Allen Toussaint's Unassailable Legacy

The New Orleans songwriter and pianist died Monday at 77.

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.)

That album showcased the strong vein of civil-rights activism and social justice in his writing. “The same people you misuse on your way up, you might meet up on your way down,” he warned. “What happen to the Liberty Bell I heard so much about? Did it really ding-dong? It must have dinged wrong, it didn’t ding long,” he sang on “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further?” On “Freedom for the Stallion,” he lamented, “They got men making laws that destroy other men. They’ve made money God it’s a doggone sin. Oh, Lord, you got to help us find a way.” (Of course, these themes are apparent as early as “Working in the Coalmine,” sung from the perspective of a hard-worn laborer.)

Toussaint’s long run of hits was no accident. His songs are durable, carefully crafted gems. He wasn’t afraid to use repetition—“Get Out of My Life Woman” hardly includes more words than that; “Coalmine” is really just one slinky chorus, punctuated by two short verses. But he could also turn an indelible image: “Lipstick traces on a cigarette/Every memory lingers with me yet.” Vocally, he was a strong if not especially distinctive singer, with an almost sweet sound.

But it would be badly remiss not to focus on Toussaint’s piano playing—the glue which holds so many of his songs together and provides the funk and swing. He’s an essential link in the New Orleans piano pantheon, linking the likes of Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, and Huey “Piano” Smith (whom he got his start by filling in for on a bandstand) to Dr. John—and today, Jon Batiste, Stephen Colbert’s bandleader. Toussaint took Professor Longhair’s second-line piano style and adapted it to modern, funky records.

A Toussaint piano line will be rollicking, effortlessly funky, irresistibly syncopated, but never showy or overdone. His citation in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, into which he was inducted in 1998, states, “His greatest contribution was in not allowing the city’s old-school R&B traditions to die out but by keeping pace with developments in the rapidly evolving worlds of soul and funk.” (President Obama also awarded him the National Medal for the Arts in 2012.) You can hear that in a song like “Get Out of My Life Woman.” The booming drum beat wouldn’t be out of place on a new song today; the horn arrangements are perfectly turned soul; and Toussaint’s piano trills poke through between lines, a timeless touch of funk that could be from 1910 or 2010.

Any time a musician dies, it’s common to say that he or she was taken too soon. Toussaint was 77 and packed in more hits than plenty of musicians considered wildly successful. But two videos posted online from his show Monday in Madrid probe that Toussaint hadn’t lost a step. He brings funk in a way that a man a third his age would envy.

It’s just as common, when a great musician dies, to say that he or she will live on. In Toussaint’s case, that is true as well. As long as there are piano players in the Crescent City, and as long as bands are covering “Working in the Coalmine,” producers are sampling “Get Out My Life Woman,” and dancers are moving to “Southern Nights,” Toussaint will stand as one of the most important musicians in a city famous for producing them.