The self-proclaimed ”King of Zydeco," Clifton Chenier was the first Creole to be presented a Grammy award on national television. Blending the French and Cajun 2-steps and waltzes of southwest Louisiana with New Orleans R&B, Texas blues, and big-band jazz, Chenier created the modern, dance-inspiring, sounds of zydeco.
A flamboyant personality, remembered for his gold tooth and the cape and crown that he wore during concerts, Chenier set the standard for all the zydeco players who have followed in his footsteps. In an interview from Ann Savoy's book, Cajun Music: Reflection of a People, Chenier explained, "Zydeco is rock and French mixed together, you know, like French music and rock with a beat to it. It's the same thing as rock and roll but it's different because I'm singing in French."
Clifton Chenier was born in Opelousas, Louisiana on June 25, 1925. He died on December 12, 1987 of complications from diabetes. In his lifetime, Clifton Chenier recorded dozens of zydeco music records and heavily influenced the overall sound of many genres of Louisiana music.
The son of sharecropper and amateur accordion player, Joe Chenier, and the nephew of a guitarist, fiddler, and dance club owner, Maurice "Big" Chenier, Chenier found his earliest influences in the blues of Muddy Waters, Peetie Wheatstraw, and Lightnin' Hopkins, the New Orleans R&B of Fats Domino and Professor Longhair, the 1920s and '30s recordings by zydeco accordionist Amede Ardoin and the playing of childhood friends Claude Faulk and Jesse and Zozo Reynolds.
Acquiring his first accordion from a neighbor, Chenier was taught the basics of the instruments by his father. By 1944, Chenier was performing with his brother Cleveland on frottoir (rubboard) in the dance halls of Lake Charles.
Moving to New Iberia, LA in the mid-'40s, Chenier worked in the sugar cane fields cutting sugar cane. After moving to Port Arthur, TX in 1947, he divided his time between driving a refinery truck and hauling pipe for Gulf and Texaco and playing music with his brother. By this time Chenier had become a master of the piano key accordion, and his brother Cleveland accompanied him on the vest frottoir, a percussive washboard instrument which hooks over the shoulders which Clifton had asked a master sheet metal worker in Port Arthur to fabricate. Cleveland became adept at rubbing the frottoir with several bottle openers held in each hand to come up with the characteristic zydeco percussive sound.
In 1954, Chenier signed with Elko Records. His first recording session, at Lake Charles radio station KAOK, yielded seven tunes including "Clifton's Blues" and "Louisiana Stomp.” This represented the first zydeco music recorded blending of R&B with traditional Creole sounds (though later the same year Boozoo Chavis would release “Paper in My Shoe,” often cited as the first hit zydeco recording).
While some attribute Clifton’s hit song, “Zydeco Sont Pas Salé (Snap Beans Aren’t Salty)” as the origin of the term zydeco, Clifton explained that there is an African term a zaré which means “I dance,” and his older relatives called the French dances zydeco. Zydeco music had its birth in the early 1950s with rock ’n roll. Clifton's use of a keyboard accordion, as well as instruments like the modified frottoir and saxophone in his band, made an appealing blend of folk and modern sounds which paved the way for similar experimentation ever since. Between coining the term “zydeco” for this new blend of music and inventing the vest frottoir, Clifton Chenier became synonymous with zydeco music.
His first record was soon followed by "Ay 'Tite Fille (Hey, Little Girl)", a cover of Professor Longhair's song. This received some mainstream success. He toured extensively in blues clubs, and made records on Elko Records and Chicago blues label Chess Records, garnering a few moderate regional hits. It was his discovery by Arhoolie Records owner Chris Strachwitz in 1964 that eventually brought Chenier to an international level of renown. Strachwitz was first introduced to Clifton Chenier by blues master Lightnin' Hopkins, who was Chenier's cousin by marriage. Strachwitz was already a fan of both Louisiana Cajun and Creole music and the country blues, so Chenier's progressive French blues were a natural fit. Arhoolie proceeded to release all of Clifton Chenier's recordings until 1976. While Chenier wanted to record commercial-minded R&B, Strachwitz encouraged him to focus on
traditional zydeco. Chenier’s first album for Arhoolie, Louisiana Blues and Zydeco, featured one side of blues and R&B, and one side of French 2-steps and waltzes.
“In 1955, when I started playing big dances, nobody around here was playing the accordion anymore. They’d gave it up…. So now when I come up and made a hit…See, black people, they don’t even wanna hear talk of accordions. They don’t want to even listen to you. But I kept it going, kept it going, now everybody wanna play accordion. Fellows call my house wanting me to show them how to play. I tell ‘em, ‘I can’t show you nothing. I learnt my own way. I did what I liked, and I learnt my own style.’”
Chenier appeared at the Berkeley Blues Festival on the University of California campus and was subsequently described by Ralph J. Gleason, jazz critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, as "... one of the most surprising musicians I have heard in some time, with a marvelously moving style of playing the accordion ... blues accordion, that's right, blues accordion." Chenier was the first act to play at Antone's, a blues club on Sixth Street in Austin, Texas. Later in 1976, he reached a national audience when he appeared on the premiere season of the PBS music program Austin City Limits. Three years later in 1979 he returned to the show with his Red Hot Louisiana Band.
Clifton’s son, C.J., wrote the following liner notes in 1992: “I love my father, and I love the fact that he had the strength to do it, even after everybody ridiculed him in the beginning about what he was trying to do with that accordion, because they had a misconception of what the thing could do. Like he would always say, 'Whatever you put into this instrument, that's what you get out of it.' When he wanted to make blues come out, he made it come out. When he wanted ballads, he played it and it sounded soft and sweet. When he wanted zydeco, he'd yank that out of there too. With this album everybody gets to learn where the true roots of this music stem from, and how it started to get to where it is right now — where the King of Zydeco came from.”
Most of Clifton Chenier’s recordings are made in one take. “Clifton made records like he played dances. He would kick off whatever new tune he had planned for the session and then not stop unless the engineers had trouble putting it down right on tape. He would hardly ever record a second take because he put all his feelings, emotions and energy into the song—just like when he played a dance,” related Chris Strachwitz, founder and president of Arhoolie Records.
Chenier's popularity peaked in the 1980s, and he was recognized with a Grammy Award in 1983 for his album I'm Here. It was the first Grammy for his new label Alligator Records. Chenier followed Queen Ida as the second Louisiana Creole to win a Grammy.
Clifton influenced zydeco musicians in Louisiana and throughout the world. One musician on whom he had a mighty influence is Andre Thierry in California. Andre grew up experiencing the French Creole (La-La) dances his grandparents held at their church parish, St. Mark’s Catholic Church. The best Zydeco musicians Louisiana had to offer traveled to California to play at the dances and spent considerable time at the Pitre’s house while in the area. On one such visit, the “King of Zydeco,” Clifton Chenier, grabbed three-year old Andre by the arms and deemed him a future accordion player. From then on, Andre’s Pa-Pa, Houston Pete, encouraged the young Andre to play the accordion. Captivated by Clifton Chenier, he began teaching himself to play by listening to Clifton's music. Andre demonstrated an innate musical ability and his skill quickly grew. Andre
played his first song, Willis Prudhomme’s version of "Give’m Cornbread" in the backyard of his grandparent’s home, for his delighted family. He soon began playing Clifton Chenier’s music on stages all over Northern California. Andre continues to play primarily in California, but he’s like a cousin to many of the bands touring the west coast, standing in on accordion, drums or guitar when they come to California, with artists like Chubby Carrier, Leroy Thomas, Sammy Hagar, David Hildalgo and Elvin Bishop. His band Zydeco Magic has been named by Bay Area Blues Society “Best Zydeco Band” twice, and Andre was nominated for a GRAMMY award in 2013. Andre has become the accordion artist Clifton said he would be.
Another California band leader, Mark St. Mary, performs “bluesy, traditional zydeco in the style of Clifton Chenier.” St. Mary has been playing zydeco since age 12, and while he has lived in Alameda, California as an adult, he was born in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Mark’s band was named “Best Zydeco Band” in 2007 by Bay Area Blues Society.
Clifton Chenier’s zydeco legacy continues through his son C.J. Chenier and the Red Hot Louisiana Band as well as many other zydeco musicians which have followed. Clifton Chenier has been posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame and The Louisiana Music Hall of Fame. Chenier’s name, synonymous with zydeco, appears in lyrics by Rory Gallagher, Paul Simon, John Mellencamp and Zachary Richard, and will continue to be a reference for this style of music for years to come.
Clifton's Blues (Elko Records), 1954
Louisiana Blues & Zydeco (Arhoolie Records), 1965
Bon Ton Roulet! (Arhoolie Records), 1967
Bogalusa Boogie – Blues & Zydeco (Arhoolie Records), 1975
Frenchin' the Boogie (Blue Star), 1976
Boogie in Black and White (with swamp pop musician Rod Bernard, Jin Records), 1976
Boogie & Zydeco (Sonet Records SNTF 801), 1979
I'm Here (Alligator Records), 1982
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