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By Ben Sandmel
Allen Toussaint (born 1938) is a pianist, songwriter, producer, arranger, vocalist and performer who is renowned as a renaissance man of New Orleans rhythm & blues and a major second-generation architect of the genre’s development. Toussaint attained national/global prominence in the mid-1970s as a leading figure in contemporary popular music. Toussaint remains in peak form, maintaining an active schedule of touring and recording and receiving a steady stream of prestigious awards and accolades.
Toussaint was raised in the Gert Town section of New Orleans. He became interested in music at an early age and took some lessons from a neighborhood blues musician named Ernest Penn. Toussaint listened carefully to records and radio broadcasts. His favorites included nationally popular blues and boogie-woogie pianists as Albert Ammons, Lloyd Glenn and Ray Charles, and hometown hero Professor Longhair, whose blues/R&B style reflected the city’s Afro-Caribbean heritage.
By the time he was a teenager, Toussaint was playing in the Flamingoes, a band whose members included guitarist Snooks Eaglin. Toussaint made his professional, live-performance debut at 17 as a last-minute substitute for Huey “Piano” Smith (known for his hit, “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu”). Toussaint frequented the Dew Drop Inn, then the epicenter of New Orleans’ burgeoning rhythm & blues scene. He accompanied a range of local and national artists at the Dew Drop and made connections to work elsewhere. One important figure who recognized Toussaint’s budding talent was rhythm & blues trumpeter, producer, arranger and bandleader Dave Bartholomew. Renowned for his work with Fats Domino, Lloyd Price and Smiley Lewis, Bartholomew recorded several of his own New Orleans R&B classics.
In 1957, Ember, a New York-based record label, hired Toussaint to produce the instrumental hit, “Walking With Mr. Lee” by saxophonist Lee Allen, best known for his fiery solo work on hits by Fats Domino and Little Richard. In 1958, under the name Al Tousan, Toussaint recorded an album of instrumentals for RCA, The Wild Sound of New Orleans. It did not sell well, but included a song entitled “Java,” co-written by Toussaint, which became a hit in 1964 for New Orleans trumpeter Al Hirt. This marked the first of many songs penned by Toussaint that were hits for other artists. (Most such other artists were singers, but Toussaint’s instrumental, “Whipped Cream” scored a hit in 1966 for trumpeter Herb Alpert, and was subsequently used as the theme for the popular television show, The Dating Game.)
In 1959, Toussaint became a founding partner and the house songwriter, producer, and arranger for a new label Minit, which was based in New Orleans and recorded at the studio of famed engineer Cosimo Matassa. Toussaint wrote, arranged, and produced crafted classic New Orleans R&B material for Minit artists including Ernie K-Doe (“Mother-In-Law,” “A Certain Girl”), Irma Thomas (“It’s Raining”), Benny Spellman (“Fortune Teller,” “Lipstick Traces,”), and Aaron Neville (“Wrong Number,” “Let’s Live.”) K-Doe’s “Mother-In-Law” was the first record by a New Orleans artist and recorded in New Orleans to reach number-one on the national pop and R&B charts. Minit stayed in business until 1963 and its success established Toussaint’s national reputation in R&B circles. He wrote catchy, deceptively simple songs, always tailored to the voice of the specific artist, and effectively showcased that voice with eloquently uncluttered production. Toussaint’s productions for Minit still hold up as timeless classics of the New Orleans R&B genre.
Following two years in the military, Toussaint teamed up with business partner Marshall Sehorn, forming several of their own record labels and licensing their recordings to other, bigger companies. Toussaint’s hit productions from the 1960s through…