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Clifton Chenier

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The King of Zydeco


Clifon was born on a sharecropper's farm near Opeluosas in 1925. With elder brother Cleveland he helped his impoverished parents work the fields from sunup to sundown, riding mules and picking cotton. Fascinated by his father Joseph's accordion playing Clifton started traveling with Josph to Saturday-night suppers and house parties.

When his father gave Clifton his first leaky, wheezy instrument, Cleveland borrowed their mother's rub board and they made music together, influenced by the records of Amadie Ardoin and local performers like Sidney Babineaux and Jesse and Zozo Reynolds.

Now an R & B star, Clifton was the "King of the South" as he toured nonsop with his band, the Zodico Ramblers. These hectic times are fondly recalled by his former guitarist Phillip Walker: "In 1953 I left Lonesome Sundown to go with Clifton Chenier.

"At the time, 1955, we had all the heavy load, Clifton would have his own spot, he never played behind the other artists. Chenier's home is Opelousas, Louisiana, but his headquarters was Port Arthur, Texas. We used to play around Port Arthur, our local territory when we wasn't on dates was Corpus Christi, Houston, Dallas, Oklahoma City into Louisiana, Lafayette, Breaux Bridge. Then when the big dates would come up they would send us a letter: 'Be in Dallas at the office on so-and-so date.



Most times, we'd have as high as a hundred one-nighters, then if we was off a couple of weeks we'd do our own gigs, but when the real booking would come up sometimes we would go from coast to coast before stopping. Yeah, we worked plenty, a whole lot! I'd be so tired I'd just be wishing for that day to come when we'd be off, that wasthe good old days -- now they're the rough days! We played fifteen days at the Crown Propellor, I think it was burnt down, at Sixty-third and Cottage Grove, Chicago.

In the late fifties Clifton was still recording R & B rather than zydeco, although whenever he performed locally he included some French numbers in his program. After leaving Speciality he languished with Chess, recieving little promotional support for either "The Big Wheel" (Argo) or "Bajou Drive" (Checker), two strutting instrumentals.

He lowered his sights by joining Jay Miller's tiny Zynn label, but of three singles only "Rockin' Accordian" caught the natural zest of his music -- Chenier was a rare failure for Miller as a producer. In 1964 Clifton's faltering career was given muchneeded direction by record owner Chris Strachwitz from Berkeley, California.


Under Strachwitz's guidance, Clifton promptly returned to his zydeco roots. The first Arhoolie album, "Louisiana Blues and Zydeco," found ready acceptance in South Louisiana and East Texas, although Chris needed time to convince his regular blues customers about the merits of zydeco music. Albums were released periodically, besides the debut LP and best were "Bon Ton Roulet" (1966), "King Of The Bayous" (1970), and "Bogalusa Boogie" (1975).

Sporting a gaudy mock crown, the King of Zydeco was on the road all the time, playing his loud, socking music along the grinding Gulf Coast chittlin circuit. Clifton was received like royalty at suck clubs as the Casino in St. Martinville, the Bon Ton Rouley in Lafayette, Richard's Club in Lawtell, John's Bar in Lake Charles, and all the way to Houston, where a vibrant zydeco scene supported such local artists as Lonnie Mitchel and Herbert "Good Rocking" Sam. The first step towards wider acceptance came with Chenier's appearance at the 1966 Berkeley Festival, which prompted further bookings on the West Coast. Canada and Europe beckoned next.

During the seventies Clifton Chenier's name became synonymous with zydeco. Personal talent aside, a key factor in hsi increasing prestige was his splendid group. The ever-present rub-boarding Cleveland Chenier and lively drummer Tobert Peter (surname St. Judy) were joined by Blind John Hart, a thrilling sax player; guitarist Paul Senegal; and bass guitarist Joe Brouchet. Called the Louisiana Red Hot Band, they were just that - they sizzled!

Clifton, known affectionately in South Louisiana as "the blackest coonass," will always be the King of Zydeco. Chris Strachwitz has the last word: "Clifton is a real giant in his field, no doubt about it. When you hear all the dozens of Chenier imitators it becomes even more obvious. Clifton is a giant on his instrument -- no one comes close -- he has a great gutsy voise and a very expressive and emotional delivery when he feels like it. And his band is always good.

I feel bad that no one has come and made a real star out of him. clifton is not only a unique artist in the zydeco field, but he is a jazzman, an endless improviser. He sings the blues and he can do Cajun numbers better than anyone else. But in recent years he has not wanted to do much French stuff, he feels the kids like R & B and it sells better than any other types for him. I can't praise the man enough - he is a giant! There will never be another Clifton Chenier."

Taken from
The National Trust Guide to
New Orleans

By Roulhac Toledano

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