Allen Toussaint, Sea-Saint Studios and Hurricane Katrina

E. Mark Windle 16 August 2020.

Photo: Courtesy of Phil Shields

For Roger Branch, original founder of the sixties R&B band The Tempests, New Orleans had an attractive pull for studio engineering and production work. Like most musicians in the South, there was a deep affinity for the city’s musical cultural vibrancy. He had already forged professional links with key industry figures there like Allen Toussaint and Marshall Sehorn, from his early days as an engineer at Reflection Sound back in North Carolina.

Toussaint and Sehorn had already been working closely some ten years before Roger had first connected with them in the early 1970s. Toussaint’s musicianship had helped define the Nola R&B sound of the late 1950s and early 1960s, a consequence of him feverishly absorbing the milieu of country music, blues, Creole rhythms and of course the honky-tonk piano which had initially put New Orleans on the musical map. As a musician, song writer arranger and producer, Allen Toussaint was the driving force behind many hits of the day, during the same time that The Tempests were doing their thing on the east coast.  Indeed, his career and influence has continued through popular music over the last five decades.

Toussaint had come from a poor but musical background, heavily influenced by his parents, neighbours and other musicians who visited his family home. As a young adult he developed keyboard and producing skills and played with most of the major artists of the day in New Orleans, until an RCA talent scout picked up on his potential. Toussaint’s first true foray into the commercial world was as Joe Banashak’s producer and A&R man in 1960, giving Banashak’s Minit and Instant labels a string of hits which typified the early to mid 1960s New Orleans R&B sound.

Toussaint met Sehorn after returning from a two-year draft in the US army; Sehorn was a Carolinian who played guitar in various bands at college before securing a position with the A&R team at Fire and Fury Records in New York. Their initial professional collaboration was when Sehorn brought Toussaint in for some Lee Dorsey sessions. After both labels closed, the pair moved to New Orleans to form Sansu Enterprises and Sansu Records, Tou-Sea, Deesu and other imprints. With Toussaint as songwriter, pianist, and producer, and Sehorn’s industry knowledge, Lee Dorsey was brought back into the studio. Licensing to the Bell subsidiary label Amy ensured that Ride Your PonyWorking In The Coalmine and Holy Cow benefitted from national exposure and distribution.

Cash and acclaim started to roll in, but Toussaint and Sehorn were in danger of becoming victims of their own success. The list of hits was growing, yet the pair were still having to depend on other recording studios around the city such as Cosimo Matassa’s studios and facilities outside of Louisiana. The need to operate their own studio for convenience and to facilitate more control of production was clear.

By 1973, a contract with Warner Bros. for composition, production and recording work enabled Toussaint and Sehorn to finance and build Sea-Saint studios on an old service station site at 3809 Clematis Street in the Gentilly area, on New Orleans’ East Side. Work soon poured in, from local sources but also from national labels wanting to use the the contemporary recording facilities they had just installed. The major labels were the ones that would keep Sea-Saint afloat financially, and the studio targeted its services towards them. Sea-Saint rapidly became associated with numerous national hits across soul, pop and country music charts. The 1970s saw in Labelle’s Lady Marmalade, a couple of albums by Paul McCartney and Wings, and a series of Billboard chart smashes by Glen Campbell, Paul Simon and Joe Cocker.

Sea-Saint formally joined forces with Cosimo Matassa when he closed one of his studios in 1978, and their services could now be offered to a wealth of R&B producers resulting in further seminal recordings by Bobby Powell, Lee Bates and Tony Owens. The 1970s may have represented the peak of Sea-Saint’s success, but the studio remained active through the 1980s and beyond. Whether pop, rock or R&B artist, it was a longtime go-to for anyone after quality recording facilities, engineering and production.

Roger Branch’s connection with Toussaint and Sehorn started when Sansu Enterprises first started using Reflection Sound Studios in Charlotte for production and engineering duties as early as 1971, whilst Sehorn and Toussaint were waiting for Sea-Saint studios to be constructed. Eventually Roger Branch Branch also made the move there. A background in electronics served him well; Sea-Saint studios needed an individual with technical know-how as well as musical ability. And so, a position at Sea-Saint was secured in 1990, initially as a sound engineer to work on New Yorker Willy DeVille’s new album. The ex-Mink Deville lead singer was moving into a new creative phase, drawn to explore the latin, blues and soulful roots of old New Orleans. This culminated in Victory Mixture, a project initially started after a conversation about the possibility of covering old delta songs and a session playing old 45s together of Louisiana artists between DeVille and his friend Carlo Ditta. DeVille called in Earl King, Eddie Bo and Allen Toussaint for the project.

Sea-Saint would also be the location for a latter day professional reunion for Roger, and Tempests’ bassist and drummer Van Coble and Nelson Lemmond:

“Even though The Tempests had disbanded, some of us worked on projects every few years” Nelson comments. “Probably the most fun was doing a promotional album for Camel cigarettes in the late 1990s. Through my point-of-sale advertising company I’d done a lot of work with R.J. Reynolds, the tobacco company, with shop displays and billboard signs. I kept telling them that I had a band in mind who sounded fantastic and we should record them for their advertising. Eventually they gave in. They said, “here’s a piece of money, now go do some demos – but shut the f**k up”. I got Van and Nat Speir from The Rivieras working on writing some material and called Roger Branch so we could get a few local musicians together. A month was spent on that album at Sea-Saint. We stayed at the Pontchartrain, one of the great old hotels in the centre of New Orleans. Up at around 11am for the recording sessions, go eat at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen and then over to the studio to work through until 2 or 3am. Then back to the hotel for some turtle soup and gumbo. Initially we looked at the idea of using all-star New Orleans line up, including Fats Domino. Marshall Sehorn and I woke him out of bed at noon one day which he didn’t thank us for. In the end though we wanted the project to seem like it was featuring one band. A bar band was used that played on Bourbon Street. Luther Kent was the singer who played with Blood, Sweat and Tears when David Clayton Thomas left. Luther had a big blues band called Trick Bag – when B.B. King or Bobby Bland came to town they would back them. For the camel session, Allen Toussaint played on some of the songs to help us out. On the first day the rhythm section was having a real problem with tempo. Very politely Allen asked if he could sit in. Well, he immediately straightened everything out. The guy was a genius.”

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, it made global news, and instantly wiped out what was more than a century-old musical and cultural heritage. The storm surge and Mississippi levee failure had catastrophic effects. Fifty-three breaches occurred in what were often ill-designed and constructed flood protection barriers. Eighty percent of the city was flooded, and water levels remained high for weeks after the storm. The death toll attributed to the violent effects of the storm is still disputed but placed conservatively between 1000-1500 in New Orleans area alone. Hundreds of thousands were made homeless, forced to move from the area, and many were either unable or did not wish to return. Given that more than half of New Orleans residents prior to the storm were African-American, the impact on the black music industry was devastating. On 28th August 2005, Sea-Saint Studios was destroyed. Allen Toussaint found himself without a home, a business and most of his possessions. Like thousands of others in the immediate aftermath, he initially sought a place of safety at the Astor Crowne Plaza Hotel, relocating in the longer term to New York before eventually returning to New Orleans.

Roger Branch continued to work in New Orleans. “Four feet of water flooded the ground floor and Katrina had damaged the Sea-Saint building beyond repair. But by a stroke of luck, I had a place – originally an office – on the other side of town. It was situated in an elevated position. Although only a few blocks away from the Mississippi River, it avoided damage by Katrina, other than some roof damage which we quickly repaired”. Those office premises would become Oak Street Recording Studio, which to this day continues to record new and established artists.

The effects of Hurricane Katrina didn’t deter Toussaint from picking up his career again. Within six months he performed on the David Letterman Late Show. Offers of a number of live performance opportunities around New York were accepted before he eventually returned to a rebuilt, smaller New Orleans. He recovered financially to some extent when approached by advertisers for use of his song Sweet Touch of Love in what would become an award-winning TV advertisement. Toussaint continued to support the revived New Orleans music scene. He was already inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998; by 2013 Toussaint was also inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame and the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. The National Medal of Arts awarded by U.S. President Obama was the icing on the cake.

This article is a chapter excerpt from the book “The Tempests: A Carolina Soul Story” by E. Mark Windle.

Published by E. Mark Windle

Freelance writer, biographer and soul music lover.

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