‘People been playing Zydeco for a long time, old style like French music. I was the first to put the pep into it.’ (Clifton Chenier)
‘Clifton was the biggest thing in Zydeco. Nobody else has ever measured up to him. He was the King’ (Chris Strachwitz Founder of Arhoolie Records.)
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Like Elvis I like all kinds of music.
In the expanse of the subterranean chambers where my record collection lies there is music from many, many genres.
Deep racks of Jazz, Blues, Country, Bluegrass, Folk, Gospel, Rhythm & Blues, Rockabilly, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Soul and Doo-Wop shimmer in the half-light as I peruse the shelves searching for the perfect sound for Now.
Yesterday, I took a left turn at New Orleans Jazz and came, whooping delightedly, upon the section labelled, ‘Cajun and Zydeco’.
Now, I like to have a framed picture of my favourite artist from each genre displayed proudly above each of the appropriate racks.
So, for Jazz it’s Louis Armstrong.
For Blues, Mississippi John Hurt.
Bluegrass nestles under Bill Monroe (of course!).
Folk has Woody Guthrie atop the US section while Sandy Denny and Dolores Keane are the eminences of the British and Irish scenes.
Gospel has Mahalia Jackson face to face with Sam Cooke.
The High Priest, Ray Charles, looks out over the serried R&B racks while Wanda Jackson looks after all those wild Rockabilly Rebels.
Elvis himself takes pride of place in the Rock ‘n’ Roll section.
Aretha Franklin reigns over Soul.
There’s a group portrait, from an Alan Freed Show of The Orioles, The Moonglows and The Five Satins, above the deep Doo-Wop collection.
Bob Dylan and Van Morrison stare moodily out above their special enclaves.
Above the Cajun Section I’ve hung Iry Lejeune.
There was never any question who would represent Zydeco.
The King of the Music. From Opelousas Louisiana, Clifton Chenier!
Being in a feisty mood I looked for a distinctive yellow Specialty 45 and laughed in anticipation as I pulled out, ‘Ay – Tete Fee’ (loosely, all my translations from Creole French are loose, ‘Hello Little Girl’).
This is a piquant gem, from 1955, indicative of the floor filling, floor shaking sound that echoed around Texas and Louisiana Dancehalls deep into the night when Clifton was in town.
Eh bien, mes Chers amis I think we can safely say that Clifton was right about the Pep!
With faithful brother, Cleveland, by his side on ‘Frottoir’ (a metal rubboard, of Clifton’s devising, played with bottle openers) and a successsion of brilliant guitarists like Philip Walker, Lonnie Brooks and Lonesome Sundown, Clifton burned up hall after hall with his indefatigable Band The Zydeco Ramblers.
A later Zydeco star, Rockin’Sydney recalls that in Louisiana in the mid 50s even Elvis wasn’t seen as being a big a star as Clifton!
He was born in 1931 in St Landry Parish and picked up the rudiments of accordion from his father, Joseph.
All around Opelousas there were house party dances, fais – do – dos, where sharp eared Clifton heard waltz time creole songs, Cajun two steps and fiddle work outs.
As he moved into his teenage years he heard, on the radio, Cajun, blues, R&B, Country weepers and hillbilly boogie.
He stored all these sounds away and thought about how he might integrate them all into his own music.
The roots of the name Zydeco for the music Clifton came to define are open to many explanations.
Sparing you the scholastic debate I’m going with it emerging, mysteriously, out of the old folk song, ‘Les Haricots Sont Pas Sale’ (the beans are not salted!)
Clifton’s debut recording, Clifton’s Stomp, had been cut in 1954 at a Lake Charles studio after the astute producer J R Fulbright correctly observed that he played, ‘Too much accordion for these woods!’
Clifton had created a wildly addictive music that merged R&B attack with romantic Creole sway. Excellent records, well regarded locally, unknown nationally, followed for Specialty, Chess and Zynn.
While Clifton could always fill halls in Louisiana and Texas he wasn’t able to sell records in big numbers. So by the early 60s he was playing without a band in Houston roadhouses and bars.
Enter, the extraordinary Chris Strachwitz, a true hero of American roots music.
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Almost the same age as Clifton their backgrounds could not have been more different!
Chris, from an aristocratic German family, arrived in America in 1947 and was knocked for six by the sounds of Jazz and R&B on the radio and in clubs, ‘I thought this was the most wonderful thing I had ever heard’.
Chris Strachwitz was not a man to be a bystander.
Soon he was recording artists like Jesse Fuller and in November 1960 issued the first record on his Arhoolie Records, Mance Lipscomb’s, ‘Songster and Sharecropper’ in an edition of 250 copies.
Chris was a big fan of Lightnin’ Hopkins so naturally accepted his invitation one night in 1964 to go and see a cousin, one Clifton Chenier, in a Houston bar.
And, the chance encounter turned out to be immeasurably enriching for both men, Zydeco Music and music fans of taste and discretion all over the world!
Chris was stunned by Clifton’s presence and the combination of low down blues and old time Zydeco emenating from the stage.
The music he heard and felt in his heart, soul and gut was life enhancing music.
Music filled with heart and history.
Music filled with toil and tears.
Music filled with longing and love.
Music filled with jumping joy!
The very next day they were in Goldstar Studio cutting ‘Ay Ai Ay’ and a crucial artistic and personal partnership was born.
For the next decade and more Clifton as an Arhoolie artist produced a series of superb records which established him as a major figure and essentially defined the sound and repertoire of Zydeco music.
Clifton was a natural showman who was also a questing musician always looking to develop his sound. He was a virtuoso on the piano accordion so that in his hands it seemed to have the power and variety of a full band in itself.
He could handle any tempo from funereal slow to tarmac melting speed while maintaining swing and sway.
The early Arhoolie albums were matched with singles which came out on the Bayou Label.
In addition to relentless touring on the Crawfish circuit he began to play Roots Music Festivals where his brilliance attracted approval from journalists like Ralph J Gleason who recognised what an extraordinary musician Clifton was.
Here’s a delightful clip of Clifton at a Festival in 1969 with a lovely relaxed performance of the anthem of Zydeco.
Ca c’est tres bon n’est ce pas?
Clifton now put together a truly great Band, ‘The Red Hot Louisiana Band’ which to these ears stands with Muddy Waters pluperfect 1950s Chicago blues band.
John Han on tenor sax, Joe Brouchet on bass, Robin St Julian on drums, Paul Senegal on guitar with the stellar Elmore Nixon on piano combined with Clifton and Cleveland were a wonderfully vibrant group which no audience could resist whether live or on record.
The next selection today may be my all time favourite bluesy Clifton track.
A mesmerising, ‘I’m On The Wonder’ is the work of a master musician who lives and breathes and prays through the music he plays.
Now ain’t that the playing of a King! Yes, Sir, nothing less than a King.
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And, a King has many moods. Many moods.
Here’s a dreamy waltz (and anyone who’s ever taken some turns around a hardwood floor always welcomes a waltz!) to bring some languorous Louisiana warmth to your day wherever you may be!
The 1970s saw Clifton in his glorious pomp. A truly regal musician exploding with life and creativity. He WAS Zydeco Music and the recipe he created was one tasty gumbo!
Clifton died in December 1987 having given his life to the music he loved and nurtured.
What I crave, above all in music is flavour and when it comes to flavour it really doesn’t get more appetising than the music of Clifton Chenier.
All hail The King!
To conclude here’s a very evocative clip showcasing Clifford appearing at the legendary Jay’s Lounge and Cockpit in Cankton.
I sure would like to have seen Clifton tear that place up!
There’s a superb compilation of Clifton’s pre Arhoolie sides on the Hoodoo Label entitled, ‘Louisiana Stomp’
On Arhoolie I recommend – ‘Louisiana Blues and Zydeco’, ‘Bogalusa Boogie’ (generally rated his best single album), ‘Zydeco Legend’ and, ‘Live at Longbeach’.
Clifton is the star of an excellent 1973 documentary film directed by Les Blank, ‘Hot Pepper’.
Two highly recommended photographic books :
‘Musiciens cadiens et creoles’ by Barry Jean Ancelet
‘Cajun Music and Zydeco’ by Philip Gould.