Few artists are more essential to the history of New Orleans music than the soft-spoken studio wizard Allen Toussaint. In the late 50s and early 60s, as talent scout, songwriter and in-house producer for Joe Banashak’s label Minit Records, Toussaint crafted the songs that would become New Orleans classics such as Ernie K-Doe’s Mother-in-Law, Irma Thomas’ Ruler Of My Heart, and Benny Spellman’s Fortune Teller, as well as countless others.
According to Toussaint, although he’s got dozens of hits under his belt, spanning a career that’s lasted five decades, he penned only one song that was intentionally aimed at the charts.
“That was when I got out of the army,” he said, “in 1965. I wanted to get right back in the race. So I wrote Ride Your Pony.” It went straight into Billboard’s R&B top 10.
Before he ever entered a studio, Toussaint honed his talents as an arranger, playing with the Flamingoes, a neighborhood band that included three other teenagers who would become future New Orleans legends: James Booker, Snooks Eaglin and Ernie K-Doe. "We played high school hops and various things," Toussaint recalls. "We played at some clubs we were too young to be in, but at that time, we could get away with that."
Toussaint produced hundreds of sessions at Cosimo Matassa’s legendary J&M Studios. “He was a perfectionist,” Matassa remembers. “And he kept a fresh sound that was appropriate to every performer. It was astounding how he could create a song, and arrange it, and wrap it around a particular performer."
After leaving the Army and his Minit position, Toussaint eventually felt it time to start his own studio. In 1973, in partnership with Marshall Sehorn, with whom he owned several small record labels, he opened Seasaint Studios in the Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans. The Meters served as house band. His by now well-known production style – as polished as his famously natty suits – made the studio a destination for artists like Paul McCartney and Patti Labelle, for whom he continued to write and produce hits throughout the 70’s and 80’s.
After the 2005 levee failures, Toussaint’s home was flooded, and he relocated to New York City while it was rebuilt. Backstage at a benefit concert in the early weeks after Hurricane Katrina, he reconnected with Elvis Costello, with whom he’d worked previously. The meeting spawned The River In Reverse (2006); this collaborative album emerged as both a glorious requiem to the storm and a masterful walk through Toussaint’s musical back pages. The album also brought Toussaint a fresh wave of publicity that reintroduced his talent to the world– and perhaps revealed the face of the polite, understated man who had made such magic behind the scenes for so many years.