In 1973 Allen Toussaint and Marshall Sehorn established the Sea-Saint recording studio in the Gentilly area of eastern New Orleans. Toussaint had originally joined forces with Sehorn after the completion of his national service in 1965. They had set up a business called Sansu Enterprises, which included a record label.
Sehorn was an A&R man who worked in New York for Bobby Robinson’s Fire and Fury labels from 1958 until 1963 as their Southern promotions executive. He ran sessions for the two labels in New Orleans, discovering some talented performers, including Lee Dorsey. It was Sehorn who decided to ask Toussaint to work with Dorsey as song-writer and producer. When Fire and Fury closed in 1963, Sehorn set up a music publishing company, Rhinelander Music.
Allen Toussaint’s career in music started in New Orleans, when he began playing in local bands and came to the attention of Dave Bartholomew. At the age of nineteen Toussaint acted as a stand-in for Fats Domino on the recording of Domino’s song “I Want You To Know” and produced Lee Allen’s “Walking with Mr. Lee”. Using the name Al Tousan, he recorded an album of instrumentals, The Wild Sound of New Orleans, for RCA records in 1958. Then, in the early 60s, he took up Marshall Sehorn’s invitation to work with Lee Dorsey as song-writer and producer. “Ride Your Pony” and “Working in the Coal Mine” were big hits for the new team and convinced Toussaint that he could do well in the New Orleans music business.
Sehorn and Toussaint were a strong team. Sansu Enterprises became a leading player in the development of local talent during the 60s. They recorded Lee Dorsey, Chris Kenner and Betty Harris, amongst others, with the recordings conducted at Cosimo Matassa’s studio. The musicians used on most of the sessions were Art Neville on keyboards, Leo Nocentelli on guitar, George Porter Jr. on bass, and Zigaboo Modeliste on drums. These session musicians, adopting the name The Meters in 1968, later became one of the most popular acts from New Orleans.
By the early 1970s, however, Cosimo Matassa’s operation was winding down and a new studio was needed. Toussaint and Seehorn saw the opportunity and the idea of Sea-Saint was born.
Toussaint and Sehorn signed a contract with Warner Bros. in 1972 for composition, production and recording work, which enabled them to finance and build Sea-Saint studios on the site of an old service station at 3809 Clematis Street on New Orleans’ East Side. The new studio was set up with state-of-the-art equipment, which helped them recruit engineers Ken Laxton and Roberta Grace and attracted a lot of attention both locally and nationally, when it was opened in 1973.
Dr. John’s “Desitively Bonnaroo” and The Meters’ “Rejuvenation” were the first two projects to be completed at Sea-Saint in 1974. Before that year was out, Epic Records hired Toussaint to produce their newly-signed girl group, LaBelle. When their album “Nightbirds” appeared in 1975, Sea-Saint’s future was assured. A single from the album,“Lady Marmalade”, was released and became a huge hit, reaching number one on the R&B and pop charts. The impact was also felt overseas. Sea-Saint attracted Paul McCartney and Wings who booked the studio that same year to record their album “Venus and Mars”. That attracted even more attention and the stream of work grew larger. Paul Simon, Rod Stewart, John Mayall, Joe Cocker and Elvis Costello were among the next to come.
Sea-Saint also played an important role in the development of New Orleans music by providing work for arrangers including Wardell Quezergue and Sam Henry Jr. and studio musicians such as Herman Ernest III, James Booker and Teddy Royal. The Meters, the Neville Brothers and Allen Toussaint himself produced excellent albums that extended the definition of New Orleans R&B.
Cosimo Matassa closed his Jazz City Studio in 1978 and was brought in by Sehorn and Toussaint, along with Skip Godwin, to work as a sound engineer at Sea -Saint. The studio was also used by local producers Senator Jones, Isaac Bolden and others to record local artists, including Johnny Adams, Bobby Powell, James Rivers, Charles Brimmer, Tony Owens, and Lee Bates.
In 1996, Toussaint and Josh Feigenbaum created NYNO Records to release contemporary New Orleans albums by James Andrews and Amadee Castenell.
For nearly fifty years Toussaint built his career around music from New Orleans. Then, on 28th August 2005, Sea-Saint Studios was destroyed. As a result of Hurricane Katrina, Allen Toussaint lost his home, his studio and most of his possessions. He relocated to New York for a while and then returned to New Orleans, but Sea-Saint Studios was gone. Marshall Sehorn died in 2006. Allen Toussaint died in 2015, whilst on tour in Spain.
The body of work recorded at Sea-Saint Studios stands as a tribute to them.
Photo 1: ataelw 2010 (Wikimedia Commons)
Photo 2: The Historic New Orleans Collection