Clifton Chenier was known initially as ‘King Of The South’ and now, forever, as ‘King Of Zydeco’. Almost single-handedly, he and his trusty piano accordion have transported zydeco from an inward looking rural South Louisiana music into an internationally respected art form.
During the 1950’s there were three records that dictated the development of zydeco music: Clarence Garlow’s ‘Bon Ton Roula’ (1950), Boozoo Chavis’s ‘Paper In My Show’ (1954) and Clifton Chenier ‘Ay-Tete-Fee’ (1955). At the time all three recordings were classified as R&B. Indeed, Clifton’s ambition in the 1950’s was to become a top-flight blues and R&B artist. During this period, he recorded for such venerable R&B labels as Imperial, Speciality, Argo and Checker. Chenier and his band were also booked to provide the musical backing on the popular one-night package tours.
With the rock ‘n’ roll era fading fast at the end of the 1950’s, Clifton Chenier found himself recording for Jay Miller’s tiny local Zynn label of Crowley, Louisiana. By 1964, Clifton’s career had well and truly stalled but then Chris Strachwitz, boss of emerging Arhoolie label, found the accordionist playing in a neighbourhood bar in Houston, Texas. Strachwitz began recording a series of well received albums that featured Clifton with his brother Cleveland on rubboard and Robert St. Judy on drums.
Realising that Clifton needed to maintain contact with his French-speaking Creole people, Strachwitz released 45’s aimed directly at the jukeboxes of South Louisiana and East Texas in conjunction with Ville Platte record man, Floyd Soileau. The result was a sizeable local hit ‘Louisiana Blues’, on the new Bayou label in 1965.
Meanwhile, Huey Meaux, now resident in Houston, had become personally aware of this rising popularity when he helped to place one of Chenier’s Gulf Coast hits, ‘Black Gal’ with the Bell label of New York for national distribution. Meaux then promptly recorded Chenier for his own label Tear Drop and later, Crazy Cajun. This resulted in 1967 in one of Clifton’s biggest and long lasting hits, ‘Oh Lucille’. The ‘Bayou Soul’ LP was released subsequently featuring the ‘Oh! Lucille’ hit along with several Tear Drop singles and more. It is this album which forms the heart of this compilation, the first 11 tracks in fact. The rest of the CD is given over to two singles not released on the LP and three previously unissued tracks.
Clifton’s music is an eclectic mix of several different musical styles. The blues is an overwhelming influence as can be seen on ‘A Worried Life Blues’ and ‘My Little Girl (She’s In Heaven)’ both with rolling Texas piano from Elmore Nixon. The instrumental ‘(High As A) Georgia Pine’ harks back to the stop time of ‘Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie’ and there is a strong T-Bone Walker shuffle-beat on ‘Goin’ To Big Mary’s’. There are distinct traces of R&B hits in ‘Say Too Koreck’ (Ray Charles’ ‘I Got A Woman’), ‘Keep On Knockin’ (Little Richard’s ‘Keep A Knockin’) and ‘Just Keep On Scratchin’ (Slim Harpo’s ‘Baby Scratch My Back’).
The white Cajun element is very evident in the charming waltzes ‘La Coeur De La Louisianne’ (a version of the Cajun classic ‘Jole Blonde’), ‘You Know That I Love You’ and the Cajun favourite ‘Big Mamou’. That Clifton is singing in French much of the time seems to indicate that then he had no grand desire to break out of his familiar local territory.
Songs like ‘Say Too Koreck’ and ‘Oh! Lucille’ give pointers to the zydeco sound that we know now. In his new book ‘The Kingdom of Zydeco’, Mike Tisserand quotes Clifton’s bass-guitarist Jumpin’ Joe Morris on the story behind the recording of ‘Oh! Lucille’ and old house dance song.
“We were playing a dance in Scott, and Claude Faulk was sitting in. A lady asked him to play ‘Lucille’ because that was his record. So he kicked it off and it sounded good and he went all the way through with his own accordion, a button accordion. So Cliff got back on the stage and he played that song over, but he played it on a piano accordion. Then we went to Houston that next week, and that Monday the first record we recorded was ‘Hey (Oh!) Lucille’. And on that record, Cliff bought himself a brand new Lincoln Continental, man.”
The late Mike Leadbitter, the innovative British researcher, visited Louisiana around the time of this hit, and his report for ‘Blues Unlimited’ (September 1967) gives a unique flavour of the impact of Clifton’s music at the time.
“This man is on the road in his big Cadillac (sic) all the time, spending a lot of time fulfilling engagements in Louisiana and Texas where he is extremely popular. Then on my last Saturday in Louisiana I saw him at the ‘Bon Ton Rouley’ in Lafayette. This is a large dancing club with a noisy working class, all white custom. They seemed to appreciate the wailing blues, but would be happier, I’m sure, to see a Cajun band. Still Clifton played some beautiful pieces like ‘Lafayette Waltz’, ‘Oh! Lucille’ and ‘What’d I Say’ ably backed by a four piece group led by Cleveland Chenier on washboard (sic). The music was loud bon ton stuff with a socking beat and easy to dance to. Late at night booze overcomes artistry and the band audibly deteriorates. Clifton is nonetheless King of his chosen style and a very gifted and talented man. His singles on Tear Drop and Bayou sell extremely well in the Cajun belt”.
Some of that loud bon ton stuff with a socking beat is captured contemporaneously within the shiny grooves of this compact disc, which see the first ever reissue of these recordings. This is Clifton Chenier at his creative best, still expanding the zydeco sound and full of Bayou Soul.
~John Broven, October 1998
John Broven “South Louisiana: The Music Of Cajun Bayous”, Pelican Books, Gretna LA 1983.
Mike Leadbitter Ed. “Nothing But The Blues”, Hanover Books, London 1971
Mike Leadbitter & Neil Slaven “Blues Records 1943 to 1970”, Record Information Services, London 1987
Michael Tisserand “The Kingdom Of Zydeco”, Arcade Publishing, New York 1998.