In 1999, Sports Illustrated crowned Muhammad Ali as Sportsman of the Century. Once vilified as a trash-talking troublemaker, Ali is now universally praised as an all-time great athlete with a principled punch that shook up boxing, religion, international politics, civil rights and more.
Ali retired the same year Leon Chavis was born. But that hasn’t stopped Chavis from being enthralled with “The Greatest.”
“I’m really into people in history who have accomplished great things,” said Chavis, 33. “I watched the Ali movie and I was just amazed. I started watching documentaries and interviews. I was just mesmerized by his confidence and how he was able to overcome the government and became this ambassador for righteousness.”
Inspired by Ali and “The Champ,” a nickname from his band, Chavis has punched his way to the top of the zydeco world. In less than a decade, this childhood entertainer at family events and former trumpeter with the heralded Southern University Marching Band has become a main event in the zydeco club, trail ride and radio scene.
Chavis has retired “Zydeco Soul Child,” the title of his 2010 CD, with a new, bold proclamation – “The Champ is Here.”
The Champ has not created a sly way to sidestep throngs of musicians who, for the past 25 years, have clamored for the crown of Clifton Chenier, the late King of Zydeco. Chavis is creating his own title, a strong message of confidence as an artist, businessman and entrepreneur.
On his latest CD, a 2012 release that became his fourth in five years, Chavis served as musician, singer, songwriter, producer and engineer. Fifteen of the disc’s 16 songs are original compositions. “Suzy Q,” the lone cover, is a spirited tribute to his pioneering cousin, Boozoo Chavis, maker of zydeco’s first commercial hit, “Paper in My Shoe,” in 1954.
The CD is also Leon’s first in his own home studio.
Like his idol Ali, Chavis surrounded himself with talented people that pushed him to grow and improve. Guests on the CD include Cupid, creator of the dance craze and 3-million selling single, “The Cupid Shuffle,” Southern soul sensation Tucka, Houston zydeco star Brian Jack, Koray Broussard, a descendant of one of zydeco’s premier families, and S Dot.
Chavis and Cupid combined talents on “I Don’t Want You” and worked it out with Tucka on “Whatcha Workin Wit.” Chavis, Brian Jack and S Dot proved to be a triple threat on “We Outcha.” The Chavis-Broussard collaboration hit paydirt on “We Ain’t Broke No More.”
“I always wanted to work with different artists because I’ve always noticed when I work with other people, they do something different that I wouldn’t have done by myself,” said Chavis. “At the same time, I have a great relationship with Tucka and Cupid. It was just kind of natural.
“They inspired me a lot. You put so much time into becoming an artist and then you hook up with somebody else, especially when they’re really talented, it pushes you to do more. They made me a lot better. Cupid is a hell of a singer. It was a learning experience to be around somebody who’s so powerful at what they do.
“It was a whole lot of fun. They’re some fun guys to be around. But they made me do some things I wouldn’t have done.”
Chavis has also had fun with his home studio, an entire room filled with musical instruments, recording equipment and other electronics that have expanded his horizons.
“Initially, it was overwhelming. I was expecting to have this album out a year ago. But it was very difficult to be singer, songwriter, producer and engineer. It really was a challenge because I had to learn software, like Pro Tools.
“The people who do this, they go to school for it. I had to spend a lot of hours studying the software and do my own recording for a whole album. A lot of people don’t do it because it’s overwhelming.
“I had to do my own recording, listen to it a million times and get all the pieces right. In the long run, I’m excited about it because now, I can only get faster. I don’t have to depend on anybody. I can wake up at 3 in the morning and write a song at my house. I can work on a song as long as I want.
“I got the costs down so I can put more hours into it. I’ll be able to put out a lot more music faster on my own time.”
With his growing music experience and business acumen, Chavis is prepared to take zydeco to new audiences. He’s used his home studio to produce hot radio singles, zydeco versions of R&B classics, Frankie Lymon’s “Goody Goody” and Bobby Womack’s “A Woman’s Gotta Have It.”
“Everything I’ve worked for is coming together. Not just on the outside, but on the inside. I really feel confident and excited about being more successful than I’ve ever been. There’s a lot of competition when you play locally and it’s really tough.
“It can be brutal because we go at each other tough. When I first started, I wasn’t ready for that. I feel like now, the champ is here.”