Born January 14, 1938, in New Orleans, LA; children: three, including Clarence and Alison. Addresses: Booking agent-- New Orleans Entertainment Agency, 3530 Rue Delphine, New Orleans, LA 70131.
Allen Toussaint likes to talk about the old days, when, as he related to Don Palmer in a 1986 Down Beat article, he and his friends would spend the day in the front two rooms of his parents' shotgun house in New Orleans. Friends like Aaron Neville, Ernie K-Doe, Benny Spellman, and Irma Thomas would socialize and sing popular songs. Or Toussaint would write a song for Neville or Thomas and the others would sing behind him or her as they learned the song. Then they would head down to Cosimo Matassa's J&M Studios, where Toussaint had begun directing sessions for Minuit Records in 1960, singing all the way. Sometimes they would even return to the house afterwards and sing some more.
Not too much has changed since then. J&M Studios closed and was replaced in 1973 by the state-of-the-art Sea-Saint Studios, owned by Toussaint and Marshall Sehorn, a New Orleans record producer since the late '60s. But Toussaint is still writing songs and making records with his friends, who now sometimes hail from outside the Crescent City. He has scored gold records producing and arranging material for Paul Simon and Patti LaBelle, and Paul McCartney, Joe Cocker, and Maria Muldaur have all recorded at Sea-Saint. Toussaint's solo career has been an on-again-off-again affair; nonetheless, he remains one of New Orleans's most important impresarios and in recent years has had success with his work in theater.
Toussaint started playing piano when he was five or six, though he had only about two months of formal training, "and I don't mean in succession," he noted in Down Beat. His sister helped him to read music and soon he was learning Grieg's piano concerto from a record, transposing it up a few keys so that his flat piano would be in tune with the recording. He counts New Orleans pianist Professor Longhair as his greatest influence, as does Toussaint's longtime associate Mac "Dr. John" Rebennack. In a 1991 piece in Cultural Vistas, Toussaint remembered, "When I heard Professor Longhair, good heavens, [it was] just wonderful. When I heard that [music] it was just a shock to my life because before that things were fairly mild. [Even] boogie woogie, you know, would get there and it would stay there, and everything had a different kind of order, but Professor Longhair [was] wild and untamed." In fact, Toussaint can be seen behind the keyboard in the 1982 documentary Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together, produced by Stevson J. Palfi, which traces the musical lineage passed down from Isidore "Tuts" Washington to Roy "Professor Longhair" Byrd to Toussaint.
Toussaint was performing in clubs like the famous Dew Drop Inn while he was still in his teens. It was at that venue that Dave Bartholomew, the Imperial Records executive who worked on many of pianist-singer Fats Domino's hits, recognized the young player's gift for imitating current musical styles. Toussaint was soon laying down Domino-like piano tracks on songs like "I Want You to Know" and "Little School Girl," onto which Domino would later dub his voice. He also toured briefly in 1955 with Shirley and Lee, but Toussaint soon returned to session work in New Orleans. There, while accompanying scores of singers at a three-day open audition, producers Murray Sporn and Danny Kesler realized Toussaint's talent and arranged for him to cut his own album in just two weeks. In 1958, Toussaint's all-instrumental The Wild Sounds of New Orleans was released by RCA and yielded the artist's first hit, "Java," soon remade to great effect by Al Hirt, much as Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass would later gain fame with Toussaint's "Whipped Cream," which became the theme for television's popular Dating Game.
Toussaint's most famous production hit with Minuit Records, at which he had become a fixture, was Ernie K-Doe's "Mother-in-law," which hit Number One on the national charts in the summer of 1961. Meanwhile, what came to be known as the "Toussaint Sound" recurred in local hits such as Aaron Neville's "Over You" and Irma Thomas's "It's Raining." Toussaint's output at Minuit was curtailed in 1963, however, when he was inducted into the Army, where he served as a musician for two years. While he was in the service, Minuit was sold to interests outside the New Orleans area and Toussaint's involvement would never be the same. Still, his time at Minuit and his exposure to the musicians there would have a lasting effect on him. As John Broven noted in his book Rhythm and Blues in New Orleans, "Toussaint was able to get away from the ensemble riffing sounds of Dave Bartholomew and also the Studio Band, mainly by allowing each instrumentalist a far freer role--at any moment the tenor would stutter through, the trumpet punchily interject, or the baritone moan a deep, bridging phrase. His own brilliant piano and the second line of the regular rhythm section of Chuck Badie and ex-Longhair drummer John Boudreaux provided the solid base."
Aside from their groundbreaking work with Toussaint, these musicians were also important because they formed the A.F.O. Combo, a project that sought not only to play, but to earn royalties instead of flat union wages. With Toussaint shouldering piano duties, the group saw enough success to create some bad blood with others on the New Orleans music scene; but they disbanded after an unsuccessful attempt to move the operation to California.
Toussaint continued producing and arranging and started working with Marshall Sehorn in 1965; soon the two founded their own label, Sansu Enterprises. The mid-1960s saw the release of Lee Dorsey's hits "Get Out of My Life Woman," "Working in a Coalmine," and "Holy Cow." But Sansu was also home to the highly influential and now-revered Meters, composed of Art Neville, Leo Nocentelli, George Porter, and Joseph "Zigaboo" Modeliste, who served as the label's house band while also putting out their own string of late '60s hits, including "Sophisticated Cissy," "Cissy Strut," and "Ease Back," which exemplified the best of the modern soul-funk sound. Toussaint told Audio' s Ted Fox, "The Meters were mostly a percussion group--not percussion instruments, but they played percussively. Everything they played was heavily syncopated.... Their songs were a conglomeration of firecrackers going off here, and pops there, explosions here. It was just fire." The Meters backed Dr. John on "Positively" and LaBelle on "Nightbirds"--both major hits that served to renew interest in the New Orleans sound.
In 1970 Toussaint was signed by Sceptor Records and, after a 12-year hiatus, was persuaded to make his second LP, Toussaint, for the Tiffany imprint. He then released a string of recordings for Warner Bros. The 1978 album Motion displayed less of the New Orleans sound, however, perhaps because it was produced by Atlantic Records co-founder Jerry Wexler, who may have been trying to mold Toussaint the way he had Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin. In 1978, Toussaint again stopped recording his own material. Nevertheless, albums like 1975's Southern Nights --which has been called Toussaint's "Sergeant Pepper"-- yielded song after song for other artists, including Glen Campbell, the Pointer Sisters, and Little Feat.
The mid- to late '70s was a period of phenomenal success for Toussaint. In 1976, Billboard named him "One of the Top 200 Executives of Tomorrow," and in 1977, "Southern Nights" was recognized by the performers' rights society Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI) as "The Most Performed Song of the Year." Campbell's rendition of the song was nominated for a Grammy Award and for song of the year by the Country Music Association. In 1978, the Nashville Songwriters' Association International honored Toussaint's "Creative Genius in Words and Music"--a rare distinction for a practitioner of New Orleans rhythm and blues.
But, the early 1980s were a slow time for Toussaint; Warner Bros. did not renew its contract with his Sea-Saint studios, for which Toussaint blamed himself. These years nonetheless afforded the artist time to explore theater music, serving as composer-lyricist for the stage production We Love You, William and the movie Black Samson. The music he wrote and performed in Vernel Bagneris's Staggerlee won the Outer Critics Circle Award for best music in an Off-Broadway musical for the season 1986-1987. In 1991, the Broadway musical High Rollers Social and Pleasure Club' s short run at the Helen Hayes Theater earned another nomination for Toussaint's efforts from the Outer Critics Circle, as well as a Tony nomination for the show's star, Vivian Reed.
Though Toussaint may not do much touring, he continues to appear in Europe and Japan and remains active in New Orleans, playing at benefits or at the Jazz and Heritage Festival, where, in 1986, his closing performance set an all-time attendance record and where, in 1989, he debuted new songs with a 12-piece big band. That year Toussaint stated in Musician, "I'm finding performing fun now. It was tragic at one point. I'd felt my stuff was done in the studio to prepare the way for other folks to do it live.... Now I'd like to do even more performing. I've got a different focus when I'm onstage. I let people know that I'm not one of the stars. I'm the guy that wrote the songs, that's all, and here I am." In 1991, Warner Bros./Reprise released The Allen Toussaint Collection.
Toussaint spends much of his time at Sea-Saint studios, where his son Clarence serves as his chief engineer and his daughter Alison as his personal assistant. He continues to turn out hits as a new generation, including artists as varied as pianist-singer Bruce Hornsby and hip-hoppers Heavy D and the Boyz, are influenced by the style he pioneered as the chief architect and master of the New Orleans sound.
by John Morrow
Allen Toussaint's Career
Contributed piano to Fats Domino recordings; toured with Shirley and Lee, 1955; solo recording artist, 1958--; began producing sessions at Minuit Records, 1960; with Marshall Sehorn, founded label Sansu Enterprises, 1965; opened Sea-Saint Studios, 1973; composed music for theater, 1980s; appeared in documentary Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together, 1982; released Warner Bros. retrospective The Allen Toussaint Collection, 1991. Military service: U.S. Army, 1963-65, served as musician.
Allen Toussaint's Awards
Named "One of the Top 200 Executives of Tomorrow" by Billboard, 1976; "Southern Nights" named most performed song of the year by BMI, 1977; Outer Critics Circle Award for best music in an Off-Broadway musical, 1986-87, for Staggerlee; gold records for work with other artists.
- Selective Works
- The Wild Sounds of New Orleans RCA Victor, 1958.
- Toussaint Tiffany/Sceptor, 1970.
- From a Whisper to a Scream Kent, 1970.
- Life, Love, and Faith Warner Bros./Reprise, 1972.
- Southern Nights Edsel, 1975.
- Motion Warner Bros., 1978.
- The Allen Toussaint Collection Warner Bros./Reprise, 1991.
- (Contributor, with Chet Atkins) "Southern Nights," Rhythm, Country & Blues MCA, 1994.
- (With Crescent City Gold) The Ultimate Session High Street, 1994.
- The Stokes With Allen Toussaint Bandy.
- Bump City Warner Bros.
- (Contributor) New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival 1976 Island.
- (With Kip Hanrahan) Conjure: Music for the Texts of Ishmael Reed American Clave.
- Broven, John, Rhythm and Blues in New Orleans, Pelican Publishing Company, 1978.
- Audio, November 1987.
- Billboard, March 21, 1987.
- Cultural Vistas: Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, Winter 1991.
- Down Beat, April 1986; October 1986.
- Go Magazine, August 1985.
- Living Blues, September/October 1989.
- Musician, December 1989.
- Spin, August 1992.
- Variety, April 1, 1987.
- Additional information for this profile was provided by the New Orleans Entertainment Agency, 1992.
Visitor Comments Add a comment…
about 12 years ago
3/11/2011 Last night I "discovered" Allen Toussaint on PBS' "Austin City Limits." I was mesmerized by his piano style, his apparent comfort performing in that venue and his ability to adapt his singing style to a wide range of song types. His music will be appearing on my iPod soon! Thank you, PBS. Phil Butler