The sound of New Orleans, Allen Toussaint died in November 2015 aged 77.
His songs were recorded by the Stones, The Pointer Sisters, Boz Scaggs, Glen Campbell and Robert Plant and he played on recordings for Paul McCartney & Wings, Elvis Costello and Eric Clapton. He allegedly once said “I’m glad the Stones recorded my song – I knew it would roll all the way to the bank“.
His songs like “Ride your pony” and “Working in a coal mine“, recorded by Lee Dorsey, were loved by soul fans and were staples for cover bands (like ours) in the 60s.
The New Orleans sound was distinctive and recognisable anywhere. “It’s everything. It’s who we are, the food we eat, the history, Mardi Gras, the second-line brass bands who strut that stuff, the syncopation, the humour, and the slightly slower pace than the rest of America, the war we mosey along rather than running the race” Toussaint once said. “We’ve held on to our old world charm longer than others”
He grew up in this cultural melting pot amid veteran jazz and R&B musicians. He learned to play the piano at the age of seven inspired by Professor Longhair, a legendary boogie-woogie (more strictly rumba-boogie) pianist and blues singer who also inspired Dr John, Fats Domino and Huey “Piano” Smith”.
He said he tried to play anything he heard – blues, gospel, R&B, even classical. “Music babysat me through my childhood“. He started playing with a band called the Flamingos featuring guitarist Snooks Eaglin in the 1950s progressing to playing piano on Fats Domino sessions.
He later became A & R man at Minit Records where he managed the recording sessions and shaped the sound in a more soulful direction. He also began working with Irma Thomas, the Soul Queen of New Orleans, who is one of my favourites with “Time is on my side” a classic (covered by the Stones).
That part of his career was interrupted by the draft in 1963. He resumed his career working with the aforementioned Lee Dorsey and his band which became Toussaint’s house band. In the 70s he worked with a lot of rock singers, as already mentioned above, but also Elkie Brooks, Paul Simon and Little Feat.
His last UK chart entry was “Here come the girls” a song he’d written 40 years earlier and which you may remember from a Boots (high street chemist) advert in 2007.
He was recognised in his later life with a life-size statue of him erected in New Orleans, his city of birth, and a National Medal of the Arts awarded to him by President Obama, both in 2013.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed his house and recording studio, he temporarily relocated to New York and took to the road. And that’s where he died, in Spain during a tour of Europe.
Here’s a YouTube video of him performing “Southern Nights” , a song he wrote and which topped the charts for Glen Campbell. It also earned him the title of Southern Knight.