Allen Toussaint, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame songwriter, producer, pianist, performer and New Orleans legend, passed away Monday night while on tour in Spain. He was 77. Toussaint suffered a heart attack at his hotel after performing at Madrid’s Teatro Lara earlier in the night; after being resuscitated, he suffered a second, fatal heart attack en route to the hospital, the BBC reports.
The Grammy-winning Toussaint was one of the Big Easy’s most influential, beloved and iconic musicians, having penned oft-covered songs like “Working in the Coal Mine,” “Mother-in-Law,” “Fortune Teller,” “Southern Nights,” “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley,” “Get Out of My Life, Woman” and countless more. Toussaint’s songs were recorded by the likes of Jerry Garcia, Ringo Starr, Little Feat, Robert Palmer, the Yardbirds, Glen Campbell, Bonnie Raitt, the Band, Warren Zevon, the Rolling Stones and many more.
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Born in 1938 in New Orleans, Toussaint began playing piano at age seven and broke into the music industry by his teens when he was recruited to sit in for a recording session that fellow New Orleans great Fats Domino couldn’t attend. By 1960, Toussaint was serving as chief songwriter at Minit Records, where he penned Ernie K-Doe’s chart-topping “Mother-in-Law.” After a stint in the military, Toussaint returned to form the production company Sansu with Marshall Sehorn, which resulted in the Lee Dorsey hits “Ride Your Pony,” “Working in the Coal Mine” and “Holy Cow.”
Toussaint also played a pivotal role of formulating a unique style of soul, funk and R&B that became emblematic of New Orleans. Toussaint served as producer for the Meters, who got their start as Toussaint’s backing band on Sansu before becoming one of the greatest funk acts of their era. Toussaint and Sehorn also built their Sea-Saint Studio in New Orleans, which became a go-to for local musicians like Dr. John and the Neville Brothers as well as superstars like Paul McCartney – who recorded portions of Wings’ 1975 LP Venus and Mars with Toussaint on piano at the studio – and Paul Simon, New Orleans’ WWL writes. Labelle also recorded the Toussaint-produced “Lady Marmalade” at the studio.
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For all his contributions to New Orleans’ musical legacy, a life-size bronze statue of Toussaint was placed in a park off the city’s Bourbon Street, making him the eighth musician honored by the city. However, Hurricane Katrina ravaged Toussaint’s home and studio in 2005, forcing the musician to take a more prominent role in the spotlight as opposed to just songwriting; he toured frequently in the years following Katrina and collaborated on an album with Elvis Costello in 2006 titled The River in Reverse.
Toussaint was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998 and is similarly enshrined in the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame. In 2013, Toussaint was awarded a National Medal of the Arts. “After his hometown was battered by Katrina and Allen was forced to evacuate, he did something even more important for his city — he went back,” President Barack Obama said at the award ceremony. “And since then, Allen has devoted his musical talent to lifting up and building up a city. And today, he’s taking the stage all over the world, with all kinds of incredible talent, doing everything he can to revive the legendary soul of the Big Easy.”
“Watching Allen changed me forever. He was the link from our past to the future of New Orleans music,” Preservation Jazz Hall Band’s Ben Jaffe tells Rolling Stone. “He touched me in ways he’ll never know. About this time last year, we joined Mr. Toussaint on tour. There was a moment every night Mr. Toussaint would remain onstage, all by himself, and perform and sing and play and tell stories. Every night, I was glued to the stage. His legacy will live on through all of us.”
At the time of his death, Toussaint was scheduled to perform with friend Paul Simon at a December 8th benefit for New Orleans Artists Against Hunger and Homelessness, a charity Toussaint helped found. Below, watch video from Toussaint’s final performance.
Lee Dorsey – “Working in the Coal Mine”
Robert Palmer – “Sneakin Sally Through the Alley”
Ernie K-Doe – “Mother-in-Law”
Allen Toussaint, Elvis Costello – “Ascension Day”
Glen Campbell – “Southern Nights”
Allen Toussaint – “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further”