(1930-2001), the third and probably the last “King of Zydeco,” was certainly one of the most colorful characters to grace the zydeco stage. Nicknamed “The Creole Cowboy” for the white Stetson hat he wore and the life he led offstage as a rancher and trainer of race horses, he made the first zydeco hit recording in 1955, a number which would not be topped for another 30 years. He then left the music business and turned to farming and ranching for nearly 30 years, disgusted about not getting paid what he thought he was owed for his hit record by the record companies. Then he returned to the music industry in the mid-1980s. He recorded a string of popular recordings which were quickly copied and covered by other zydeco artists. And he claimed the controversial and coveted title, “King of Zydeco”. Nearly every song Boozoo recorded was autobiographical
about himself, his family and the farm life at his home at “Dog Hill”, and some versions were risqué. But what people loved was the simplistic yet raucous fast-tempo songs Boozoo achieved with his diatonic accordion that filled the dance floor as soon as the music began.
“I’m not bragging for myself, but this style of music what I got, it’s gonna make you dance. It’s definitely gonna make you dance,” Boozoo asserted.
The Rough-Hewn Boozoo Style
Boozoo’s music was raw and propulsive. He wore country clothes: a Stetson hat and an apron to keep his sweat off the accordion. With his rough-hewn voice and hefty accordion riffs, his band's one-chord grooves had a mesmerizing intensity that kept dance floors packed.
Chavis’ rough-hewn approach harkens back to the pre-zydeco “la-la” music he learned to play as a child. He grew up in a semi-rural section of Lake Charles, Louisiana known as Dog Hill, ostensibly because it was a former disposal site for stray animals and road kill. He learned to play the accordion by watching his father, who played house dances. As a child, Boozoo won a horse race, took the proceeds and invested it in a calf, and sold the full grown heifer to buy his first accordion for $35.
Paper In His Shoe
“We’d go to school and sometimes we didn’t have no socks. In the wintertime we’d put paper in our shoes to warm our feet. That’s the God’s truth. That’s where that song, ‘Paper in My Shoe’, comes from. Kids today are blessed.”
Boozoo is credited with recording the first zydeco hit song, “Paper in My Shoe,” selling about 130,000 copies in 1954. It was a novelty number with a good dance beat about a singer so down and out as to not be able to afford to re-sole his old shoes. Over the years the song has been recorded by numerous artists, but the recording session did not go well for Boozoo. He was not used to working with a backup band. According to Goldband Records producer Eddie Shuler, “He'd start in before he was supposed to or come in late or leave off too soon," said Eddie, recalling his exasperation. To say the least, Eddie was at wit's end and was about ready to throw in the towel. "I was getting desperate and I had to salvage the session somehow. So, I bought a pint of Seagram's 7 for $1.35 and gave it to him. After a while it loosened him up and the whole group began meshing
really well," added Eddie. "We were just about at the 2:47 of elapsed time [recording “Paper in My Shoe”] preferred as the ideal cut-off point by juke box operators when I heard this horrible crashing on the other side of the partition which separated the control room from the studio itself. When I peered around, there was Boozoo on his back and on the floor still playing without skipping a beat even after falling off his stool," claimed Eddie. Up to his death, Boozoo denied this version of the story, but Eddie's testimony was corroborated by others. “I just had to be very creative and edit out the smashing sound effect. You might say I invented the cold fade in that one," Eddie laughed.
The recording experience with Eddie Shuler and Goldband Records ended bitterly when Chavis was not paid what he expected and his other songs from the recording session were not released. Boozoo fumed, “You can go to Goldband right now and look upstairs. He kept Iry LeJeune’s records, and he’s putting them out now that Iry LeJeune is dead. Been dead over thirty years, but they’re coming out with his records. When I’m dying, he gonna come out with mine.”
According to Zydeco! author Ben Sandmel, “Chavis [was] one of many Creole and Cajun musicians whose encounters with the recording industry left them embittered. Exploitation and shady dealings continue to victimize black and white artists alike. But Chavis’ story also reveals an ugly legacy of the racism that he first experienced as a child and encountered again in the wake of his first record.”
Back in Dog Hill
For more than two decades, he worked as a race horse trainer on his acreage in Dog Hill, sometimes playing his accordion under the tree on his property or at a neighborhood house dance.
Then in 1984, Boozoo and his wife Leona were driving to a horse race and heard a radio advertisement for a dance featuring "Boozoo Chavis". Someone was impersonating him. Chavis and Leona concluded that his reputation was strong enough to restart his performing career.
Leona pushed Boozoo to reenter the zydeco scene professionally. Cajun and Creole music was growing in popularity as the disco music craze was fading, and zydeco was gaining an international following, thanks to Clifton Chenier. Most audiences were familiar with Clifton’s urban style of blues and zydeco, featuring a piano accordion backed by a full R&B band that included a front line of horns and a rubboard. In contrast, Chavis performed in a rural style, with a diatonic accordion backed by guitars and drums. Raw and gritty Boozoo was more like a Howlin' Wolf. He focused heavily on the beat, pounding out a driving dance groove that often wore the dancers out. His lyrics were simplistic and highly repetitive, yet there was no doubt that Chavis’ music was good dance music.
The Comeback and The Crown
''Dog Hill,'' a single about his neighborhood, put him back on local radio stations, and soon he was selling out dance halls. He went on to write songs about nearly everyone he knew, from his family to his manager. He also sang raunchy zydeco songs that were sold only locally from under the counter. Boozoo was back!
Booze proceeded to go on a tear of producing a new album every year starting with Louisiana Zydeco Music in 1986 which featured “Paper in My Shoe”, “Motor Dude Special”, “Dance All Night”, “Dog Hill”, “Boogie Woogie All Night Long”, and “My Toot Toot” among others! He followed with albums Boozoo Zydeco in 1987, Paper in My Shoe on Ace Records in 1987, Louisiana Homebrew in 1989, The Lake Charles Atomic Bomb (original Goldband recordings) on Rounder in 1990, Zydeco Trail Ride in 1990, and Boozoo Chavis on Elektra Nonesuch in 1991.
Eventually, Mr. Chavis began working beyond the bayou circuit. He took his first commercial airplane flight in 1990 to perform in New York City, and he began releasing albums nationally on Rounder Records. In 1993, he was anointed the “King of Zydeco” according to the wishes of reigning king Rockin' Dopsie who died in 1993. Dopsie had proclaimed himself the heir to Chenier. Dopsie had filled in for Chenier for the recording of a tune on Paul Simon’s Graceland album (and subsequently sued Simon over authorship credit of the tune --- the suit was dropped) and the mayor of Lafayette had declared Dopsie “King of Zydeco” at a concert there. But Dopsie’s was a contentious title in zydeco country, so much so that he avoided playing in Lafayette where he had become persona non grata.
But Boozoo Chavis’ title as “King of Zydeco”, in contrast, was universally accepted.
Through the 1990s, Boozoo gained fans across the United States and disciples among zydeco musicians such as Beau Jocque, Keith Frank and Jeffery Broussard. Jo Jo Reed released a song called ''I Got It From Boo.'' Chavis and Beau Jocque played concerts together billed as showdowns; Robert Mugge made a documentary, The Kingdom of Zydeco, about their friendly rivalry for the crown.
Covered by Everyone
Boozoo’s recordings have been covered by nearly everybody in Cajun and zydeco: “Dog Hill” by Jeffery Broussard, “Lula Don’t You Go to Bingo” and “I Got a Camel” recorded by Pine Leaf Boys; “Tee Black” recorded by Cedric Watson and Donna Angelle; “Suzy Q” by Beau Jacque; “Motor Dude Special” by Horace Trahan and Jeffery Broussard; “I Went to The Dance” by Joe Simien and Lisa Haley; “Paper in My Shoe” by Lisa Haley; “Uncle Bud” and “Dance All Night” by the Bayou Brothers. This is not an exhaustive list, but a few examples of the rich legacy of Boozoo Chavis.
But Chavis had little patience when he heard one of his melodies in someone else’s song. He acknowledges his debt to the older house-dance players for such songs as “Paper in My Shoe” and “Forty-One Days”, but the turnaround rate for his tunes was unprecedented. In 1996, within weeks of the first time he played “You’re Gonna Look Like a Monkey,” it seemed to him that every band in South Louisiana was covering that song.
According to The Kingdom of Zydeco by Michael Tisserand, sometime before he went out to work on the barn, he turned on the radio and caught a new Keith Frank song, “Let Me Be,” that clearly owes its melody to Chavis’ “Suzy Q”. “I heard Keith Frank made my record ‘Suzy Q.’ But he sings, ‘Let me be, the place to be.’ Now you ask him, ‘What you mean with where you ought to be?’ What’s he going to tell you? He doesn’t know where you ought to be. He can’t tell you. If I make a record, I can tell you. I say, ‘I ought to be in the movies,’ or ‘I ought to be in heaven.’ But they can’t explain what they’re saying.”
No One Else Like Boozoo
“I tell it to the people on the mike. I say, everybody’s trying to play Clifton’s music, but there wasn’t but one. And there ain’t but one Boozoo. They ain’t got two, they got one. Boozoo. One. Before me there was none. After me there ain’t going to be no more like him. There’s going to be some more, but not like Boozoo.” Standing around the kitchen table, his sons nodded. In the kitchen, Leona Chavis laughed, “Not like Boozoo,” she called out.
As a promotional gimmick, Boozoo sold souvenir ladies’ underwear at his dance events with his picture printed on them and the instruction, “Take ‘em off! Throw ‘em in the corner!” (a reference to the lyrics of one of his most popular tunes, “Dance All Night”). Chavis achieved local notoriety with raunchy versions of four of his tunes, “Deacon Jones”, “Uncle Bud”, “The Monkey and the Baboon”, and “Boozoo’s Blue Balls Rap”. These singles were only sold under the counter at record stores with XXX ratings and warnings about radio play. Chavis generally did not perform these versions at his public concerts — unless there was an overwhelming demand. And then there would be screams of delight from dancers when he performed them and sang the raunchy lyrics.
Chavis told Peter Watrous of the New York Times, “Sometimes I’m on stage looking at all those people dancing, and I feel sorry for them. I say to myself, ‘After you die, Boozoo, there ain’t gonna be no more like you.’ This is the best they’ve ever heard. I’m a genius, no doubt about it.”
Ben Sandmel adds at the end of the chapter on Boozoo in his book Zydeco!, “If Boozoo Chavis didn’t emanate genuine warmth along with such irascible bluster, he would simply sound arrogant. But Chavis paid his dues, more than most. Before reemerging, he was known only to devotees of obscure records. His debut recordings, which had been reissued on an esoteric blues anthology in 1968, soon went out of print again. As a collector of such albums, I was amazed to learn in 1984 that Boozoo Chavis was still alive, let alone that he had actively resumed performing. His comeback immeasurably enriched zydeco, and opened vast opportunities for ensuing generations.”
Boozoo Chavis Discography on iTunes
Johnny Billy Goat (Rounder Heritage Records), 2000
Zydeco Trail Ride with Boozoo Chavis (Maison de Soul Records), 1990
Boozoo Chavis (Rhino), 1990
Live at the Habibi Temple (Rounder Records), 1994
The Lake Charles Atomic Bomb (Rounder Records), 1990
Boozoo, That's Who (Rounder Records), 1993
Down Home on Dog Hill (Rounder Records), 2001
Who Stole My Monkey? (Rounder Records), 1999
Zydeco Home Brew (Maison de Soul Records), 1988
Hey Do Right (New West Records), 1997
Zydeco Live (Boozoo Chavis and The Magic Sounds with Nathan & The Zydeco Cha Chas (Rounder Records), 1989
Festival Stage 1989 --- Festivals Acadiens et Créoles (Valcour Records), 2013
Dat's Zydeco: Best "Old Skool" Zydeco (Maison de Soul Records), 2002
Note: For the month of January 2015, this story also appears at http://floridacajunzydeco.com/the-story.html
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