In 1960 Allen Toussaint and Irma Thomas showed up to audition at WYLD studio in New Orleans for Joe Banashak and Larry McKinley of Minit Records. The fledgling label was holding an open call for singers, session musicians and songwriters and the respondents included Art and Aaron Neville, Jessie Hill, Joe Tex, Larry Williams, and Benny Spellman. Toussaint showed up to accompany singer Allen Orange, but the 22-year old pianist walked out with creative control over the label’s entire roster. Allen was about to make music history with Irma and the rest of the New Orleans R&B legends at that session. Now, a little more than 45 years later, Allen and Irma are reunited in receiving Best Of The Beat Lifetime Achievement Awards.
Although both Toussaint and Thomas lost their homes to Hurricane Katrina, they are busy working again. Among other projects, Toussaint just finished up a recording with Elvis Costello at Piety Street Studios that will be released in Spring 2006. Toussaint had previously produced the Yoko Ono song “Walking On Thin Ice” for Costello’s Punch The Clock. Irma Thomas, who re-located to Gonzales, Louisiana, is busy recording a new album and also traveling, most recently to New York and London.
“Never give up, and keep on doing it”
Few people have left as deep a footprint on the history of New Orleans music as Allen Toussaint. Toussaint’s unfathomable talents recall such multidimensional giants as Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong. He is a performer so versatile he ghosted for Huey “Piano” Smith and Fats Domino in his early days on the scene. He is also a songwriter on a talent level with Lennon/McCartney. Perhaps most importantly, Toussaint is a producer who almost single-handedly turned New Orleans into a hit factory that rivaled anything New York, Los Angeles, Nashville or Detroit could muster at a turning point in popular music history at the dawn of the 1960s.
Toussaint is also a raconteur of note, a popular speaker at conferences and seminars because of his wise observations and his sanguine and often humorous anecdotes about his career. Talking about his many different roles to an audience at the Cutting Edge Conference a few years ago, he said: “At ten in the morning I’m a songwriter. Around noon I’m a producer. At five o’clock I’m a piano player. At six I’m none of the above. At seven I wonder which one I really am.”
Toussaint’s magic touch as a producer was central to the careers of such New Orleans legends as Ernie K-Doe, the Showmen, and Jessie Hill. He recognized the power and creativity of the Meters as a medium to create a sound that would influence both Motown and Memphis, and tapped the group as both his go-to house band and an instrumental force in its own right. In the studio he nurtured talents ranging from the boundless creativity of Irma Thomas and Aaron Neville to the carefully crafted simplicity of Lee Dorsey.
Born in New Orleans on January 14, 1938, Toussaint was already playing piano at seven. By the time he was in his teens and playing in the Flamingoes with guitarist Snooks Eaglin, he had mastered the range of New Orleans keyboard styles from Jelly Roll Morton to Professor Longhair. He subbed for Huey “Piano” Smith in Earl King’s band at 17 and went on to be the go-to session pianist for another legendary producer, Dave Bartholomew, who used Toussaint to cover for Fats Domino and Smiley Lewis. His first big arrangement credit came on “Walkin’ With Mr. Lee,” the signature hit for saxophonist Lee Allen. As “Al Tousan” Toussaint went on to record a 1958 solo album for RCA, The Wild Sound of New Orleans, which included the catchy instrumental “Java,” later an enormous hit for trumpeter Al Hirt.
From 1960 until he was drafted in 1963 Toussaint created a treasure trove of classic New Orleans R&B, beginning with Jessie Hill’s huge hit “Ooh Poo Pah Doo.” Ernie K-Doe’s “Mother-in-Law,” written and produced by Toussaint, went to Number One on both the pop and R&B charts. Other high points included the Showmen’s “It Will Stand”; “Fortune Teller” and “Lipstick Traces (On a Cigarette)” both written by Toussaint under his mother’s name, Naomi Neville, for Benny Spellman; Chris Kenner’s “I Like It Like That” and “Land of 1000 Dances”; “Ruler of My Heart” and “It’s Raining,” both written for Irma Thomas; and the Lee Dorsey blockbuster “Ya Ya.”
The prolific Toussaint managed to continue recording during his military stint, most notably the instrumental “Whipped Cream,” cut with his backing band, the Stokes. That tune went on to become a hit for Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass and became the theme music for “The Dating Game.”
In 1965 Toussaint returned to civilian life and formed his own label, Sansu Records, with partner Marshall Sehorn. With the Meters as his killer house band, the hottest gun in town resumed his studio magic, writing and producing a series of hits including the Lee Dorsey masterpieces “Working in a Coal Mine,” “Get Out of My Life Woman” and “Ride Your Pony.”
Even after the scene he had fashioned was washed away by the ever-changing fortunes of the music business in the 1970s, his Sea-Saint studios continued to churn out hits and classic albums from the Meters, Dr. John and the Wild Tchoupitoulas; sparked the classic sound of old school disco with the Pointer Sisters; and created his own solo albums, highlighted by the masterpiece “Southern Nights,” a moment when all of Toussaint’s vast talents coalesced into one breathtaking package. The biggest names in the music business beat a path to his door to have Toussaint put his stamp on their recordings. His arrangements for the Band’s Rock of Ages album added a new dimension to one of the greatest song catalogs in rock history.
In 1996 Toussaint co-founded NYNO records to define a new generation of New Orleans music, overseeing projects by Amadee Castenell, New Birth Brass Band, James Andrews, Wallace Johnson, Larry Hamilton, Raymond Myles, Oliver Morgan, Grace Darling and Cool Riddims and Sista Teedy. Last year Toussaint released an outstanding instrumental album on NYNO, “Connected,” that brings him full circle to his roots as a genius composer and performer of instrumentals.
In 1998 Toussaint was accorded his rightful place among rock’s luminaries in the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame. It’s hard to say what Toussaint will be best remembered for because his accomplishments are so varied and so important, but it’s safe to say that his songwriting will stand the test of time. His explanation of the process behind writing “Mother-in-Law,” a song that changed the way the world heard rhythm and blues, provides a key to understanding his genius.
“‘Mother-in-Law’ was the central topic of comedian jokes before Lenny Bruce came along,” he once told an audience at a songwriting seminar. “Most of the memorable hits have the genius of simplicity. It’s almost like going around the world to find the girl next door. You hear a Mozart melody and it’s like you’ve heard it already. If I asked everybody out there to sing me a piece of Beethoven I’m going to get the same thing from everybody.” The audience obliged by all singing the four note phrase at the heart of the Fifth Symphony. Toussaint pointed out that such simplicity doesn’t come easily before revealing the secret of his success: “Never give up, and keep on doing it, and keep on doing it.”