*When I heard that legendary New Orleans songwriter, producer and performer Allen Toussaint, 77, passed away—-he collapsed late Monday evening November 9th in Madrid, Spain, after playing a concert, suffering what was determined to be a heart attack—-instinctively, in commemoration I went online and found LaBelle’s 1974 hit, “Lady Marmalade.”
Many people think Toussaint wrote the song, which is understandable, considering that his tremendous creative output. Toussaint produced the tune, but “Marmalade” was written by Bob Crewe, the tunesmith who co-penned (with Bob Gaudio) such ‘60s hits as “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like A Man” and “Ragdoll,” for Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.
Crewe’s co-writer on “Marmalade” was an even whiter cat named Kenny Nolan (who for years I thought was a Brother, since he holds the singular writing credit on “Shoot ‘Em Up Movies,” a mawkish soul ballad recorded in 1987 by a band called The Deele, which included future music mogul “L.A.” Reid and superstar-to-be Babyface, about a guy who meets a girl in, of all places, a theatre during a western flick). Nolan himself originally recorded “Marmalade” under the group moniker The Eleventh Hour in 1974, but it wasn’t a hit.
I mention all this because were it not for Toussaint’s keen ear as a producer, most of us might not have ever heard “Marmalade.” Toussaint came across The Eleventh Hour version of the tune while searching for material to produce on Labelle’s 1974 album, Nightbirds.
Envisioning the tune as a big, bold, swaggering soul groove, Toussaint recut “Marmalade” on Labelle–Patti Labelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash—-with himself on piano, accompanied by organist Art Leville, guitarist Leo Nocentelli and bassist George Porter, Jr., all from the legendary New Orleans band, The Meters. Herman Ernest III played drums. For Labelle, the result was both a career breakthrough record and their first number one Billboard pop single.
However, for the New Orleans-born Toussaint, it was merely business as usual. He’d produced hits before–ones he wrote, such as the brutal, funny “Mother-in-Law,” a number one record in 1961 for singer Ernie K-Doe; “Fortune Teller,” a 1962 hit for Benny Spellman and recorded by a list of others including the Rolling Stones; Lee Dorsey’s 1966 top 10 hit, “Working In The Coal Mine” and “Southern Nights,” a 1977 number one single for Glen Campbell.
Musically, Toussaint, keyboardist, vocalist and guitarist, was a force of nature, having either written, produced and/or arranged music and/or played with the likes of Dr. John, Solomon Burke, Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello, Etta James, Eric Clapton, The Band and Bonnie Raitt, among many others.
Key to Toussaint’s unyielding success, which spanned five decades and the genres of blues, jazz, soul, pop, rock and country, was his uncanny understanding of popular music—-his penchant for memorable hooks, strong b-sections and lyrics that tend to tell a story, sometimes whimsical, as with “Mother-in-Law,” sometimes sentimental, as with the song “Southern Nights,” inspired by Toussaint’s childhood memories of visiting relatives in the backwoods of Louisiana; of sitting on the porch and gazing at the stars at night and telling stories.
Indeed, technically, one of Toussaint’s ever-giving gifts was his musical versatility. However, when I interviewed him for Soul Newspaper way back in 1975 in support of his just released Southern Nights LP (which is how Glen Campbell heard the title track), the mild-mannered musician was more philosophical. Frankly, what I recall about the meeting back then was Toussaint’s natty gray three piece suit and his easy answer to my query as to what drove him.
“I’m interested,” he said, without hesitation. “To do something well, you have to give it your all, and to do that, you have to be interested. I’ll make music until I’m no longer interested in it. If you see me recording and performing, you better believe I’m interested.” He was talking like that as a young man.
Toussaint, a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, went on to survive Hurricane Katrina when it hit his beloved New Orleans in 2005 by riding it out camped at a local hotel. A decade later and miles away from home in Madrid, Toussaint literally died doing what he loved. Which means he was interested to the very end.
Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected]