Allen Toussaint, the legendary New Orleans singer-songwriter who counts R&B songs such as “Mother-in-Law” and “Working in the Coal Mine” among the hits he has written, has died while on tour in Europe. He was 77-years-old.
Toussaint was on tour in Europe at the time of his death on Tuesday morning, November 10, having just finished performing a show with his quartet in Madrid, Spain, on Monday night, before suffering a heart attack in his hotel room. According to the Associated Press, Madrid emergency services spokesman Javier Ayuso said that rescue workers were called to Toussaint’s hotel room early Tuesday morning, after the songwriter had suffered a heart attack. Rescue workers were initially able to revive Toussaint, but he stopped breathing during the ambulance ride to the hospital, and efforts to revive him again were unsuccessful.
Allen Toussaint was born in New Orleans, Louisana, in 1938, and began his long musical career as an apprentice for famed New Orleans bandleader Dave Bartholomew, sitting in on sessions with such legends as Fats Domino — whom, as a teenager, Toussaint once had to play the piano for in a session that Domino couldn’t attend. To follow his dream of having a career in music, Allen Toussaint dropped out of high school, according to Louisana station WWL-TV, and, by 1958, songs Toussaint had written were being recorded by Al Hirt, including the hit song “Java,” for which Hirt received a Grammy.
In 1960, Allen Toussaint became a songwriter and producer with Minit and Instant record labels. During his time with Minit and Instant, Toussaint wrote and produced Ernie K-Doe’s No. 1 hit “Mother-in-Law,” as well as Lee Dorsey’s “Working in the Coal Mine,” “Ride Your Pony,” and “Holy Cow,” along with countless New Orleans favorites like “A Certain Girl,” and “Tain’t it the Truth.”
Allen Toussaint took a brief break from his music career in 1963 to enroll in the U.S. Army for two years. It was when he returned home from the Army that Toussaint penned Dorsey’s hits, along with the instrumental “Whipped Cream,” which, after it had been recorded by Herb Alpert, became the theme song for the television show The Dating Game.
Toussaint’s influence didn’t end with those for whom he’d written songs. Many legendary acts — from the Rolling Stones, the Who, and the Doors, to Warren Zevon, Ringo Starr, and the Pointer Sisters — have covered songs written by Toussaint, both under his own name, and those written under his pseudonym, Naomi Neville (Toussaint’s mother’s maiden name).
Though Toussaint preferred to work behind the scenes rather than be on the stage himself, after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans — and destroyed Toussaint’s home and studio — he relocated to New York, and while collaborating with famed artists Elvis Costello and Eric Clapton, released a few CDs of his own work, and began performing a solo act.
In 2013, Allen Toussaint was awarded the most prestigious award that an American artist can get — the National Medal of Arts. During the award ceremony, President Obama took the stage to speak of the man who bought the New Orleans R&B music scene to the national stage, and kept it there.
“After his hometown was battered by Katrina and Allen was forced to evacuate, he did something even more important for his city — he went back. And since then, Allen has devoted his musical talent to lifting up and building up a city. And today, he’s taking the stage all over the world, with all kinds of incredible talent, doing everything he can to revive the legendary soul of the Big Easy.
Allen Toussaint devoted his life to helping the people of New Orleans. In 1985, together with Aaron Neville — lead vocalist of the Neville Brothers — he co-founded the non-profit organization New Orleans Artists against Hunger and Homelessness, according to the Guardian, in an attempt to help the poor and homeless population of his home town.
Just days before his death, New Orleans Artists against Hunger and Homelessness announced that Allen Toussaint, along with musician Paul Simon, were two of the confirmed acts set to play at the organization’s annual benefit concert, to be held on December 8.
Allen Toussaint was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998, and in 2009 was made a Grammy Awards Trustee. Toussaint is survived by his two children, son Clarence, and daughter Alison, as well as many grandchildren.
[Photo by Matt Roberts / Getty Images]