Home / Katrina: Musicians Domino, Thomas, Toussaint Missing or Stranded

Katrina: Musicians Domino, Thomas, Toussaint Missing or Stranded

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[UPDATE – both Fats Domino and Irma Thomas were found to be alive and out of harm’s way last night]

Fats Domino, 76, is missing. New Orleans’ legendary Fat Man had lived with his wife, Rosemary, and daughter in a three-story pink-roofed house in New Orleans’ 9th ward, which is now a seascape. But I don’t want to talk about him yet, nor New Orleans’ “Queen of Soul” Irma Thomas, nor Ernie K-Doe’s widow Antoinette (proprietess of the Mother-in-Law Lounge on N. Claiborne Avenue), for they are missing too. And I don’t want to write anything that sounds like an obituary because I desperately want them to turn up alive and well, or at least alive.

But I do want to talk about another New Orleans legend because he isn’t missing, just a refugee. As of last night, Allen Toussaint, who has done as much as anyone to craft the classic sound of New Orleans over the last 50 years, was stuck at the reeking, leaking Superdome waiting for a bus to Houston’s Astrodome.

Allen Toussaint, an exceptional pianist and arranger in the ’50s, was the most important producer and songwriter of New Orleans R&B and rock ‘n’ roll of the ’60s. He produced and/or wrote classic, gently funky rhythm numbers and timeless ballads for Lee Dorsey, Barbara George, Clarence “Frogman” Henry, Jesse Hill, Ernie K-Doe, Chris Kenner, The Meters, Aaron Neville, The Showmen, Benny Spellman, and (sigh) Irma Thomas.

Toussaint, along with partner Marshall Sehorn, built the Sea-Saint recording studios in the ’70s (where Paul Simon and Paul McCartney both recorded), and continued to produce excellent records for Chocolate Milk, Dr. John, Albert King, Labelle, The Wild Tchoupitoulas (aka the Meters), himself, and many others.

In the ’90s Toussaint formed a new label, NYNO, to produce and release indigenous New Orleans music (including his own first album in nearly 20 years), and in ’98 he was elected into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In addition to those he has produced, Toussaint has written songs covered by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass (“Whipped Cream”), Glen Campbell (“Southern Nights”), Al Hirt (“Java”), Little Feat, Robert Palmer, Pointer Sisters (“Yes We Can Can”), Bonnie Raitt, Rolling Stones, Boz Scaggs, and countless others.

Allen Toussaint was born January 14, 1938 in the Gert Town neighborhood of New Orleans. “It was the piano itself that prompted me to take up music. When I was a small child my Aunt Ethlyn sent an upright piano to our house for my sister, and when I touched the keys I was delighted. My sister started taking lessons, and when I would pick out little melodies, she would tell me what notes they were,” Toussaint told me in a late-’90s interview in his soothing Crescent City tones.

“I loved the piano and played every day, learning to play by ear listening to records and the radio. The piano players I loved best were Professor Longhair, Lloyd Glenn, Albert Ammons, and Ray Charles. I listened to boogie woogie, hillbilly, and my mother loved classical so I heard a lot of that. Our piano was out of tune by a half-tone, so I learned Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, in B flat,” he chuckles.

When he was 13, Toussaint joined a neighborhood band called the Flamingos (not the doo wop group of the same name) and began to play at dances and socials. A few years later the Flamingos were playing in “joints, maybe places we shouldn’t have been playing,” he says. He was also arranging for the band – pulling horn parts off of records – and writing. By 17 Toussaint was playing sessions for Smiley Lewis at Cosimo Matassa’s legendary J&M Studio, and playing the Dew Drop Inn with Earl King.

Fats Domino’s producer Dave Bartholomew heard Toussaint at the Dew Drop and asked him to play a “Domino-like” piano part for a Domino session that the Fatman himself would not be attending. Domino dubbed the vocals to “I Want You to Know” sometime later, which became a hit in late-’57. After that, Toussaint says, “people considered me someone to be reckoned with.”

After Toussaint was hired by an RCA producer to accompany several auditioning artists, the producer realized that Toussaint was the real talent. He recorded The Wild Sound of New Orleans (under the name “Al Tousan”) in just two days n ’58, and though the album didn’t sell, a song from it, “Java,” became an enormous hit for Al Hirt a few years later.

When Joe Banashak started his Minit label in early-’60, Toussaint was again hired to accompany an open audition. In one amazing night Minit signed Jessie Hill, Benny Spellman, Irma Thomas, and Aaron Neville to join Ernie K-Doe on the fledgling label’s roster. Toussaint, at 22, became the creative force behind the label: arranging, producing, playing on, and/or writing a staggering number of regional and national hits from ‘60 until he was drafted into the Army in ’63.

Toussaint’s collective of singers backed each other, and his band (Chuck Badie on bass, James Black on drums, Roy Montrell on guitar, Nat Perrilliat and Clarence Ford on saxes, along with Toussaint on piano and various other hornmen) laid down a consistent, syncopated groove that struck a balance between big-city slick and down-home grit.

Toussaint’s first hit at Minit was Jesse Hill’s outlandish “Ooh-Poo-Pah-Doo,” a “Shout”-type, call-and-response R&B rocker with a butt-wiggling groove. ’61 saw an explosion of Toussaint creativity:

Clarence “Frogman” Henry delivered an open-arms pop vocal over Toussaint’s brassy big band-style arrangement on “But I Do,” followed a couple months later by the similar “You Always Hurt the One You Love,” with Toussaint measuring out the triplets on the piano.

Ernie K-Doe (Kador) helped arrange the Toussaint-penned “Mother-In-Law” into a hook-happy smash hung on Benny Spellman’s bass vocal (“mo-other-in-law”) lead-in to each verse line, a swinging mid-tempo Big Easy beat, clever domestic complaint lyrics, and a jaunty little Professor Longhair/Fats Domino piano solo from Toussaint. Not only was the song K-Doe’s, Toussaint’s, and Minit’s first chart-topper, it was the first No. 1 ever to be recorded in New Orleans (neither Fats Domino nor Little Richard ever had a pop No. 1).

Still in ’61, Toussaint hit the Top 10 three more times with Chris Kenner’s R&B standard “I Like It Like That,” Barbara George’s soulful “I Know (You Don’t Love Me No More),” and the great Lee Dorsey’s first national hit, “Ya YaZ” – a snappy nonsense tune reminiscent of Huey “Piano” Smith’s “Don’t You Just Know It.”

Dorsey became Toussaint’s most prolific hit-maker; his classic R&B voice a perfect vehicle for some of Toussaint’s best songwriting: the rocking, guitar-based “Ride Your Pony”; the bluesy “Get Out of My Life Woman”; the genuine Southern soul of “Holy Cow”; the brilliant, syncopated “Working in a Coal Mine,” where the black-collar complaint of the lyrics is subverted by Dorsey’s cheerful reading and the remarkable bass/hammer-and-chisel rhythm; and Dorsey’s final hit, ’69’s spare, aptly-titled “Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky.”

When the draft ended Toussaint’s run in ’63, he formed a band at Fort Hood, Texas, that first recorded his “Whipped Cream” (the title track of a Tijuana Brass No. 1 album, and later the theme song of The Dating Game).

Toussaint remembers his Minit days fondly. As he told authors Grace Lichtenstein and Laura Dankner in their excellent Musical Gumbo: The Music of New Orleans: “It was the real thing … When we were recording, sometimes we’d make a ‘human fade’ – we would just play softer and softer. We didn’t have any overdubbing. When one guy took a solo, the other guys would stand up and snap their fingers and dance around the studio. We were having a wonderful time.”

When Toussaint returned to the Big Easy in ’65 he began another roll, in addition to the Dorsey hits, he produced Aaron Neville’s melismatic, quavery classic “Tell It Like It Is,” and soul-diva Betty Harris’ “Nearer to You.” His new house band – known in the ’50s as the Hawketts – was Art Neville on keyboards, Ziggy Modeliste on drums, George Porter on bass, and Leo Nocentelli on guitar, regrouped in ’68 as the Meters. New Orleans’ answer to Memphis’ Booker T. and the MG’s – another versatile, mixed-race funk unit – the Meters had a series of great instrumental albums in the late-’60s and early-’70s, with hits including “Sophisticated Cissy,” “Cissy Strut,” “Ease Back” and “Chicken Strut,” that worked a Big Easy elegance into a funky backbeat, with Neville’s organ and Nocentelli’s guitar picking up the vague, chord-based melodies.

In the ’70s Toussaint produced several excellent albums under his own name, as well as Meters-backed greats for Dr. John (In the Right Place, with “Right Place Wrong Time”), Labelle (Nightbirds – with “Lady Marmalade”), and the Meters/Nevilles combine, The Wild Tchoupitoulas, whose lone album is a celebratory Mardi Gras classic.

Toussaint formed NYNO Records in the mid-’90s to give New Orleans music a national outlet. In his founding open letter, Toussaint displays a keen sense for what makes New Orleans music special. “In New Orleans, the music isn’t just in the clubs or on the dance floor, it’s in everything. You can feel it in the street, see it in the buildings and taste it in the food. The syncopation and the strut of the second line brass bands; the frenzied intensity of the Mardi Gras Indian chants; and the driving rhythms of blues, jazz and R&B are as essential to this city as eating and sleeping.”

Allen Toussaint has been as essential to the music of New Orleans, as the music has been to the city.

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About Eric Olsen

Career media professional and serial entrepreneur Eric Olsen flung himself into the paranormal world in 2012, creating the America's Most Haunted brand and co-authoring the award-winning America's Most Haunted book, published by Berkley/Penguin in Sept, 2014. Olsen is co-host of the nationally syndicated broadcast and Internet radio talk show After Hours AM; his entertaining and informative America's Most Haunted website and social media outlets are must-reads: Twitter@amhaunted, Facebook.com/amhaunted, Pinterest America's Most Haunted. Olsen is also guitarist/singer for popular and wildly eclectic Cleveland cover band The Props.
  • Oh man, I can hear the Frogman croaking over Toussaint’s piano, “I don’t know why I love you / But I doo-ooo…”

    And Irma Thomas… I heard her sing at Tipitino’s years back. What a wonder, what a privilege. That woman was smoking; I hope I get to be so privileged again.

    I pray that the creator delivers Thomas, Toussaint, Fats Domino, Ernie K-Doe’s widow, and all the others, musicians or not, safe and sound after this nightmare.

  • Eric Olsen

    yes Nat, totally agree of course. It really made me sad putting this together – will it ever be the same?

  • Crooked Spine

    You neglected to mention the incredible horn arrangements that Toussaint did for The Band on their live album, Rock of Ages.

  • I wonder if Trent Reznor’s OK. Didn’t he move to New Orleans from Cleveland a few years back? Maybe he’s on tour or flew away in his Dracula-copter to Transylvania or some other evil place … like Los Angeles.

    There ya go, folks. A laugh amidst the tragedy.

    That is all.

  • Eric Olsen

    Yes, those were pretty great. I’m sure I neglected lots of things, but thanks for that reminder

  • Did Anne Rice’s makeup get washed off?

    That is all.

  • Eric Olsen

    I used to work out with a guy who dated Anne Rice in college – yes, he is older than I am

  • Eric Olsen

    he said she was really weird, by the way

  • You know everyone, oh captain my captain.

    Did you notice perhaps that a certain minor French actress celebrity (or someone impersonating her) appears to be hitting on me through your website?

    I kinda sorta think it’s her.

    That is all.

  • Eric Olsen

    Jeanne Moreau is hitting on you??

  • Eric Olsen

    in which digital portico is this transpiring?

  • I don’t know who that is, but think Peter Pan hair and a movie I couldn’t ever bring myself to actually watch 🙂

    Check “Worst Song Lyrics” and tell me what you think, oh captain my captain.

    Real or fake? I think real.

    It’s super-geeky fun.

    If she e-mails you asking for my business (which of course she won’t), you’ll have to give me a heads-up here because no one will ever really read this topic.

    That is all.

  • I don’t even think she’s that hot (although she’s way hotter with longer hair in the pictures I found to find out who the hell it was since I honestly didn’t know by name), but if that’s her, she’s a lot of fun 🙂

    That is all.

  • I’ll just bet putting this together was sad for you, Eric. The whole thing is distressing. There is an emptiness inside me that just won’t go away, no matter what diversions I try to use to distract myself.

    But I have some good news: I just saved on my car insur…

    No, CNN reports that Fats Domino has been found and he is OK.

    “Rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Fats Domino was among the thousands of New Orleans residents plucked from rising floodwaters, his daughter said Thursday.

    Karen Domino White, who lives in New Jersey, identified her father in a picture taken Monday night by a New Orleans Times-Picayune photographer.

    The photograph shows Domino — the singer behind the 1950s hits “Ain’t That a Shame” and “Blueberry Hill” — being helped off a boat near his home in the city’s Lower 9th Ward.

    His whereabouts since the rescue were not immediately known. Nor was there any information about his wife, Rosemary, friends said.”

    That lifted my spirits a bit. Hope it helps you.

  • Good news. Thanks for sharing that, human. I love Fats Domino and “Blueberry Hill.” Although I do admit I always got him confused with Chubby Checker, but I’m young.

    That is all.

  • Did you ever notice in certain publications that there would be a phenomenal writer stuck in the ladder while some cretin ran the show?

    Totally not the case here. Olsen is by far the most talented blogger here.

  • Sussman, you’ve got something on your nose there 🙂 But yeah, I think there’s a reason this site attracts so much good writing about music (and occasionally bad, but “interesting” and “random” writing).

    That is all.

  • It’s nose poop. I accept that.

    But with Olsen’s sensible columns on the left and middle parts of the page, it really balances out the horrible writing on the far right side of the page.

    That’s not a political metaphor either.

    And that’s why I stick with just sports and humor.

  • Yeah, I remember when I first found the site, I think it didn’t have a separate Politics section. I think I said then it needed one — in retrospect, perhaps the right-wing political contingent isn’t the best thing in the world. But it’s always better to have more topics and more interests than less. The right-wing political types seem to enjoy what they do.

    I think the music/culture/film focus of the site is great as well and you have better discussions of a lot of that stuff here than almost anywhere else I’ve seen.

    That being said, can you believe Olsen voted for Bush? I think he’s still proud of it too 🙂

    We need more sports from you — I think you, me and RJ are the only ones who seem to care about sports here.

    That is all.

  • Don’t forget about Tan the Man. I’ve also seen tennis and soccer/football on here from contributors.

    But I have some football/NFL stuff I’m getting ready to unleash. Also when baseball playoffs heat up I’m on it.

  • areaderwrites

    This is a great piece on the Allen Toussaint–thank you for drawing attention to his work. He has been in my thoughts often over the past few days, along with the other musicians that have made New Orleans such a unique bright spot in our homogenized American culture. I hope they can all make it to safety like Fats Domino.

  • A number of safe-and-sound musicians with ties to NO are doing their part: NBC, MSNBC, and CNBC will telecast a Concert for Hurricane Relief tomorrow night featuring Harry Connick Jr., Aaron Neville (his famous family had to flee to Memphis hotels; most of their homes were destroyed), Wynton Marsalis, and Tim McGraw. Meanwhile New Orleans-born comedian Ellen DeGeneres reports that her aunt lost everything she had; she and her show’s production company have pledged $1.5 million for Katrina victims. No, Ellen is not a musician, but she is a really good dancer.

    Ah, more good news to report: Irma Thomas has been found. She is safe at her aunt’s house in Baton Rouge, according to Fox News.

  • >>Jeanne Moreau is hitting on you??<< At her age she can't be hitting very hard - but she remains hot. Dave

  • E-Unit

    How about the other musical greats- Cosimo Matassa, Huey “Piano” Smith, Dave Bartholomew, Eddie Bo. Are they O.K?

  • I can’t find any info on them, sad to say. Will check again tomorrow.

    The following, from Channel 2 in Baton Rouge, offers news on some others:

    “While the whereabouts of many New Orleans singers and musicians remains unknown, Mark Samuels, president of Basin Street Records, reports from Memphis that Basin Street artists Kermit Ruffins, Irvin Mayfield, Ronald Markham and Theresa Andersson are safe in Baton Rouge, traditional jazz musician Michael White is in Houston, jazz-blues pianist Henry Butler is in Monroe and drummer Jason Marsalis, a member of the famous Marsalis jazz family, is in New York.”

  • Eric Olsen

    thanks so much for the updates Nat, vastly appreciated and a real ray of sunshine

    and thanks to Matt, BAB, areader for your very kind words, almost equally appreciated!

  • It both broke my heart and drove me nuts to hear that Fats was missing, thanks Eric. And now that he has been found alive and unharmed, I can vent.

    Fats! What the HELL were you thinking!

    The man was among those who CHOSE to stay in New Orleans! Fats! You have your OWN PRIVATE PLANE. What POSSIBLE reason did you have to stay in town while it was destroyed?

    I don’t really know how much money Irma Thomas or Allen Toussaint had at their disposal, but Fats is still, after fifty years, a multimillionaire. Really, there was no excuse.

    I hate having to vent frustration with one of my heroes, but there it is.

  • David Henry

    Irma Thomas is alive and well. According to an email circulated by her publicist last night, Irma showed up at Marcia Ball’s show in Austin on Wednesday.

    Great piece on the magnificent Mr. Toussaint. He and Irma are both featured (along with Ann Peebles, Billy Preston, & Mavis Staples) on the forthcoming CD “I Believe to My Soul” recorded in LA this June (release date: October 4). The project was put together and produced by my brother Joe Henry. I was there for the sessions and an accompanying documentary. The whole week was pure hair-raising magic.

  • Eric Olsen

    I agree Michael: there is stoic and there is stupid.

    thanks David, and that sounds like an amazing experience! Look forward to the release

  • V-dog

    Has anyone heard anything regarding the whereabouts of Snooks Eaglin? That man is a national treasure, and it would be a shame to lose him.

  • This news in an email from my brother Joe:

    just spoke with irma’s daughter, tina. they are together in gonzales, LA. they are safe, but have lost everything -their home and their business.

    tina said through tears that they are all still in a state of shock, but are thankful to be alive, and thank everyone for their prayers and concern. they still have many friends in new orleans with whom they have not communicated and are bracing themselves for all manner of bad news

  • E-Unit

    I read on the New Orleans site Gumbo Pages that Snooks Eaglin is alive and in another state. Still no word about Eddie Bo, Cossimo Matassa.

  • Alex Chilton (Big Star, Box Tops) lives near the French Quarter, and hasn’t been heard from since Monday.

  • Eric Olsen

    thanks for the updates guys, and special best wishes to all area “national treasures”

  • Alex Chilton was spotted in Molly’s on Weds I think.
    Walter Washington was seen in an NO shelter.
    Eddie Bo is on a safe list.
    No word as yet on Isaac Bolden, Thais Clark, Marshall Sehorn, Wardell Quezergue, Richard Caiton, Tony Owens, Skip Easterling, Antoinette K-Doe…

  • Eric Olsen

    thanks Jon, both very good and disconerting news

  • David Henry

    FYI, Allen Toussaint will be on Letterman tonight. Word has it he performs “Southern Nights.”

  • fran

    I worked at a little club behind frogman henrys in the late sixties. I met Alan there and we went out once to the fountainbleu. Hope he is doing well.

  • lynne green

    Looking for long time friend musician producer LOUIE LUDWIG (ZZI Records)-
    New Orleans.

    He sent me a letter 1 week before katrina hit.

    please if you DO know where he is have him call 818 556 5625..


  • Eric Quezergue

    Wardell Quezergue is doing great in Texas.

  • Eric Olsen

    great to hear it, Eric!

  • bsweeney201

    would like to get in touch with Fats Domino, as someone has written something for him. Is this possible? Where do i write or call?
    Thank you,
    Brian P. Sweeney

  • Nick

    Hi – I’ve recently acquired ‘Studio 150’ by Paul Weller. One of the tracks is ‘Hercules’ credited to Allen Toussaint but I’m confused. I’ve also acquired ‘Night Train’ – a collection of tracks performed by the Oscar Peterson Trio. One of these is Bags’ Groove which is credited to Milt Jackson, originally recorded by him in the early Fifties. The two tracks appear to have the same melody. Can anyone help me out here? Or am I looking for something that isn’t there. I love this piece of music but once I tried to find out more about it my brain quickly switched to custard!!