When Allen Toussaint was 17 he subbed for Huey “Piano” Smith with Earl King’s band for a show in Prichard, Ala., and he never looked back after that. Years and countless classics later, following a Nov. 9 concert in Madrid, the New Orleans legend passed away at the age of 77.
For 60 years he ruled New Orleans as a player, songwriter, producer, arranger and recording artist. Toussaint’s impact stretched beyond his hometown to the rest of the country and even across the pond, where artists recorded his songs and — in the cases of Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello — collaborated with him. “Of course I love to just sit and play the piano, but I like producing because ’cause that comes with arranging and making the whole thing work,” Toussaint told Billboard during a 2008 interview. “There’s a certain kind of magic that happens whenever you work with someone, so I consider the whole process just a marvelous undertaking. I appreciate everyone I work with.”
Like many who work primarily behind the scenes, however, Toussaint is know by name more than by deed, and his death on Tuesday at the age of 77 will undoubtedly send the curious scrambling to find out — or recall– what his genius was all about. Here are 10 recordings that provide a good starting point:
“Mother-In-Law,” Ernie K-Doe (1961): Toussaint hit the top of the Hot 100 as the writer and producer of this good-humored Ernie K-Doe single. Toussaint and Doe almost gave up on it after it proved difficult to nail down in the studio, but backup singer Willie Hopper famously prevailed upon them to try it again. The Kingsmen, Herman’s Hermits and even Jello Biafra recorded subsequent versions of the song.
“Ya Ya,” Lee Dorsey (1961): Toussaint was a producer and player on the New Orleans singer Lee Dorsey’s first big hit, which began a long and fruitful association between the two. “Oh, he was a wonderful artist,” Toussaint remembered. “He was a very spirited guy. He had such a degree of humor. His voice sounds like a smile. You could write things for him that were not so mature that a child wouldn’t like it, too.” The song was an R&B Songs chart No. 1 hit and was later covered by John Lennon.
“Fortune Teller,” Benny Spellman (1962): Toussaint wrote (under the pseudonym Naomi Neville) and produced this frequently covered track, first recorded by Benny Spellman and then taken on by the Rolling Stones, the Hollies, the Who and Robert Plant and Alison Krauss on the Grammy Award-winning Raising Sand album — among many others.
“Ruler of My Heart,” Irma Thomas (1963): Toussaint penned and produced this Imperial Records single for Irma Thomas, one of many tunes they worked on together; this one had the notoriety of being revised by Otis Redding as “Pain in My Heart.” Thomas was, in fact, Toussaint’s best-known muse during the early ’60s. “She’s a queen, definitely,” he said. “I hear her voice in my head many, many times, just walking down the street — still. She was my first female source of inspiration.”
“Working In The Coal Mine,” Lee Dorsey (1966): Lee Dorsey scored the first hit with Toussaint’s ode to the working man, taking it to No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100. Fifteen years later Devo brought new life to the song by covering it for the Heavy Metal film soundtrack. “It was very surprising, but I loved it dearly that they took it to their world and introduced it to their world,” Toussaint said. “I just through it was great, just right on.”
Rock of Ages, The Band (1972): There’s possibly no finer example of Toussaint’s arranging acumen than this live album, recorded during August of 1972 and featuring rich horn charts by Toussaint that elevated the material to another level entirely. “They knew about me before I knew about them — of course, it didn’t take me long to find out they were quite notable,” said Toussaint, who also worked on The Band’s 1971 album Cahoots. “Robbie Robertson… first called me to do the (horn) arrangement on the single ‘Life is a Carnival.’ Later on, when it was time for the Rock of Ages album, they gave me a call and said they would like me to arrange horns on the whole album, and the rest is history, of course.”
“Lady Marmalade,” LaBelle (1974): Toussaint produced the vocal trio’s 1975 album Nightbirds, which featured this provocative, Hot 100-topping single. He recalled that, “I knew the name LaBelle was out there, but I hadn’t kept up with the ladies from record to record,” Toussaint said. “The record company commissioned me to produce that (album), and I said yes right away. They brought such spirit and such flight to the studio; every performance they did, even the outtakes, were just wonderful — even when we were learning the songs, when they’d sit beside me on the piano stool, softly singing their lines, everything sounded suitable for framing.”
Southern Nights (1975): Having resumed his own recording career four years earlier, Toussaint was in prime form on this 10-song set, recorded in Miami with the Meters and others and featuring the title track, which Glen Campbell turned into a chart-topping hit two years later.
Venus and Mars, Wings (1975): When Paul McCartney came to New Orleans to record Wings’ fourth album, he called Toussaint to play keyboards and help with horn arrangements. “He knows a lot about New Orleans music, and if he was gonna do something with some of that feel he wanted to come down here where it all was,” Toussaint recalled. “I must say he did it in very fine form and was just a wonderful human being as well as a superb musician and producer. He had his whole schedule mapped out very well, and where he thought I was applicable he used me. I was glad he did it that way; there was no extra thing for me to do at all!”
The River in Reverse, Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint (2006): Toussaint worked with Costello several times before this masterful collaboration comprised primarily of Toussaint favorites, along with three new co-writes, the Costello-penned title track and a revised treatment of Professor Longhair’s “Ascension Day.”