Allen Toussaint, the versatile producer, songwriter, pianist and singer who was a fixture of New Orleans R&B, died Monday after appearing in concert in Madrid. He was 77.
His daughter, Alison Toussaint-LeBeaux, confirmed his death in an email, and said the cause appeared to be a heart attack. El Mundo reported in Spain that Mr. Toussaint (pronounced Too-SAHNT) had collapsed at a hotel after the performance and was taken to a hospital.
He had been keeping a busy schedule, appearing in the United States and in Europe in recent weeks, with plans to perform in Belgium and Britain after his appearance in Spain. On Monday evening, fans who attended the performance at the Teatro Lara in Madrid posted video of Mr. Toussaint as he sat at a piano and sang. (The New York Times)
Toussaint grew up in a shotgun house in the New Orleans neighborhood of Gert Town, 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. After a lucky break at age 17 in which he stood in for Huey Smith at a performance with Earl King‘s band in Prichard, Alabama, Toussaint was introduced to a group of local musicians who performed regularly at a night club on LaSalle street Uptown; they were known as the Dew Drop Set. He initially recorded for RCA Victor as Al Tousan and recorded an album of instrumentals, including the song “Java”, which became a #1 hit for Al Hirt (also on RCA) in 1964.
A significant early influence on Toussaint was the second-line piano style of Professor Longhair. In his early years he worked mainly for Joe Banashak’s Minit Records and Instant Records, but after Minit was sold to its distributor, he teamed up with Marshall Sehorn, starting their own record label variously known as Tou-Sea, Sansu, Deesu or Kansu. In 1973 Toussaint and Sehorn created the Sea-Saint recording studio in Gentilly.
Toussaint’s piano and arrangements show up on hundreds of records during the early 1960s on records by Lee Dorsey, Chris Kenner, and scores of other artists. Starting in the 1970s, he switched gears to a funkier sound, writing and producing for The Meters, Dr John, and the Wild Tchoupitoulas Mardi Gras Indians tribe. Toussaint also launched his own solo career, which peaked in the 1970s with the albums From a Whisper to a Scream and Southern Nights. It was during this time that he teamed with Labelle, and produced their highly acclaimed 1975 album Nightbirds, which spawned the Number One hit, “Lady Marmalade”.
He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998 and, in 2009, the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame. On May 9, 2011 he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. On July 13, 2013 Toussaint along with Louisiana author Ernest J. Gaines, and Lake Charles-raised playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner were award the National Medal of Arts by President Obama at the White House.
“I don’t want y’all thinkin’ ‘this is just some old legend that passed away’ naw,” Questlove, founding member of the hip-hop group The Roots, wrote on Instagram. “This dude wrote some of your favorite music & you just didn’t know it.”
His last solo recording, The Bright Mississippi, was released in 2009 to critical acclaim.