Bio - Rod Bernard

Rod Bernard was born in the steadfastly Cajun, sweet-potato growing town of Opelousas, Lousiana (world renowned chef Paul Prudhomme and zydeco king Clifton Chenier are also natives) on 12 August, 1940. Though his parents were bilingual, Bernard was born into a generation that, in large part, had the Cajun in them crushed by Americanising authorities. French-speakers, black or white were punished (often corporally) for using their native tongue in their schools. As a result Bernard speaks only English albeit with a Cajun influenced south Louisiana accent (though he can sing in Cajun French, as he does on this album). No one in his family played music, cajun or otherwise.

This is not to say that he grew up divorced from his culture, far from it. His grandfather owned a dance hall in tiny Point Barre. Situated smack dab on the banks of the Bayou Teche, The Courtableau Inn afforded Bernard his first early tastes of live music and Cajun culture. The music was Francophone, the ambience Cajun traditional, as Bernard recalled: “(it) was a French night-club were bands like Aldus Roger and Papa Cairo played. We used to go over there and I would just hang on the bandstand and watch the musicians. The old mamas would bring their daughters and the mamas would sit back along the wall while their daughters danced. And the they’d wait till the dance was over and take their daughters home”.

Nights at the Courtableau inspired Bernard and his brother so much that they resolved to get themselves a guitar. The eight year old Rod and his younger brother “Ric” plundered the family pecan grove, soon saving enough of the nuts to earn the money to buy a little Gene Autry model, which they quickly mastered. An Opelousas feed store broadcast an early morning radio show and its proprietor, Felix Dezauche became the patron of the Blue Room Gang, an assortment of young local musicians, in which Rod played a rhythm guitar and displayed a knack for yodelling. Soon thereafter Rod (on his own) succeeded in landing a previously reluctant advertiser to the station’s accounts, thus earning his very own half hour show and by the time he was twelve he added disc jockeying to precocious resume.

Not long thereafter, the enterprising Mr. Dezauche dispatched the Blue Room Gang on a tour designed to promote his Red Bird Brand sweet potatoes. While touring Rod and the gang cut their first record in a studio some 1500 miles north of Bayou Teche in Waterloo, Iowa. Perhaps homesick, the song they cut was Hank Williams proto-swamp pop paean to all things Acadian, “Jambalaya”, and therein lies a story.

Rod idolised Hank Williams, as did virtually every Southern boy his age. But Rod did them one better by receiving an intimate audience with the king, as he related to his son (music historian and writer Shane K. Bernard, whose excellent book “Swamp Pop: Cajun and Creole Rhythm And Blues”, [University Press Of Mississippi], formed the basis of these notes and is required reading for both fans of south Louisiana Music and students of its culture). “I met Hank Williams when I was about eight years old. He played at the Opelousas High School gym. Mr. Dezauche took me backstage and Hank Williams was standing there in his underwear. I’ll never forget that. And I walked up to him and that was my God at the time. It was like Elvis later on. Man, to see Hank Williams in person standing there! And he shook hands with me and I had an autograph book and I found out later that he never signed many autographs. He had a doctor travelling with him and I stayed backstage and about every twenty minutes a doctor would come and give him shot and I kept thinking “Poor guy, he’s really sick. I didn’t realise that it was drugs - they would give him shots to wake him up and drugs to put him to sleep”.

Not so long after his tour and session, the Bernard family moved just across the Sabine River to Winnie, Texas. Though his ties to the Blue Room Gang and Mr.Dezauche were temporarily severed, Bernard continued to perform. By a delicious twist of fate, his barber in Winnie was none other than Huey Meaux, later his producer/manager, and the proprietor of Crazy Cajun Records.

Bernard’s sixteenth year found him back in Opelousas and on the air at KSLO as a full time DJ. By this time, white kids were pricking up their ears to the wondrous music made by their black counterparts, often on the other side of the tracks in their hometowns. Pioneering white DJ’s like Beaumont’s Big Bopper, New Orleans’ Poppa Stoppa and Nashville’s Hoss Allen desegregated their shows long before integration was to occur elsewhere in Southern life, and their audiences ate it up. Soon other DJ’s followed suit and Bernard was among them, adopting the on-air name “Hot Rod”. Bernard was wowed by the R‘n’B he was spinning on his radio shows, as both a fan and musician, and about this time began to mix this final, vital ingredient to the music he was making off the air, the music that was to become Swamp Pop.

Swamp Pop in recent years has become the red headed step-child of South Louisiana music. A hybrid of virtually every form of the region’s music, Swamp Pop infuriates purists with its “taint” of commercialism and the fact that it encompasses outside musical forms such as New Orleans R‘n’B and mainstream country. Definitions of Swamp Pop range from Shane Bernard’s academic, “A rhythm and blues hybrid indigenous to south-east Texas and the Acadiana region of Louisiana and influenced mainly by New Orleans rhythm and blues, country and western and Cajun and Black Creole music” to the epigrammatic Harry Simoneaux’s “half Domino and half fais do-do”. What is certain is that when compared to “pure” forms such as zydeco and Cajun, purists give Swamp Pop short shrift.

By 1956 all of these ingredients were (to employ an overworked, though apt analogy) at a rolling boil in Swamp Pop’s gumbo pot. Inspired anew by local black artists like Guitar Gable, the bluesy Lonesome Sundown, and King Karl, Bernard organised a band named the Twisters, which included his brother Oscar and other high school mates. Newly informed by the thrilling sounds emanating out of the Crescent City - especially Fats Domino, but also Lloyd Price, Frankie Ford and Earl King - The Twisters and dozens of other south Louisiana bands modified their already rich indigenous Cajun Creole music a shade towards New Orleans.

The Twisters waxed with crude equipment two raw singles (“Linda Gail”/”Little Bitty Mama”; “All Night In Jail”/”Set Me Free” in 1957 on the tiny Carl label; both sank without trace. They did however, earn themselves one very important fan: record producer Floyd Soileau.

Soileau was scouting talent for his brand new Jin label and he approached The Twisters with an eye toward making a record. As Bernard put it, Soileau asked them if they were interested in making a record. I said “Yeah sure why not?” and he said “Well, go find a couple of songs”. Bernard had already composed “Pardon Mr. Gordon” (which rhymes in the local dialect) and went in search of one more tune.

He had already found it on the other side of Opelousas’ railroad tracks at the Moonlight Inn. Musicians in Acadiana, unlike their non-musical neighbours, were not big sticklers for the Jim Crow laws and Bernard would frequent black night-clubs after work at KSLO to check out the music. On one such night Guitar Gable seeing the DJ in the crowd announced to Bernard his newest song, “This Should Go Forever”. Bernard was amazed, thinking to himself “Boy - what a hit song!” Only now, Bernard was thinking as an artist rather than a DJ. Later Bernard went to meet Karl at his house and received permission to record the song and some lessons how to play it. He waxed the song at J.D. Miller’s studio in the nearby town of Crowley, and on its release in October of 1958 the single became instant regional hit.

Initially in fact, “This Should Go On Forever” proved too successful for its own good Demand far outstripped supply, allowing two rival groups to record hurry-up copy-cat jobs for competing labels. Eventually Soileau leased the single to Leonard Chess’ (of Chicago blues fame) Argo imprint, which distributed the single coast-to-coast. By spring of 1959 the song had cracked Billboard Top 20, and Rod Bernard hit the big time. He toured the nation with the likes of Chuck Berry, B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison and appeared on “American Bandstand” and “The Alan Freed Show”.

Unfortunately for Bernard, his follow-up Argo single (“You’re On My Mind”/”My Life Is A Mystery” failed to maintain the momentum. A switch to the Mercury label didn’t help; as it would with the other Swamp Pop artists, the label dredged the swamp out of Bernard’s sound. The Mercury sessions yielded only what English music historian John Broven termed “vacuous teen ballads” and left Bernard several thousand dollars in debt.
Bernard’s next move was to his producer Bill Hall’s Hall Way label, based in Beaumont, Texas. There his fortunes improved as he released several classics of the Swamp Pop genre, often backed by the then unknown Johnny and Edgar Winter. “Fais Do Do”, “Who’s Gonna Rock My Baby, and “Colinda” all made their first appearance in this period.

In 1962, Bernard formed the Shondells with Warren Storm and Skip Stewart. Recording for LA Louisianne Records of Lafayette, this Swamp Pop supergroup released several singles and the album “The Shondells at the Saturday Hop”. During this time Bernard also released singles on the Scepter and SSS International labels as well Soileau’s Jin (“Congratulations To You Darling”) and Meaux’s Teardrop and Copyright imprints (“Papa Thibodeaux”) and even co-founded his own short lived Arbee (“Recorded in England”) label.

In 1965 Bernard took a job as an ad salesman at KLFY-TV in Lafayette, and thereafter recorded rarely and toured less. In 1976 however, Bernard recorded for Jin his most adventurous album, “Boogie In Black & White”, a Swamp Pop/Zydeco summit waxed with no less an eminence than the zydeco king himself, Clifton Chenier. A landmark album in south Louisiana music history, music writer Larry Benicewicz called it a “masterpiece” that, no doubt spawned other experiments’ like Wayne Toup’s “Zyde-Cajun” style or perhaps, a Zachary Richard “Zack Attack”, a similar fusion of Cajun, zydeco and R ‘n’ B.

Bernard at last kicked his alcohol and pill problems in 1980 and exiled himself from the club scene even further. Clearly, the fun had gone out of it for him, as he related: “If you have force yourself to smile and perform when it’s not fun, then it’s not worth it. And it got to that point”.

Today Bernard enjoys it again, enough even to appear almost weekly in Swamp Pop Clubs in and around Lafayette, and remains to this day an ad salesman at KLFY-TV.

~John Nova Lomax, November 1998