Allen Toussaint died aged seventy-seven in the early hours of 10th November 2015, in Madrid, Spain, whilst on tour. Following a concert at the Teatro Lara on Calle Corredera Baja de San Pablo, he had a heart attack at his hotel and was pronounced dead on his arrival at hospital. He is survived by his two children, Clarence and Alison, and several grandchildren.
Allen Toussaint was born in 1938 and grew up in a shotgun house in the Gert Town neighborhood of New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S.A. where his mother, Naomi Neville, whose name he later adopted pseudonymously for some of his works, welcomed and fed all manner of musicians as they practiced and recorded with her son. His father, Clarence, worked on the railway and played trumpet. Allen Toussaint learned piano as a child and took informal music lessons from an elderly neighbor. In his teens he played in a band, the Flamingos, with the guitarist Snooks Eaglin, before dropping out of school. A significant early influence on Allen Toussaint was the syncopated "second-line" piano style of Professor Longhair.
After a lucky break at age seventeen, in which he stood in for Huey "Piano" Smith at a performance with Earl King's band in Prichard, Alabama, Allen Toussaint was introduced to a group of local musicians led by Dave Bartholomew, who performed regularly at the Dew Drop Inn, a nightclub on Lasalle Street in Uptown New Orleans. His first recording was in 1957 as a stand-in for Fats Domino on Domino's record "I Want You to Know", on which Allen Toussaint played piano and Domino overdubbed his vocals. His first success as a producer also came in 1957 with Lee Allen's "Walking with Mr. Lee". He began performing regularly in Bartholomew's band, and he recorded with Fats Domino, Smiley Lewis, Lee Allen and other leading New Orleans performers.
After being spotted as a sideman by the A&R man Danny Kessler, he initially recorded for RCA Records as Al Tousan. In early 1958 he recorded an album of instrumentals, The Wild Sound of New Orleans, with a band. The recordings included Allen Toussaint and Tyler's composition "Java", which first charted for Floyd Cramer in 1962 and became a number 4 pop hit for Al Hirt in 1964. Allen Toussaint also recorded and co-wrote songs with Allen Orange in the early 1960s.
In 1960, Joe Banashak, of Minit Records and later Instant Records, hired Allen Toussaint as an A&R man and record producer. He also did freelance work for other labels, such as Fury. Allen Toussaint played piano, wrote, arranged and produced a string of hits in the early and mid-1960s for New Orleans Rythm&Blues artists such as Ernie K-Doe, Chris Kenner, Irma Thomas (including "It's Raining"), Art and Aaron Neville, the Showmen, and Lee Dorsey, whose first hit "Ya Ya" he produced in 1961.
The early to mid-1960s are probably Allen Toussaint's most creatively successful period. Notable examples of his work are Jessie Hill's "Ooh Poo Pah Doo" (written by Hill and arranged and produced by Allen Toussaint, Ernie K-Doe's "Mother-in-Law", and Chris Kenner's "I Like It Like That". A two-sided 1962 hit by Benny Spellman comprised "Lipstick Traces " (covered by the O'Jays, Ringo Starr, and Alex Chilton) and the simple but effective "Fortune Teller" (covered by various 1960s rock groups, including the Rolling Stones, the Nashville Teens, the Who, the Hollies, the Throb, and ex-Searchers founder Tony Jackson). "Ruler of My Heart", written under his pseudonym Naomi Neville, first recorded by Irma Thomas for the Minit label in 1963, was adapted by Otis Redding under the title "Pain in My Heart" later that year, prompting Allen Toussaint to file a lawsuit against Redding and his record company, Stax. The claim was settled out of court, with Stax agreeing to credit Naomi Neville as the songwriter. Redding's version of the song was also recorded by the Rolling Stones on their second album.
Allen Toussaint was drafted into the US Army in 1963 but continued to record when on leave. After his discharge in 1965, he joined forces with Marshall Sehorn to form Sansu Enterprises, which included a record label, Sansu, variously known as Tou-Sea, Deesu, or Kansu, and recorded Lee Dorsey, Chris Kenner, Betty Harris, and others. Dorsey had hits with several of Allen Toussaint's songs, including "Ride Your Pony" in 1965, "Working in the Coal Mine" in 1966, and "Holy Cow" in 1966. The core players of the rhythm section used on many of the Sansu recordings from the mid- to late 1960s, Art Neville and the Sounds, consisted of Art Neville on keyboards, Leo Nocentelli on guitar, George Porter on bass, and Zigaboo Modeliste on drums. They later became known as the Meters. Their backing can be heard in songs such as Dorsey's "Ride Your Pony" and "Working in the Coal Mine", sometimes augmented by horns, which were usually arranged by Allen Toussaint. The Allen Toussaint-produced records of these years backed by the members of the Meters, with their increasing use of syncopation and electric instrumentation, built on the influences of Professor Longhair and others before them, but updated these strands, effectively paving the way for the development of a modern New Orleans funk sound.
Allen Toussaint continued to produce the Meters when they began releasing records under their own name in 1969. As part of a process begun at Sansu and reaching fruition in the 1970s, he developed a funkier sound, writing and producing for a host of artists, such as Dr. John (backed by the Meters, on the 1973 album In the Right Place, which contained the hit "Right Place, Wrong Time") and an album by the Wild Tchoupitoulas, a New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians tribe led by "Big Chief Jolly". One of his compositions, "Here Come the Girls", recorded by Ernie K-Doe in 1970, formed the basis of the Sugababes' 2008 hit "Girls".
In the 1970s Allen Toussaint began to work with artists from beyond New Orleans artists, such as B. J. Thomas, Robert Palmer, Willy DeVille, Sandy Denny, Elkie Brooks, Solomon Burke, Scottish soul singer Frankie Miller, and southern rocker Mylon LeFevre. He arranged horn music for the Band's albums Cahoots in 1971 and Rock of Ages in 1972 and for the documentary film The Last Waltz in 1978. Boz Scaggs recorded Allen Toussaint's "What Do You Want the Girl to Do?" on his 1976 album Silk Degrees, which reached number 2 on the U.S. pop albums chart. The song was also recorded by Bonnie Raitt for her 1975 album Home Plate and by Geoff Muldaur in 1976 , Lowell George in 1979, Vince Gill in 1993, and Elvis Costello in 2005. In 1976 he also collaborated with John Mayall on the album Notice to Appear.
In 1973 Allen Toussaint and Sehorn created the Sea-Saint recording studio in the Gentilly section of eastern New Orleans. Allen Toussaint also began recording under his own name, contributing vocals as well as piano. His solo career peaked in the mid-1970s with the albums 'From a Whisper to a Scream' and 'Southern Nights'. During this time he teamed with Labelle and produced their acclaimed 1975 album Nightbirds, which contained the number one hit "Lady Marmalade". The same year, Allen Toussaint collaborated with Paul McCartney and Wings for their hit album Venus and Mars and played on the song "Rock Show". Also in 1973, his "Yes We Can Can" was covered by The Pointer Sisters for their self-titled debut album; released as a single, it became both a pop and Rythm&Blues hit and served as the group's introduction to popular culture. Two years later, Glen Campbell covered Allen Toussaint's "Southern Nights" and carried the song to number one on the pop, country and adult contemporary charts.
In 1987, he was the musical director of an off-Broadway show, Staggerlee, which ran for 150 performances. Like many of his contemporaries, Allen Toussaint found that interest in his compositions was rekindled when his work began to be sampled by hip hop artists in the 1980s and 1990s.
Most of Allen Toussaint's possessions, including his home and recording studio, Sea Saint, were lost during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He initially sought shelter at the Astor Crowne Plaza Hotel on Canal Street. Following the hurricane, whose aftermath left most of the city flooded, he left New Orleans for Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and for several years settled in New York City. His first television appearance after the hurricane was on the September 7th, 2005, episode of the Late Show with David Letterman, sitting in with Paul Shaffer and his CBS Orchestra. Allen Toussaint performed regularly at Joe's Pub in New York City through 2009. He eventually returned to New Orleans and lived there for the rest of his life.
'The River in Reverse', Allen Toussaint's collaborative album with Elvis Costello, was released in May 2006, in the UK on Verve Records by Universal Classics and Jazz UCJ. It was recorded in Hollywood and at the Piety Street Studio in the Bywater section of Allen Toussaint's native New Orleans, as the first major studio session to take place after Hurricane Katrina. In 2007, Allen Toussaint performed a duet with Paul McCartney of a song by New Orleans musician and resident Fats Domino, "I Want to Walk You Home", as their contribution to Goin' Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino.
In 2008, Allen Toussaint's song "Sweet Touch of Love" was used in a deodorant commercial for the Axe brand. The commercial won a Gold Lion at the 2008 Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival. In February 2008, Allen Toussaint appeared on Le Show, the Harry Shearer show broadcast on KCRW. He appeared in London in August 2008, where he performed at the Roundhouse. In October 2008 he performed at Festival New Orleans at The O2 alongside acts such as Dr. John and Buckwheat Zydeco. Sponsored by Quint Davis of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and Philip Anschutz, the event was intended to promote New Orleans music and culture and to revive the once lucrative tourist trade that had been almost completely lost following the flooding that came with Hurricane Katrina.
Allen Toussaint performed instrumentals from his album The Bright Mississippi and many of his older songs for a taping of the PBS series Austin City Limits, which aired on January 9th, 2015. In December 2009, he was featured on Elvis Costello's Spectacle program on the Sundance Channel, singing "A Certain Girl". Allen Toussaint appeared on Eric Clapton's 2010 album, Clapton, on two Fats Waller covers, "My Very Good Friend the Milkman" and "When Somebody Thinks You're Wonderful".
His late-blooming career as a performer began when he accepted an offer to play a regular Sunday brunch session at an East Village pub. Interviewed in 2014 by The Guardian's Richard Williams, Allen Toussaint said, "I never thought of myself as a performer.... My comfort zone is behind the scenes." In 2013 he collaborated on a ballet with the choreographer Twyla Tharp. Allen Toussaint was a musical mentor to Swedish-born New Orleans songwriter and performer Theresa Andersson.
Allen Toussaint was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998, the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2009, the Songwriter's Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame in 2011. In 2013 he was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama. In 2016, he posthumously won the 'Pinetop Perkins Piano Player' title at the Blues Music Awards.