Allen Toussaint, who died last week at the age of 77 after performing a concert in Spain, was a more refined exponent of the classic New Orleans piano style developed by Professor Longhair.
His touch was so light, his manner so humble and his collaborative spirit so generous that he was kind of like the water of the Golden Age of New Orleans R&B in the early and mid-1960s.
From replacing Huey “Piano” Smith in Earl King’s band at the age of 17, he went on to work behind the scenes as a songwriter and producer, making an indelible impact with Lee Dorsey on “Working In A Coal Mine” and “Ride Your Pony”; and Irma Thomas on “It’s Raining” and “Ruler of My Heart.” Toussaint’s “Lipstick Traces (On a Cigarette),” as performed by Benny Spellman, is one of the great, sublime pop-R&B evocations of romantic betrayal and obsession. The B-side, “Fortune Teller” — also written by Toussaint — became a staple of the British invasion, with covers by the Rolling Stones and the Who, not to mention Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. In the next decade, Toussaint produced “Lady Marmalade” for LaBelle at his Sea Saints Studio, and penned “Southern Nights” — a No. 1 hit on both the country and pop charts for Glen Campbell. In other words, Toussaint’s music defied category.
In the 1970s, Toussaint embarked on a fruitful solo career, putting out a handful of masterful albums that nonetheless did not garner as much attention as his production work. The subtle funk of Life, Love and Faith, released in 1972, with songs ranging from the gentle snapback of “Soul Sister” to the trenchant blues of “On Your Way Down,” is a highlight.
From artist to songwriter to producer, the last four decades of Toussaint’s career also include wonderful flashes of his work as a sideman. Spend some time on YouTube and check out Toussaint and Dr. John backing Etta James or sharing the spotlight with Irma Thomas on her classic “Time Is On My Side.” As an accompanist, he displayed modesty, good humor and total class.
Typical of his self-effacing manner, when music critic Greg Kot commented during an interview for PRX’s “Sound Opinions” that much had been made of Professor Longhair’s influence on his music, Toussaint was quick to respond: “Not enough.”