You might have never heard of Allen Toussaint, but you know his music.
Maybe you grooved to Lee Dorsey’s version of “Working in the Coal Mine”—or, if you’re a little younger, new-wavers Devo’s rendition. It could be you learned “Fortune Teller” from the Rolling Stones, or you loved Alison Krauss and Robert Plant’s cover. Perhaps you’ve always loved the horn arrangements on the Band’s The Last Waltz. Maybe you liked “Get Out of My Life Woman” when you heard the Doors, or Jerry Garcia, or Derek Trucks, or Iron Butterfly play it, or dozens of classic hip-hop samples. Maybe that piano loop on Jay-Z’s “D’Evils” caught your ear. You have undoubtedly found yourself moving when LaBelle’s “Lady Marmalade,” a song Toussaint produced and played on, came on.
The pianist, singer, songwriter, and producer died Monday after playing a concert in Madrid. He leaves behind enough hits to fill up your nearest jukebox, and a staggering legacy in the music of the U.S.—from rhythm and blues to funk to rock to country—and of his native New Orleans.
Born in 1938, Toussaint got his start as a teenager playing around the Crescent City. His rise to fame outside the city came not from his playing or singing, but from writing hits for other musicians and producing them. Early on, he wrote hits for Irma Thomas, Ernie K-Doe, Art Neville, and particularly Lee Dorsey. He then joined the military briefly (where he recorded “Whipped Cream,” later a staple song on The Dating Game as covered by Herb Alpert), before returning to music full time and founding his own label. Once again, Toussaint proved a reliable hitmaker. His studio’s house band, the Meters, became the most influential New Orleans funk combo—aided by Toussaint writing and producing for them, too.
In 1971, Toussaint launched a solo career, producing records that remain critically well-regarded—though perhaps typically, the biggest hit they spawned was Glenn Campbell’s hit cover of the title track from 1975’s Southern Nights. From the late 1970s on, Toussaint returned to producing and arranging until the 2000s, when Hurricane Katrina led to renewed interest in his music. (In a bio on his website, he quips that the storm was his “booking agent.”) In 2006, he released a Katrina-themed record with Elvis Costello called The River in Reverse, on which Toussaint easily stole the show from his more famous collaborator. (It’s no coincidence that Paul McCartney—the other great English student of the American pop idiom—also sought Toussaint out as a collaborator several times over the years.)