Marshall Sehorn

About Marshall Sehorn

Marshall Sehorn was a driving force in the evolution of the New Orleans R&B sound -- an uncanny judge of unknown talent, he spearheaded career-making hits for singers including Wilbert Harrison and Lee Dorsey before teaming with composer and producer Allen Toussaint to co-found Sea-Saint Studios, the birthplace of blockbusters spanning from LaBelle's "Lady Marmalade" to Paul McCartney's Venus and Mars. Born June 25, 1934, in Concord, NC, Sehorn played guitar in a local beach music band while attending North Carolina State University, but found the business side of music more compelling and in 1958 relocated to New York City to begin working an A&R gig with Bobby Robinson's Fire and Fury labels.
A white figure operating in the largely African-American world of independent R&B promotion and talent scouting, Sehorn nevertheless proved uncommonly well attuned to the demands of the position, and while visiting family he discovered a then-unknown Wilbert Harrison, who was appearing at Charlotte's Excelsior Club and climaxing each show with a rollicking rendition of the Leiber & Stoller composition "Kansas City." Sehorn immediately signed Harrison to Fury, and in 1959 "Kansas City" topped the Billboard pop and R&B charts, selling in excess of four million copies. Unknown to Sehorn and Robinson, however, Harrison was already under a five-year contract with Savoy, which filed suit as soon as the singer's career took off -- litigation continued until the fall of 1959, preventing subsequent Harrison releases and effectively crippling his career momentum.
In the interim, Sehorn returned to the Southern nightclub circuit in search of new talent, and his next discovery was the flamboyant New Orleans R&B singer Bobby Marchan, who in 1960 scored his own R&B number one with the exceptional "There Is Something on Your Mind." During the same trip to the Crescent City, he first encountered boxer-turned-singer Lee Dorsey, whose local hit "Lottie Mo" featured a brilliant young pianist and arranger named Allen Toussaint. Sehorn eventually convinced Robinson to travel to New Orleans to meet Dorsey in the flesh, and over beers they transformed a Ninth Ward playground chant into the million-selling 1961 smash "Ya-Ya." More importantly, Sehorn convinced Toussaint to assist with the arrangement despite the latter's exclusive deal with Joe Banashak's Minit label, inaugurating a collaboration that profoundly influenced the lives of both men.
Sehorn continued notching hit after hit for Robinson, including Gladys Knight & the Pips' chart breakthrough "Every Beat of My Heart" and Buster Brown's "Fannie Mae," but even his Midas touch could not spare Fire and Fury from financial ruin, and the labels closed shop in 1963. Sehorn remained in New Orleans, establishing his own publishing firm, Rhinelander Music. After negotiating a distribution deal with the Atlanta-based Southland Distributors, he eventually persuaded Toussaint to write some new material for Dorsey, who responded with the remarkable "Ride Your Pony." Within days of completing the session, Southland's owner died, and Sehorn scrambled to work out a new label deal -- when the New York City-based Amy label issued "Ride Your Pony" in 1965, the result was an R&B Top Ten hit, cementing the Sehorn/Toussaint partnership.
After co-founding the Sansu label in late 1965, Sehorn and Toussaint also formed their own publishing concern, Mar-Saint, as well as the subsidiary imprints Tou-Sea and Deesu. The quintessential big-daddy record kingpin and a born hustler, Sehorn was the perfect foil for the shy, sensitive Toussaint, and their yin-yang combination of business expertise and creative vision proved formidable. Sansu's first signing was New Orleans R&B diva Betty Harris, who in 1963 scored a Top Ten hit with the transcendent "Cry to Me." Her label debut, "Nearer to You," proved a Top 20 entry, and successive releases paired her with the Sansu house band, the pioneering funk combo the Meters. Sansu also revived Dorsey's commercial fortunes via the smash "Working in the Coal Mine," and when rival producer Cosimo Matassa's Dover Records Distributing went bankrupt, bringing his famed Cosimo recording studio crashing down with it, Sehorn and Toussaint emerged as the most influential music-makers in New Orleans.
Sehorn seized the moment, marshaling his resources to build Sea-Saint Studios on Clematis Avenue in the city's Gentilly district. A haven for acts including Dr. John, the Neville Brothers, and the Wild Tchoupitoulas, Sea-Saint scored its biggest hit in 1975 with LaBelle's disco-era classic "Lady Marmalade." McCartney also recorded the bulk of 1975's Venus and Mars there, beginning a friendship with Sehorn that continued for over three decades, and much of Stevenson Palfi's landmark New Orleans music documentary Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together was filmed at Sea-Saint as well. In the decades to follow Sehorn curtailed his involvement in Sea-Saint, although he remained in New Orleans even in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. A lifelong respiratory condition dogged him in the later years of his life, however, and he died December 5, 2006, at the age of 72. ~ Jason Ankeny