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City of New Orleans celebrates Third Annual Allen Toussaint Day

22nd January 2018   ·   0 Comments

By Michael Patrick Welch
Contributing Writer

Composer, producer and performer Allen Toussaint passed away in 2015, having changed the world and its appreciation for New Orleans music. Since the first anniversary of his death, the city has dedicated one day each year to the Gert Town-born master of R&B.

This January 14 marked New Orleans’ third official “Allen Toussaint Day.” The New Orleans City Council celebrated the holiday early in its temporary council chambers, currently at the Orleans Parish School Board facilities on the West Bank while its regular chambers in City Hall are being refurbished with new computers and other upgrades (the work is predicted to be finished by March of this year).

“Cyril Neville, a friend of the family, sang a song he wrote for Allen and recited a poem as well,” recalls Leatrice Dupre, communications director for District A Councilmember Susan G. Guidry, who first proposed the holiday. “David Torkanowski brought a portable keyboard into the chambers and accompanied Cyril. David then talked about his own personal relationship with Allen.”

Sandra E. Cordray, the Vice President and Treasurer of Toussaint’s foundation, New Orleans Artists Against Hunger and Homelessness, spoke on his extensive local charity work and the foundation’s plans going forward, followed by Allen’s son Reginald Toussaint.

Famously tutored by New Orleans piano legend Professor Longhair, a 17-year-old Toussaint caught his first break when he landed a sub gig for the venerated Huey “Piano” Smith. Before he was even an adult, he entertained crowds at the Dew Drop, where he was first noticed and recruited by Fats Domino’s partner, Dave Bartholomew.

Near the 1950’s end, Toussaint served as the house producer for the Minit record label and then Instant records. Writing songs and helping run the studio, Toussaint brought New Orleans its first number-one hits, such as “Southern Nights” for Glen Campbell, “Yes We Can” for the Pointer Sisters, “Mother-In-Law” as sung by Ernie K-Doe, “Fortune Teller” (covered by the Rolling Stones and the Who, among others), “ and “Working in the Coal Mine” and “Get Out of My Life, Woman,” both made famous by Lee Dorsey.

In 1972, Toussaint broke off and founded Sea Saint studio, where he helped birth New Orleans funk, producing touchstone albums by The Meters and Dr. John.

Like so many New Orleanians, Allen Toussaint lost all of his possessions in Hurricane Katrina, including innumerable priceless musical artifacts. The tragedy, however, inspired him (or forced him, some have written) to begin performing his own songs for live audiences, something he’d previously kept to a minimum, preferring to instead help others become stars. But music lovers jumped at the chance to see the hyper-talented legend himself in concert. In 2006, Toussaint produced and co-wrote with Elvis Costello the album The River in Reverse, a Grammy-winning record that remains today perhaps his most widely known achievement, despite his deep importance to the roots of American music.

Toussaint could often be seen driving around New Orleans in one of his classic Rolls Royce cars (the license plate reading PIANO). No article ever written about the man failed to mention that he dressed like an extra from the Austin Powers movie, throwing together stripes and paisleys and other patterns that might clash on a less classy individual. He famously dared to go out in public in sandals and socks. Some called him a “dandy.” But all admit that he pulled it off with great aplomb, thanks in part to his mellow, humble personality, coupled with his being one of the planet’s most amazing humans.

In 2013, Allen Toussaint received the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama. Two years later, he died at the age of 77 in a hotel room in Madrid, directly following his last ever live performance. He’d planned to perform at a New Orleans charity for the homeless the next month with Paul Simon.

Today, his is the name most whispered among musicians and on social media as the real local hero who should take Gen. Lee’s former spot atop the pillar at what is currently known as Lee Circle (the Toussaint Turnaround, perhaps?).

Councilperson Susan Guidry initiated Resolution R-16- 12 in 2016 not only because Toussaint received wide acclaim and success — including inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, The Louisiana Music Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame among others — but also because he helped to define New Orleans for the world. Or, as the official resolution for Allen Toussaint Day states:

“…our artists and musicians are our ambassadors… their talent, hard work, and genius create the culture for which we are internationally known… and their successes and creations infuse our city with a vibrancy and soul unmatched elsewhere in the world.”

This article originally published in the January 22, 2018 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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