“NOLA’s Finest has gone home,'” tweeted Ledisi yesterday upon learning of Allen Toussaint’s death, then saluted him as “one of the pioneers of New Orleans Soul & R&B: Arranger, songwriter, producer and advocate for the preservation of New Orleans traditions.Thank you for inspiring us all and changing the world.”
Via email, she added, “He created and preserved a sound that is loved and used by all genres of music.” Indeed, bassist Will Lee, who has played every genre in a career marked by his years in the Late Show with David Letterman band, and who recorded Toussaint’s classic “Get Out of My Life, Woman” with Toussaint and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons on his album 2013 album Love, Gratitude And Other Distractions, alluded toToussaint’s 1975 Southern Nights album title in an email: “If the term ‘Southern Gentleman’ ever had an applicable use, it was to describe the one and only Allen Toussaint. He was born to play music, and lived a life of dedication to the cause.”
Toussaint, who died yesterday at 77, was hailed as a contemporary music giant by music historians and artists alike as an influence extending way beyond his New Orleans hometown.
“We recorded ‘Ride Your Pony,’ but ‘Mother-in-Law’ was a regular part of early Raider shows. His songs were a big influence,”tweeted Paul Revere & the Raiders’ legendary frontman Mark Lindsay, citing the band’s cover of Lee Dorsey’s 1965 hit “Ride Your Pony” and Ernie K-Doe’s 1961 classic “Mother-in-Law.” Other famous hits penned by Toussaint range from Dorsey’s 1966 entry “Working in the Coal Mine,” Al Hirt’s 1964 trumpet instrumental “Java,” Glen Campbell’s 1977 chart-topper “Southern Nights,” and “Fortune Teller,” a 1962 B-side for Benny Spellman that was covered by the likes of the Rolling Stones, The Hollies, The Who and Robert Plant and Alison Krauss.
“When Allen was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2011, I think he was surprised to see how revered he was by the other inductees, honorees and participating talent,” notes the hall’s president/CEO Linda Moran. “I hadn’t seen him since my days at Atlantic Records when my idol, Jerry Wexler, produced his records, but he was still a musical genius who could best be described in the same three words–as always–cool, classy and a gentleman.”
“His music traveled way, way beyond New Orleans,” says noted producer Leo Sacks of Sony Masterworks. “He had a preternatural window into our emotional lives.”
A “masterful pianist, tasty arranger and a sultan of syncopation who could keep time in the dark,” Toussaint “held the keys to the history of New Orleans piano in his fingertips,” continues Sacks. “His compositions for Lee Dorsey, Chris Kenner and Ernie K-Doe achieved the maximum with the minimum. He spoke to our better selves. And no one could pull off a suit and sandals the way he did! But he was also one of music’s most fascinating personalities. I think his legacy is deserving of the scholarly study we give to Bob Dylan: Allen was that intriguing. He’s left us with a delicious riddle about the persona of the artist. Will we ever know which was which?”
Sacks is not at all alone in making such grand comparisons.
“He was arguably the most important New Orleans-based musician of the second half of 20th century,” says renowned Los Angles music business press agent Bob Merlis, who worked with Toussaint in the 1970s when he was signed to Warner Bros., where Merlis ran publicity. “Louis Armstrong was still important after 1950, but he wasn’t in New Orleans anymore. Fats Domino was huge, but Allen’s fingerprints were on so many things. He was a self-contained creative whirlwind.”
Echoing Sacks, Merlis notes that while Toussaint was “so much about New Orleans music, he went beyond New Orleans.”
“I first heard ‘Get Out of My Life, Woman’ on Paul Butterfield’s  East-West album and had no idea it was a Lee Dorsey record—which wasn’t a big hit,” says Merlis. “He couldn’t be boxed into the ‘soul music’ category, but was an overall music guy—which is why pop artists like Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello called on him.”
Toussaint worked with McCartney on Wings’ 1975 album Venus and Mars, and collaborated with Costello on their 2006 album The River in Reverse.
“He wasn’t a journeyman, but a genius,” says Merlis. “You hear an Allen Toussaint production and you know it’s him. It’s very hard to describe, but nothing else sounds like it—and the outside world picked up on it without him seeking them out: I mentioned to him that he must have been pretty happy when the Rolling Stones covered ‘Fortune Teller,’ and he said that when he found out about it, he didn’t even know who they were.”
After Hurricane Katrina, Toussaint moved to New York.
“I got the chance to have many conversations with him—and am better off for it,” says Aaron Fuchs, president of Tuff City Records and sister label Night Train Records.
“There are people who are unique because they come from New Orleans, and others because they’re exceptionally gifted–and he was both,” notes Fuchs. “He had this very, very ornate and highly rhythmic production sound that was unique to somebody who came from New Orleans, but hundreds of people made records in New Orleans and nobody put them together and in as fine a tapestry as he did.”
Fuchs recalls that when he started with the R&B-focused Night Train label, he scoured New Orleans for musicians and recordings.
“I was able to carve out a rather unique niche with a certain kind of New Orleans music because all of Toussaint’s music had already been taken!” he says. “He was the first guy everyone was looking for, so I was forced to take a harder look at the town. But when I first came to New Orleans in the late ’70s, there was a straight line from the airport to [Toussaint’s] Sea-Saint Studios.”
“He deserved every accolade he got,” adds Fuchs. Herself a New Orleans native, Ledisi concluded, “What he left behind is the heart of R&B soul music from NOLA. It’s just as important as jazz. Anyone who sings R&B should be thanking him. He added the funk!”
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