POSTED Tue. Nov 10, 2015

People Profiles

Remembering Allen Toussaint
Adam Karlin
Written by ADAM KARLIN

The world has lost but one voice, yet is immeasurably more silent, with the passing of Allen Toussaint.

That the man was a titan of the New Orleans music scene is undisputed, yet to limit him to New Orleans is a disservice, as he, and his sonic legacy, was a gift unto the world. The proof is in the long list of songs, many of which have become the taken-for-granted foundation of modern pop. And the evidence of the man’s international reach is reflected in the news reports; Toussaint died in Madrid, at the age of 77, while on tour.

But with all of this said, to not explicitly link Toussaint to New Orleans is equally problematic. Everything Allen Toussaint did musically was gon’ be funky, and everything he did grew from roots that sank deeply into his home town.

He was born in 1938, in Gert Town, a neighborhood that, unlike so many other old, working class parts of New Orleans, has barely felt the brush of gentrification. His first album was released in 1958; two years later, in 1960, he was a songwriter, arranger and house producer at the Minit label, where he collaborated on many of the great R&B tracks of the 20th century,

This modus operandi – as much collaborator as creator – defined much of Toussaint’s career. The man sat at the perfect intersection of production and music-making, and we can thank him for such songs as “Working in the Coal Mine,” “Ya Ya”, “Ride Your Pony,” “Mother-in-Law” and “Ooh Poo Pah Doo.”

By the 1960s, Toussaint was a staple of the funk and R&B scene; it was during this time that he began working with The Meters. In 1973, he opened Sea-Saint Studios, where Toussaint worked with Patti Labelle, Robert Palmer, Paul McCartney and Paul Simon, among many others.

Toussaint left New Orleans in 2005 after his home was destroyed in the fallout of Hurricane Katrina. He moved to New York City and entered a renewed phase of creative output. Toussaint was a frequent visitor to his home town and a mainstay at Jazz Fest, where his on point outfits seemed to mix every textile pattern and color imaginable into a sharp whole.

For all of his fame, Toussaint was a deeply humble man who would take time out of his busy schedule to crack wise with fans and stoop to a child’s eye level. It was this sort of warmth, as much as his musical genius, that will be missed in the city of New Orleans (and around the world).

Two online outlets have really captured Toussaint thus far. On Instagram Questlove nails the man’s huge influence and corresponding enormous modesty:

I don’t want y’all thinkin’ “this is just some old legend that passed away” naw [sic]. This dude wrote some of your favorite music & you just didn’t know it. He effected SO many genres. That’s how you know how potent and effective your art is: when you quietly change the scene w/o proper acknowledgement.

And at Esquire, this interview captures Toussaint speaking from that unique place he occupied at the crossroads of talent and sincere empathy:

I love being sampled by anybody, whatever genre. I’m delighted that rappers like Jay-Z or Kirk Franklin even know who I am. I’m always honored that acts in other genres would hear my music and find it applicable.

I’m not playing my solo shows to let everybody know I wrote these songs, but at the same time, I do know that’s why I was invited. Because I wrote those songs.

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