New Orleans at the age of 17, released his first album in 1958, and by the early 1960s he became house producer, arranger and songwriter for the Minit label.

By the mid-1960s, his songs were all over the pop charts, including “Mother-In Law”, “Ya-Ya”, and “Fortune Teller”, the latter of which was covered by the Stones, The Who and more recently on the Robert Plant/Alison Krauss blockbuster hit album Raising Sand. He once told a reporter “I was so glad when the Stones recorded my song. I knew they would know how to roll it all the way to the bank.”

Lee Dorsey had a huge hit in 1966 with Toussaint’s “Working In A Coal Mine”, which Devo brought back to life 15 years later. By the early 1970s, Toussaint the producer/arranger was in high demand from Rock artists searching for his uniquely sweet and joyful sound. He arranged the horns on The Band’s “Life Is a Carnival” and on their entire Rock of Ages album. He played keyboards and arranged the horns on Paul McCartney’s Venus And Mars album, and worked with other Rock artists including Paul Simon and Robert Palmer. Palmer recorded Toussaint’s song “Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley”.

But so strong were Toussaint’s musical sensibilities that his work transcended genre. He produced the massive R&B hit “Lady Marmalade” for Labelle, and wrote the song “Southern Nights” which became another massive hit when Glen Campbell recorded it. The song transformed from an ethereal, trippy ode into a country stomper. Toussaint’s music was wash-and-wear, durable, solid and unique.

He claimed his career was kick-started back into gear as a result of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He was flooded out of his home and moved for a time to New York, where he played extensively and developed his own act for the first time, and where he began to help organize relief for flood victims. His musical output flourished again, including a fantastic, highly-regarded collaboration with Elvis Costello in 2006 called The River In Reverse.

Three years ago he released a jazz album, and he has been touring extensively ever since. He died doing what he loved to do, playing music for the people. Rest in peace, Sir. The joyful sounds that you brought us will live on forever.

Photo credit: Carl Lender [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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