The 1955 fill-in gig that launched the career of Allen Toussaint
In 1955, when Allen Toussaint was a 17-year-old high school dropout, Earl King tapped him to sit in for Huey “Piano” Smith for a Prichard, Ala., gig with King’s band. From there, things started happening: Toussaint met a group of local musicians led by Dave Bartholomew, and in 1957, he played piano on his first recording (Fats Domino’s “I Want You to Know”) as well as producing his first record (Lee Dorsey’s “Walking With Mr. Lee”). Toussaint also started composing songs that other performers recorded. It was the start of a prodigious career that would see Toussaint become a New Orleans music giant, and one whose influence would soon enough spread far beyond the Crescent City.
Because he was so good in so many aspects of music, Toussaint came to embody the term Renaissance man. Although he died in November 2015, he is still a dominant figure in New Orleans. His recordings are still popular, he has been the object of tribute albums and concerts, and people with whom he collaborated invoke Toussaint when they perform.
- Toussaint grew up in a shotgun house in Gert Town, where he took piano lessons from a neighbor.
- His mother’s maiden name was Naomi Neville; he used that as a pseudonym on his early compositions.
- Many major artists had hits with Toussaint’s songs. The Rolling Stones covered “Fortune Teller,” for instance, and Glen Campbell enjoyed a huge success with “Southern Nights.” “What Do You Want the Girl to Do?” was a hit for Bonnie Raitt, Boz Scaggs and Lowell George, and the trumpeter Al Hirt scored big with “Java.”
- Toussaint’s catalog is so deep, and his influence so far-reaching, that upon his death in 2015, Jazz Fest organizers Quint Davis called him “a one-man Motown” and referred to his death as “New Orleans music’s Katrina.”
- In a 2013 ceremony in the East Room of the White House, Toussaint received the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama.
- He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998, the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2009 and, in 2011, the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame.
- Though nominated six times for a Grammy, Toussaint never won. However, in 2009, he received the Grammy Trustees Award, which is given for significant contributions to the field of recording.
- Toussaint was drafted into the Army in 1963, but the military couldn’t make him abandon his music. In addition to recording with his backup band, the Stokes, while on leave, Toussaint kept composing. “Whipped Cream,” one of the songs he wrote during that period, was covered by Herb Alpert and wound up as the theme for the TV show “The Dating Game.”
- Toussaint teamed with Marshall Seahorn in 1973 to open their own recording studio, Sea-Saint Studios, in Gentilly. Among the artists to record there over the years were Paul McCartney, Dr. John, Joe Cocker, Paul Simon, Elvis Costello and the Meters.
- When Toussaint died,
he was given an all-star send-off
, with a parade of local musicians performing in his honor at the sold-out Orpheum theater.
- In 1985, Toussaint and Aaron Neville brought a group of New Orleans artists together for a concert to benefit the city’s hungry and homeless. That was the genesis of New Orleans Artists Against Hunger and Homelessness. This year, the organization awarded grants totaling $58,500 to 18 local agencies.
It is impossible to overstate Toussaint’s contributions to New Orleans music as a composer, pianist, singer, arranger and producer. He not only helped shape the rhythm and blues sound that emanated from New Orleans but also brought it to the world through his artistry and smooth style. Though the sharply-attired Toussaint could be a commanding stage presence, he was also known to slip quietly into the band as a backup pianist for various artists, including for the likes of Raitt and Bruce Springsteen at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Even though the catalog of significant songs written and produced by Toussaint is seemingly endless, Toussaint was so self-effacing that, when he died, the musician Questlove said via his Instagram account, “This dude wrote some of your favorite music (and) you just didn’t know it.”