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.