NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - We lost a special one last night, a very special one. Allen Toussaint. Just his name invokes a higher power, Toussaint in French is translated "feast of All Saints." We lost a musical saint, a genius whose talents sprinkled so much gold it's hard to truly measure his Midas touch. What we can measure is the debt New Orleans owes to Toussaint for what we know as New Orleans R&B, soul and funk. There are the unmistakable sounds we groove, dance and sing along with today that are uniquely ours because of Toussaint's touch. Toussaint weaved swaggering textures of second-line piano melodies, powerfully arranged horns and New Orleans street backbeats to create some of the most endearing and covered songs in music history.
The world came to love Allen Toussaint through his music. A producer, arranger, songwriter, bandleader and performer, he did it all and he was as gracious and humbled as he was talented and cool. His musical tutelage came under the powerhouse hall of fame duo of Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew in the 50s. When the 60s rolled around it was time for Toussaint to carry the musical torch. He helped write the 60s songbook for New Orleans, penning mega hits for a number of local artists. In 1961 he wrote the #1 hit for Ernie K Doe, "Mother in Law."
He hit the charts in 1962 with "Fortune Teller" for Bennie Spellman writing under the pseudonym Naomi Neville, which was his mother's name.
In 1963 another New Orleans heavyweight Al Hirt recorded a Toussaint song "Java" which became a huge hit and won a Grammy award in 1964.
The hits poured out of Toussaint like a cold Dixie on a hot August afternoon. Titles like "It's Raining" and "Ruler of my Heart" with Irma Thomas, who became a musical muse for Toussaint. There were hits such as, "Working in a Coal Mine," "A Certain Girl" and "Southern Nights" made super famous by Glen Campbell.
So you want to who noticed all of that great music Toussaint cranked out? Some shaggy-haired kids from across the pond like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Who. The Stones and The Who covered "Fortune Teller," while Paul McCartney sought out Toussaint's services when he recorded some of his "Venus and Mars" album in New Orleans in 1975.
He also took a quartet under his wing and employed them as his studio band when he opened up Sea-Saint Studios with Marshall Sehorn on Clematis Street in Gentilly in the early 70s. Those four guys? Art, Leo, George and Zigaboo, better known as The Meters, who became the John, Paul, George and Ringo of funk. So Allen and the Meters hooked up with Dr. John and they collaborated on the good doctor's 1973 international sensation, "Right Place, Wrong Time." Not to mention the great music the Meters produced which influenced Rock and Roll Hall of Famers like the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
How about Labelle's smash hit "Lady Marmalade" in 1974? Yep, Toussaint produced dat! All of that music produced in the neighborhood I grew up in, just blocks away from my house. I can remember trying to sing "Voulez-vous coucher avec moi (ce soir)?" while riding my bike past Sea-Saint Studios, and of course I didn't sing it any way close to what it was. Once I rode by and saw someone coming out of there with a doctor's smock on and I thought, well that's Dr. John. Of course it wasn't, and I had no clue at the time the unbelievable music being produced in my neighborhood. But I was aware of something special happening - it just didn't hit me until I was much older.
I got to meet Mr. Toussaint sometime after he produced the great album "River in Reverse" with Elvis Costello post-Katrina. He was, of course, dressed to the nines with a sharp suit, colorful socks and comfortable sandals. We took a picture together that I cannot find outside of his beautiful Rolls Royce. He couldn't have been nicer and more inviting. I told him I loved his collaboration with Costello and he thanked me as kindly as if he had never heard that before. That's what made him so special, so New Orleans.
Toussaint is one of the pillars of the pantheon of great New Orleans artists. He stands alongside Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino, Dave Bartholomew, Dr. John, Irma Thomas, The Neville Brothers and Harry Connick Jr. The beauty is, he touched them all, and today, while everyone from Paul McCartney to Lenny Kravitz to Questlove remember a great artist and a great man, we know there will never be another Allen Toussaint.
And for that we are grateful that we were here to experience his great ride.