One of the most influential figures of the New Orleans R&B scene, Allen Toussaint has penned, recorded and arranged countless standards in a career that spans over four decades. His songs have been recorded or performed by a veritable Who's Who of the music industry, including Etta James, Lee Dorsey, Ernie K-Doe and Irma Thomas. An accomplished pianist and singer, Toussaint has also released various soul/funk solo albums since 1971, and recently veered towards a more jazz oriented sound, with 2009's The Bright Mississippi.
Allen Toussaint was born on January 14, 1938 in the New Orleans neighbourhood of Gert Town. He started tickling the ivories as a young boy, taking an interest in classical music but soon turning to R&B. His main sources of inspiration were fellow Big Easy pianist Professor Longhair, as well as Ray Charles and Fats Domino.
Toussaint made his professional debut at 17, when Earl King asked him to fill in for Huey Smith on a live date. New Orleans producer and composer Dave Bartholomew took notice and started calling on the young man for session work not long after. One thing leading to another, Toussaint was given the opportunity to cut a solo recording in 1958. Comprised of original material, The Wild Soon of New Orleans included Java, a song which jazz trumpeter Al Hirt would turn into a hit a couple of years later.
In 1960, Toussaint was hired by Minit Records, where he would preside over recording sessions for the likes of Irma Thomas, Aaron Neville and Lee Dorsey. Ooh Poo Pah Doo, by Jesse Hill, became his first hit as a producer. He also put his stamp on Ya-Ya (Dorsey) Mother-In-Law (Ernie K-Doe) and Fortune Teller (Benny Spellman), to mention but a few. Toussaint himself wrote a good many of these numbers, sometimes under the pseudonym Naomi Neville, his mother's maiden name.
Tour of Duty
Drafted by the army in 1963, the musician saw his musical endeavours diminishing considerably during the two years he served. He nevertheless kept recording with backing band The Stokes. One of his compositions, Whipped Cream, was covered by Herb Alpert and became the signature tune for TV program The Dating Game in 1965.
That same year, Toussaint founded Sansu Entreprises with producer Marshall Sehorn. They enjoyed quite a bite of success with a string of songs recorded with singer Lee Dorsey, who propelled the Toussaint compositions Ride My Pony, Working in a Coalmine and Get out of My Life Woman high up the charts.
Toussaint offered his first solo album in 13 years in 1971. From a Whisper to a Scream would be followed by Life, Love and Faith the next year. Southern Nights, his 1975 effort, is considered by many to be his best solo album. The title song became a hit for Glen Campbell.
At the same time, Toussaint also kept busy working on other people's music. The Band, The Meters, Paul Simon, Sandy Denny and Little Feat were among his clients. He also produced Labelle's Lady Marmelade, one the era's most popular songs.
During the 1980s and 1990s, the artist took on new challenges. He wrote the music for Stagger Lee, an off-Broadway production which was staged in 1986-87. Meanwhile, his songs took on a new life thanks to sampling. Many hip-hop groups, like 2 Live Crew, borrowed freely from his material. The century ended with Allen Toussaint's induction in the Rock'n'roll Hall of Fame, in 1998.
Destruction and Renaissance
In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina had wreaked havoc in New Orleans, Allen Toussaint relocated to New York City - he would return to the Big Easy three years later. In 2006, he teamed up with Elvis Costello for The River in Reverse. The two musicians had played together at benefit concerts in the wake of Katrina the year before.
Released in 2009, The Bright Mississippi earned Toussaint some excellent reviews. A jazz standards collection, it featured such talent as Don Byron on clarinet, Nicholas Payton on trumpet and Marc Ribot on guitar.
The album was recreated live at the Festival's 31st edition in 2010. Allen Toussaint also offered a memorable piano solo concert at Gesù and played a prominent role in the Mardi Gras concert at Place des Festivals, on closing night.