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Legendary New Orleans Songwriter, Producer and Musician Allen Toussaint Dies at 77

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Allen Toussaint, a songwriter and producer whose brilliant compositions and distinctive piano playing made him a revered figure in New Orleans R&B — and were widely influential well beyond the confines of the genre — has died at the age of 77.

Toussaint grew up in New Orleans, and was an active member of the city’s musical community while still a teenager; before his 18th birthday, he’d performed with the legendary bluesman Earl King while subbing in for Huey “Piano” Smith at a gig, and he released his first album, The Wild Sounds of New Orleans, at 20.

Though The Wild Sounds of New Orleans wasn’t an immediate success, it gave Toussaint a springboard into a busy career writing and producing for other artists. During the early ’60s, he penned a string of hit singles for local acts, many of which were later covered — and turned into pop classics — by other artists; among his most popular cuts during this period were “Ruler of My Heart” (originally recorded by Irma Thomas, later covered by Otis Redding and the Rolling Stones), “A Certain Girl” (first released by Ernie K-Doe and later covered by Warren Zevon) and “Fortune Teller” (recorded by a long list of artists, including the Who). In 1964 — while Toussaint was in the midst of a two-year stint in the U.S. Army — trumpeter Al Hirt scored a million-selling No. 1 hit with “Java,” a Wild Sounds of New Orleans track that Toussaint had composed in the studio.

In the ’70s, Toussaint — by then co-owner of the local Sea-Saint recording studio — served as an integral component of the New Orleans funk scene, playing on, producing and contributing songs to records by top acts such as Dr. John and the Meters while finding his services called upon by a widening circle of artists, including Robert Palmer, the Band and Labelle, for whom he produced the career-defining “Lady Marmalade.”

Toussaint also continued his own recording career during this period, releasing a string of LPs during the early ’70s that included 1972’s Life, Love and Faith and 1975’s Southern Nights — the latter of which debuted “What Do You Want the Girl to Do?,” later covered by Bonnie Raitt and Boz Scaggs (who scored a No. 2 hit with his version, recorded for the multi-platinum smash Silk Degrees), as well as the title track, a cross-format success for Glen Campbell.

Even though his recorded output slowed in the ’80s and ’90s, Toussaint continued to perform, and numbered among the many artists whose work enjoyed a period of rediscovery during the sample-heavy hip-hop era. He returned to the limelight often in the 21st century, serving as one of New Orleans’ many cultural ambassadors after the ruin of Hurricane Katrina; during this period, he made the acquaintance of producer Joe Henry, who enlisted Toussaint for 2005’s I Believe to My Soul, which compiled new recordings from an array of veteran soul artists. Henry later produced Toussaint’s 2009 jazz outing, One Bright Mississippi.

Arguably the most widely heard of Toussaint’s late-period recordings was 2006’s The River in Reverse, a Henry-produced collaboration between Toussaint and Elvis Costello that earned a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Vocal Album while exposing his playing and songwriting to an audience that had grown up absorbing Toussaint’s sound without even realizing it. Though his influence was felt more deeply than many understood, Toussaint’s career enjoyed no shortage of acclaim; before his death, he was honored with inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Blues Hall of Fame and the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame, and received the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama.

According to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Toussaint was on the road when he died, in the middle of a European tour that had him traveling to cities in Spain, Belgium and the U.K. before returning home for a Dec. 8 benefit show with Paul Simon for New Orleans Artists Against Hunger and Homelessness. Tirelessly creative to the end, he warmed to the spotlight in his later years, overcoming a lifelong self-described shyness to engage audiences with stories from his incredible life interwoven with his classic songs.

“Everyday life is inspirational, if you’re just open to it and enjoy the scenes and the interaction of people as they interact with each other,” Toussaint mused in a 2006 interview. “There are new things being performed every day. If you just look around and enjoy what’s happening, you’ll never run out of inspiration.”

News of Toussaint’s passing has prompted a growing number of tributes from his many friends, peers and musical acolytes. Recording artist John Michael Rouchell, a member of the younger generation of New Orleans acts, penned his own poignant tribute to Toussaint’s influence, noting, “If you’re from New Orleans and try to write a song, at some point, you know you’re in Allen Toussaint’s shadow. His songwriting is like an athlete that holds first place in all the record books; unmatched. Mr. Toussaint was a hero to me. He was pure class. One of the little joys of life in New Orleans would be spotting him in one of his two Rolls Royces (one with the license plate SONGS, the other, PIANO). If you can, go spend a few minutes today listening to Lee Dorsey, LaBelle, Irma Thomas, the minimalism of the Meters, Allen’s Southern Nights. We lost a big one today. ”

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