NEW ORLEANS — The songs of New Orleans musical legend Allen Toussaint have been described as beautiful stories set to music or a handcrafted suit tailored for a specific person. He often wrote them with a particular person and personality in mind, such as singer Lee Dorsey and his smile.
"He had a joy about doing it and had a way of writing music to particular singers," said New Orleans singer Irma Thomas, who worked with Toussaint starting in the 1950s and '60s when she and others would gather at his mother's home to rehearse: "I don't know how his mom put up with all of us in there all the time. But that's where we learned our songs."
Toussaint, a songwriter, producer, pianist and performer whose decades-long career helped make such hits as Working in the Coal Mine, Lady Marmalade, Southern Nights, Fortune Teller, and Get Out of My Life Woman, died Tuesday. He was 77.
The musical legend was in Madrid, Spain, having just performed a concert Monday night, when he had a heart attack. Rescue workers managed to revive him but Toussaint stopped breathing during the ambulance ride to a hospital and did not recover.
Born in New Orleans' working class Gert Town neighborhood, Toussaint went on to become one of the city's most legendary and celebrated performers and personalities.
In the beginning Toussaint was known mostly as an R&B songwriter and producer. He worked for the New Orleans-based Minit Records in 1960 before being drafted in the Army for two years.
He worked with such luminaries as Dorsey, Art and Aaron Neville, Irma Thomas, the Meters, Joe Cocker and Ernie K-Doe.
In 1973, with fellow songwriter Marshall Sehorn, he established his own recording studio called Sea-Saint Studio. There he worked with a succession of musicians including Paul Simon, Paul McCartney, Patti LaBelle, Cocker and Elvis Costello.
LaBelle said Toussaint wrote a special song for her called Don't Make Your Angel Cry.
"Allen was a gentle giant! Perceptive, kind and always open to your input and feelings. He knew how to listen and never offended," she said in an email. "Allen was one classy man and I will truly miss him!"
Toussaint had numerous hits to his name. He penned the 1966 Lee Dorsey classic Working in the Coal Mine and produced Dr. John's 1973 hit Right Place, Wrong Time and 1975's Lady Marmalade by the vocal trio Labelle.
His influence could be felt far outside of R&B circles. The song Southern Nights, which Toussaint wrote and performed, was later covered by country star Glen Campbell and hip-hop artists in the '80s and '90s often sampled from his songs. Other songs were covered by artists as diverse as The Rolling Stones, Jerry Garcia and Robert Palmer.
He eventually began performing more and producing his own albums in the 1970s. Onstage he often wore sequined and colorful suits and even off the stage he was known as a snazzy dresser with unconventional footwear.
"You always saw Allen with a coat and tie and wearing sandals," said Quint Davis, who produces the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Toussaint first performed at the festival in 1973 and just about every year after that.
He drove a Rolls Royce but otherwise lived a modest life in New Orleans, said Aaron Walker, a New Orleans filmmaker producing a documentary about Toussaint. Like many fans, he remembered Toussaint not just for his talent but for gentle personality and charm.
"He was the ultimate gentleman," Walker said. "He was the nicest and sweetest person."
In recent years Toussaint appeared on the HBO series Treme. He is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame. In 2013 he was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama.
He had been expected to perform a benefit concert along with longtime friend Paul Simon in New Orleans on Dec. 8 at Le Petit Theatre to raise money for New Orleans Artists Against Hunger And Homelessness.
Hurricane Katrina in 2005 flooded not only his home but his Sea-Saint studio, forcing Toussaint to flee to New York. The studio never reopened.
During Katrina he also lost most of his manuscripts, his gold records and many of his stage outfits, Davis said.
In New York, Toussaint focused largely on performing, often taking the stage in solo concerts at Joe's Pub on Lafayette Street. Irma Thomas said Toussaint didn't do much touring before Katrina but after the storm he felt he needed to tour and bring attention to the city and its music.
"There were so many musicians who needed to get back on their feet. He said 'Now's the time I need to do this,'" she said.
Like many New Orleanians, Toussaint couldn't stay away from the Crescent City forever. Nearly eight years after Katrina, Toussaint returned permanently to the city of his birth and so much of his musical inspiration.
He is survived by two children.