In Memoriam Allen Toussaint 1938-2015

Some people have so much influence on a musical scene that they have become the personification of that scene. Allen Toussaint is that personification of New Orleans music. Though he was a fine singer and musician in his own right, he is primarily known for writing and producing the work of many icons of New Orleans R&B. And although a heart attack sadly took his life at age 77 earlier this week – while on tour – Toussaint will live on through the enormous amount of highly influential and top quality recordings he has been involved with.

But it wasn’t just his output that made Toussaint what he was. His stately appearance – always suited up and with a calm charisma – and endless musical knowledge has made him the high priest of New Orleans music almost litterally. In interviews, for instance in the Foo Fighters’ documentary series ‘Sonic Highways’, it’s impossible not to hang on to his every word and when you see him working as an arranger, you can see an almost worship-like reverence in the eyes of the musicians working with him.

As a songwriter – either using his own name or one of his parents’ – and a producer, Toussaint has been responsible for either kickstarting or revitalizing the careers of the likes of seminal Funk group The Meters, Soul Queen of New Orleans Irma Thomas, genre-bending mastermind Dr. John and the town’s most musical family The Neville Brothers. Not much later, many popular artists from outside of the Crescent City – The Band, Paul Simon, Joe Cocker and Paul McCartney to name a few – requested his magic, usually (though not exclusively) through his impeccable horn arrangements.

Earlier in this century, the terrible devastation of hurricane Katrina also caused Toussaint to reawaken his musical career. He recorded solo and with Elvis Costello, did the horn arrangements for the debut record of ardent admirer Hugh Laurie and – most notably – played live more than ever. He was introduced to a wider audience when he appeared in the HBO series ‘Treme’. At the time of his death, he had just finished playing a concert in Madrid, Spain.

When you think of New Orleans, you think of Allen Toussaint. This simple fact is nothing more than logical; Allen Toussaint was a remarkable man and his work is legendary. Not many artists achieve immortality through their legacy, but Toussaint has done just that. During his lifetime already. Several of his songs have become part of the fabric that his city is made of. I’d like to close this in memoriam with what is probably the best tribute to New Orleans, to honor the memory of a musical genius.

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