A 1989 documentary called J’ai été au Bal (I Went to the Dance) explores the histories and dynamics of Cajuns and Creoles in Louisiana. Filmmakers Les Blank, Chris Strachwitz and Maureen Gosling incorporated interviews with musicians, including Michael Doucet and Queen Ida, with clips of the Louisiana dance halls, archival footage and performances of some of the original Cajun and Creole players. Watch the documentary on Youtube below.
World Cafe host David Dye recounts a sunny day spent with Sid Williams in Lafayette, LA during the recording of Sense of Place: Lafayette last fall:
At sunset, I found myself following a short, compact black man with gold teeth and a cowboy hat along a semi-rural highway in Lafayette Parish, Louisiana. We were coming from El Sido’s Zydeco and Blues Club, a no-frills concrete bunker of an entertainment establishment, and headed toward Sid’s One Stop, past Sid’s beauty shop.
It’s not on any map, but we were in Sidsville.
The unofficial mayor of Sidsville is Sid Williams, one of the most colorful characters in Louisiana’s zydeco world. His best friend is Stanley Dural, Jr., Buckwheat Zydeco.
Buck used to live in the apartment building across from El Sido’s until he decamped to his ranch. Sid and Buck talk five, six times a day. Sid’s younger brother is Nathan Williams, of Nathan & The Zydeco Cha-Chas. His nephew is Little Nate of The Zydeco Big Timers. Family. The elder Williams doesn’t play Zydeco professionally. He has too many other business ventures, but he did pull out his gorgeous piano accordion to play a bit.
The “mayor” doesn’t have to do a whole lot to let you know that this is his turf. It’s easy to tell, from the people leaning out of car windows to pay their respects to the kids who swing their bikes around in the dust just to say hello. As we walk along North St. Antoine St., every person seems to be related to Sid in some way although, honestly, there were so many kin that, after out short stroll, it was exhausting to remember.
Sid’s Beauty Shop is on the down low with minimal signage, but you can’t miss Sid’s One Stop. It’s a bright, thriving establishment that seems to be the economic engine of Sid’s domain. His wife, Susanna, she of the renowned big gold hair, is in the high seat behind the counter selling beer, candy and an array of delectable smelling food coming out of the cramped kitchen.
Sid takes his honored visitors in among the big pots and burners for a taste of the jambalaya and raccoon stew that he’s cooking special for our dinner.
Back at El Sido’s, as the music swells, Sid hunkers down at his worn stool at the end of the bar. You are not going to put anything past Sid tonight, not in Sidsville.
All photos by John Vettese
SXSW is well underway, with thousands of music and film fans converging in the streets of Austin, TX to make new musical discoveries. One of those discoveries could be Clifton Chenier, as the late Louisiana bandleader is showcased in a recently uncovered concert film that will be screened at C-Boy’s Heart & Soul tonight.
Author Todd Mouton found the film and debuted it earlier this week in Vermillionville, LA to help promote his upcoming book Way Down in Louisiana, a “musical biography” that digs into the lives of Chenier and his contemporaries. Herman Fuselier was at the screening and documentated the reactions of Chenier fans and family members in an article for The Advertiser. From the article:
Nearly 300 people cheered, sang, laughed and cried as Chenier and his Red Hot Louisiana performed in a previously-unseen film from 1978….
In the film, Chenier and band were in their prime, racing through 15 two-steps, waltzes, blues and boogies. The shows were recorded before a packed dance floor of college-aged kids at Kingfish in Baton Rouge and in between rooster fights at Jay’s Lounge in Cankton. A few songs are originals that never appeared on a Chenier record.
Zydeco Crossroads contributor Nick Spitzer looks at the lifestyle of Creole cowboys on this segment from American Routes.
We hear Boozoo Chavis telling stories about catching and taming wild horses along the Gulf Coast, while Joe Fontenot explains the history of the popular trail rides, a tradition that grew from 500 riders in 1986 to 5000 riders at the time of recording. Geno Delafose, one of the best-known cowboys / zydeco musicians today, talks about life on the ranch and the songs that the lifestyle has inspired.
Listen to the segment below.
Today’s zydeco musicians can win Grammys, perform on national TV and play in cities and countries that I can’t even pronounce. An unsung hero who helped open the doors for their international stage is Dr. Gene Morris.
Morris’ title of “doctor” was a nickname, because he had no medical degree. But for friends and fans, “doctor” was a symbol of the high esteem they held for his music history and influence.
Morris, whose real name is Gene Brouchet, has deep roots in zydeco. His brother, known as Jumpin’ Joe Morris, played bass for 15 years in Clifton Chenier’s Red Hot Louisiana Band. Another brother, Jerry, was one of Chenier’s first drummers and a singer.
Gene left his mark in zydeco as a singer with Marcel Dugas, Sampy and the Bad Habits, Rockin’ Dopsie and Fernest Arceneaux, leader of Fernest and the Thunders. He croons on 1970s classics, like “Irene,” “You Don’t Have to Go,” “You Got Me Runnin’,” “Lonely Nights,” “Going Back to Big Mamou,” “Bald Headed Woman” and more.
In 2011, Lola Love, host of the Zydeco Workout webcast on ZydecoOnline.com, interviewed Morris at the second annual Clifton Chenier Celebration in Loreauville. Morris said Chenier was his first cousin, who gave Morris his first start as a drummer in 1953.
Years later, Morris went solo as Dr. Gene Morris and the Zydeco Surgeons. Through the years, Morris was able to travel as far as New York, Atlanta and Vegas as an entertainer.
“My music came from the old generation,” Morris told Love. “I played with a bunch of musicians. These guys came from a long way, to keep up the zydeco tradition.
“I want to thank my wife for putting up with me with the zydeco. I enjoy zydeco. I enjoy the people, everything about zydeco.”
A stroke kept Morris off the stage in recent years. But the decline in health didn’t keep him away from the music.
Morris’ wife, known as “Miss Nellie,” was often seen pushing him in his wheelchair at local events. The two of them always had encouragement for young musicians, as well as hugs and kind words for friends and fans.
Morris died Jan. 15, 2015 in his hometown of Lafayette, La., leaving behind some important recordings and fans touched by his words and music. Wayne Singleton, leader of the band Same Ol’ Two Step, posted a picture of Morris on Facebook and wrote “Just when I thought I couldn’t feel any worse. I’m gonna miss this guy, always had encouraging words for me. RIP friend.”
Those thoughts are shared by many, including yours truly. Dr. Gene will be missed, but as he told Lola Love back in 2011, he has no regrets.
“If I had to do it all over again, I’d do it all over again,” said Morris. “I want to thank everybody for giving me a chance to do zydeco.
“I love zydeco. I wouldn’t change it for nothing in the world.”
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.”
In a video interview filmed last October for Zydeco Crossroads, author Michael Tisserand emphasizes the relationship between Creole and Cajun music and the deep history the two cultures share. He also gives an overview of what makes the music of Louisiana different from the rest of the country, citing Nathan Williams’ affinity for referencing folk tales he heard as a child in the songs he writes now. Check out the video below and learn more about Tisserand’s book The Kingdom of Zydeco here.
Credit: Ashlee Michot, Corey Ledet and Louis Michot | photo via The 78 Project
Inspired by John and Alan Lomax’s field recordings of the 1930s, Alex Steyermark and Lavinia Jones Wright began The 78 Project in 2011 as a way of connecting a thread from those early archival recordings to contemporary musicians. Armed with a 1930s Presto direct-to-acetate recorder and many painstakingly-crafted acetate disks, the Philadelphia area filmmakers travel across the country to encounter musicians of all styles.
Featured in the documentary is an early iteration of Soul Creole. In 2013 Steyermark and Wright drove to Arnaudville, Louisiana to meet up with Corey Ledet, Louis Michot and his wife Ashlee and record them performing a song in one take, straight to acetate. The trio sings a beautiful rendition of the traditional cajun song “Trape Mon Chapeau.” From the folks at The 78 Project:
Louis Michot told us that what he loved about French music was that everyone playing was driving the same rhythm and the same melody together at the same time. A community of song. We had driven to the Michot family home in Arnaudville, LA last August, and in the course of a hot and happy afternoon, recorded Louis with his wife Ashlee and their friend and musical collaborator Corey Ledet for The 78 Project Movie. The trio cut a 78 of the traditional Cajun dance-ending song “’Trape mon chapeau,” fiddle, accordion and guitar working together the whole way through to forge a powerful, cohesive feeling into the song. Compelling imaginary dancers to crowd together on the floor and enjoy the last joyful moments of the party.
Prior to the segment with Soul Creole, Steyermark and Wright get a lesson in the history of zydeco and Cajun music and listen to Lomax’s recording of a juré musician, performing a style of music that many call the roots of zydeco (you can read Michael Tisserand’s thoughts on these recordings in Kingdom of Zydeco).
Upcoming screenings of The 78 Project are listed below. You can purchase the soundtrack and listen to a clip of “Trape Mon Chapeau” here. Listen to one of Lomax’s recordings of juré musician Jimmy Peters below, followed by the The 78 Project trailer.
Charleston, SC: Thursday, January 29th at the Charleston Music Hall (info)
Montclair, NJ: Tuesday, February 10th at the Film Forum at Montclair State University (info)
San Francisco, CA: Sunday, February 22nd at the Noise Pop Festival (info)
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org to set up a screening in your town.
Credit: Keith Frank | Photo by Philip Gould | www.philipgould.com
The best way to learn about zydeco is to experience it live but for those who are curious about who plays the music, where the music comes from, and the culture that produces it, find these at your local public library.
The Kingdom of Zydeco by Michael Tisserand is the definitive work on Creole history and culture in Louisiana and Texas, exploring the musical and social evolution of zydeco.
Stretching from the bayous of Louisiana to the oil towns of East Texas, the kingdom of zydeco is ruled by accordion-playing, washboard-wielding kings and queens named Beau Jocque, Boozoo Chavis, Queen Ida and—the King of Zydeco himself—Clifton Chenier. In this book, the leading expert on zydeco music provides the ultimate guide to this red-hot music and its origins.
South to Louisiana: The Music of the Cajun Bayous by John Broven focuses on the Cajuns of Louisiana, but he addresses zydeco’s role in that corner of the country as well.
Cajun and Zydeco Dance Music in Northern California: Modern Pleasures in a Postmodern World by Mark DeWitt traces the zydeco movement to Northern California through migration patterns, California counterculture and other social changes.
Queen Ida. Danny Poullard. Documentary filmmaker Les Blank. Chris Strachwitz and Arhoolie Records. These are names that are familiar to many fans of Cajun music and zydeco, and they have one other thing in common–longtime residence in the San Francisco Bay Area. They are all part of a vibrant scene of dancing and live Louisiana-French music that has evolved over several decades.
Cajun Music and Zydeco by Philip Gould is a book of photographs telling the story of zydeco over the course of ten years (see photo above).
In this engaging book Gould takes us into the fascinating world of south Louisiana’s celebrated musical cultures. Cajun Music and Zydeco contains more than one hundred color photographs of the performers, dance halls, and appreciative fans that have made the state’s indigenous music a national, even worldwide, phenomenon.
Let the Good Times Roll: A Guide to Cajun & Zydeco Music by Pat Nyhan is a comprehensive index of zydeco and cajun recordings featuring Top Ten lists and resource guides for further exploration.
Zydeco! by Rick Olivier and Ben Sandmel applies the tradition of oral histories to zydeco, combining photos and interviews for a wide-angle view of the culture.
In eighty stunning portraits of the genre’s leading people and places and through extensive interviews and historical commentary, photographer Rick Olivier and journalist/musician Ben Sandmel have created a book as spirited as the rollicking music it so vividly illuminates.
Historians can look back to several junctures of time and place in American music when it was clear that something significant was happening. For Southern blues, it might have been Beale Street in Memphis in the early 1950s, when B.B. King and Bobby “Blue” Bland pioneered a modern blues sound that continues to resonate today. For bebop, it might have been 52nd Street in New York City in the 1940s, when Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk deconstructed jazz. For zydeco, I would argue that it was Southwest Louisiana in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Boozoo Chavis came roaring back onto the scene at Richard’s Club in Lawtell.
In many ways, zydeco as a popular music style barely survived its early years, for if its two pioneers, Clifton Chenier and Boozoo Chavis, made their innovations in the 1950s, their careers were in decline by the early 1960s. Chavis quit playing entirely, returning to his trade of training racehorses to support his family. Chenier kept working with his small band, but there was little awareness of his music outside the local Creole community. Zydeco and its cousin, Cajun music, were often maligned as backward—it was the music of poor people. Like speaking French, it was not socially progressive.
Through the 1960s and 1970s, zydeco and traditional Creole music maintained a steady if quiet presence. When Clifton Chenier signed with Arhoolie Records producer Chris Strachwitz, his star began to rise, and his records seemed finally to announce zydeco music to the world at large. At the same time, musicians such as John Delafose, Rockin’ Dopsie, Roy Carrier, Marcel Dugas, Delton Broussard and Hiram Sampy played weekend dance and some even toured occasionally. Yet, the full blossoming of zydeco was yet to come.
Boozoo Chavis was a fireplug of a man who appeared onstage in a plastic apron, to protect his accordions from perspiration, and a cowboy hat. When, in the mid 1980s, his family urged him to return to the stage, Boozoo began drawing unprecedented crowds at Richard’s Club, a long, low-ceilinged building that seemed in danger of shaking loose from its foundations when the music got loud and the dancers filled the floor. Shiny pickup trucks packed the parking lot and the shoulders of Highway 190, while Creole couples made the scene dressed in matching Western outfits with pressed jeans. Boozoo’s simple, relentlessly driving music was a sensation.
It wasn’t long before Boozoo had challengers, as a wave of new musicians emulated his raw button accordion sound. Bass player Robby Robinson enlisted Delton Broussard’s son, accordion player Jeffrey, to form the band Zydeco Force. Their sound emulated Boozoo’s groove, but with modern touches such as harmony vocals and R&B-derived chord changes, and they quickly established a following that rivaled Boozoo’s. Then, all hell broke loose.
Beau Jocque (Andrus Espre) was six and one half feet tall, and weighed 280 pounds. His husky and powerful voice summoned the spirit of the bluesman Howlin’ Wolf, and he had a keen musical intelligence. While recuperating from an industrial accident that left him temporarily paralyzed, he began experimenting with his father’s dusty diatonic accordion. Then, he and his wife Michelle began going to zydeco dances, analyzing what it was about Boozoo and Zydeco Force that made people dance.
When he hit the stage at Richard’s, Beau Jocque presented a fully formed sound that tapped influences such as Santana and War, adding an even deeper level of funk to Boozoo’s rural stomp. There was no turning back for the new zydeco sound. Parked cars were soon lined up along the road for half a mile in each direction at Richard’s, as word spread beyond the local Creole community.
Like professional wrestlers, Beau Jocque and Boozoo Chavis carried on a rivalry—the zydeco forefather versus the young upstart. It was good for business. An even younger generation took note, and soon Keith Frank, Chris Ardoin, Step Rideau and the tradition-leaning Geno Delafose joined the fray. The “double-kicked” bass drum beat inspired people from all over the country to begin dancing to zydeco. John Blancher began booking a weekly zydeco dance at his Rock’n’Bowl venue in New Orleans, and there was even a zydeco cruise.
It should be noted that, following the death the Clifton Chenier in 1987, his disciples were also having their heyday, carrying his more sophisticated piano accordion sound forward. Chenier’s former sideman Stanley “Buckwheat” Dural eclipsed his mentor’s popularity, touring the world with a tightly disciplined show. Nathan Williams and the Zydeco Cha Chas soon followed.
Yet, for a few years, it felt as if the earth shook under Richard’s Club, as Boozoo Chavis’s primordial sound came thundering back, inciting the unlikely reawakening of a regional music strain that prevails to this day. The world took notice, and it might just have been zydeco’s golden age.