Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 14 January 1938, New Orleans LA; d 9 November 2015, Madrid, Spain, of a heart attack after a concert) Pianist, singer, composer, producer, partner in SeaSaint studio. Grew up in the Gert Town neighbourhood (originally 'Gehrke' after a German immigrant grocer), where in 1902 Buddy Bolden played in Lincoln Park. His parents were songwriters; he began playing his sister's piano at age seven, later influenced by Professor Longhair, who he dubbed 'the Bach of Rock'. He formed a schoolboy band the Flamingoes with Snooks Eaglin, dropped out of school to tour with Shirley and Lee (replacing Huey Smith) and was a regular at the legendary Dew Drop Inn, but felt a pull to the studio. Dave Bartholomew hired him for session work at Cosimo Matassa's; he played backing tracks for Fats Domino (e.g. 'I Want You To Know', 'Young School Girl'), found a talent for arranging on the spot and took hold of a Lee Allen session that resulted in the chart hit 'Walking For Mr Lee' '58. He made the album The Wild Sounds Of New Orleans '58 (on RCA as 'Al Tousan') in two days, including 'Java' (a no. 4 hit for Al Hirt '63). He worked for the new Minit label ('Take a Minit and listen to it') formed by Joe Banashak and Larry McKinley, who announced an audition '60: Irma Thomas, Larry Williams, the Neville Brothers and others showed up, but Toussaint, who'd come to accompany a singer, was given responsibility for Minit's music at the age of 22. He oversaw Jesse Hill's 'Ooo Poo Pah Do' (no. 3 R&B, top 30 pop '60); on Ernie K-Doe's 'Mother-In-Law' '61 (no. 1 R&B/pop '61) he plucked Benny Spellman from the ringsiders to sing the low notes: he wrote arrangements that fitted the voices and included a lyrical jazz-influenced trombone solo on Spellman's 'Lipstick Traces' (top 30 R&B, Hot 100 pop '62), tail-gate trombone on 'I Done Got Over' (written by K-Doe for Thomas).

When Banashak felt neglected by Imperial's Lew Chudd, who distributed the records, he formed the Instant label and again put Toussaint in charge: he produced Chris Kenner's 'I Like It Like That' (no. 2 R&B/pop '61), 'Land Of A Thousand Dances' (Hot 100 '63); covered by Cannibal and the Headhunters (no. 30 '65), Wilson Pickett (no. 6 '66), Patti Smith. (The alcoholic, erratic songwriter Kenner was b 1929 near New Orleans; d 25 January 1976.) Toussaint was drafted '63. Marshall Sehorn worked for NYC's Fire/Fury labels; discovered Wilbert Harrison (from Seahorn's home town; b 6 January 1929, Charlotte NC; d 26 October 1994) whose 'Kansas City' was no. 1 R&B/pop '59; Sehorn signed Lee Dorsey (b 24 December 1926, New Orleans) and 'Yah Yah' was no. 1 R&B, 7 pop '61, produced by Toussaint, who returned from US Army '65, was courted by several labels but formed a partnership with Sehorn, Sansu Enterprises opening SeaSaint studios '72.

Toussaint carried on into the modern New Orleans era with more Dorsey hits, then the Meters snd the Neville Brothers; he produced Mac Rebennack, LaBelle, Joe Cocker, many others; did horn tracks for the Band's 'Life Is A Carnival', arranged for Paul Simon's Rhymin' Simon. Toussaint worked and played with Paul McCartney on his album Venus And Mars '75. His own albums included Toussaint '71 on Tiffany, Life, Love And Faith '72 and Southern Nights '75 on Reprise, Motion '78 on WB. His songs have been covered by the Oak Ridge Boys, Devo, Little Feat, the Band, Boz Scaggs, Bonnie Raitt, Lawrence Welk, many more.

The title song 'Southern Nights' is perhaps his best known song (covered for a big country hit by Glen Campbell). Toussaint had almost finished that album but was holding out, hesitating to launch it. Van Dyke Parks came to see him, and said, 'Imagine you're going to die in two weeks. What do you want people not to miss about you?' Then Toussaint wrote 'Southern Nights', 'so that anyone who hears that record will know something essential about the people and the land that shaped me.'

The Bright Mississippi 2009 on Nonesuch was a new Toussaint album, jazz for people who didn't know they liked jazz, tunes by Duke, Monk, Jelly Roll, Django etc. produced by singer-songwriter Joe Henry. Sidepeople included guitarist Marc Ribot, plus Don Byron, Nicholas Payton (playing straight jazz), guests on some tracks Brad Mehldau and Joshua Redman; in the rhythm section bassist David Piltch and drummer Jay Bellerose, trying not to play jazz but falling under Toussaint's spell.

Meanwhile, after his home studio was wrecked by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Toussaint began performing as a solo for the first time, often seen at Joe's Pub in New York City. His comfort zone had been the studio, and performing as a single was a whole new world for him, but he soon began to enjoy it. Songbook 2013 on Rounder collected some exceptional moments from Joe's Pub, including a version of 'Southern Nights', turned into an extended childhood memory.