Born: June 25, 1925 | Died: 1987 Primary Instrument: Accordion
In the history of popular and vernacular music it is usually hard to pinpoint the genesis of a new genre or style on one particular individual. Many musicologists acknowledge today that blacks in Louisiana adopted the accordion before their white Cajun counterparts. Modern zydeco music even includes Caribbean and Latin rhythms along with strains of modern rock and pop. Clifton Chenier did not create zydeco a credit generally given to Amédé Ardoin, a diatonic accordionist who in 1929 cut the first zydeco record though he certainly codified the way this Louisiana Creole music is still played in the bayous and beyond.
Bypassing the old fashioned diatonic button squeezebox and mastering the chromatic piano accordion, Clifton Chenier developed fresh approaches to traditional French folk songs and the blues. Starting out in the bayous of southern Louisiana, he became an international superstar with his Red Hot Louisiana Band.
Clifton Chenier was born June 25, 1925, in Opelousas, St. Landry Parish, Louisiana, his father, Joseph Chenier, was a local musician who played the accordion at home and at dances known as fais dodos. As a child, Clifton worked on a farm outside Opelousas and was interested in music. He learned the basics of accordion playing from his father, and by the time he was 16 years of age, he was playing the accordion, accompanied by his older brother Cleveland, who played the frottoir (washboard or rub-board) with a metal bottle opener. The frottoir was adapted by early African American Creoles as a rhythm instrument.
Clifton and Cleveland began performing at house dances, where the furniture was often moved aside to make room for the dancers. In time, Clifton shifted from the small diatonic accordion he had learned from his father to the larger and more flexible piano accordion. In time, the percussion in Clifton's bands grew more complex, and he added electric guitars, bass, drums, and saxophone to play larger clubs, dance halls, and juke joints between Houston and New Orleans.
As he matured, Clifton developed his own musical style, one that combined elements of traditional French Creole music with the stylization of rhythm and blues. In 1942, Clifton went to Lake Charles to play in the Clarence Garlow Band. Three years later, he married his wife, Margaret, and in 1946 he moved to Houston to work in the postwar boom.
He soon began performing again at area dances with his brother. In 1954, recording scout J. R. Fulbright, a black recording pioneer, spotted the Chenier brothers and asked them to record for his Elko label, which released a 78 rpm recording of Louisiana Stomp and Clifton's Blues.
In 1955, Clifton signed with Specialty Records, and his first release for that label, Ay 'Tit Fille (Hey Little Girl), was a rhythm and blues hit throughout the South. It became a hit in other regions of the country, allowing Chenier to quit his construction job, buy a Cadillac, and hit the road with his band, then known as the Zydeco Sizzlers. A teenage Etta James was the band’s vocalist for a period.
Chenier capitalized on his popularity and for the next eight years he recorded with several other regional labels. Records for Chess, Zynn, and other labels were less successful. It wasn't until 1963, however, when he recorded with Arhoolie, a California-based label, that he attained national acclaim. Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie, heard Clifton play in Houston, and the next day he recorded Ay Ai Ai and Why Did You Go Last Night? for Arhoolie at a local studio. The following year Chenier recorded his first album, “Louisiana Blues and Zydeco,” and quickly became Arhoolie's top-selling artist.
In 1976, Chenier recorded one of his best albums, “Bogalusa Boogie,” and formed a new group, the Red Hot Louisiana Band, featuring tenor saxophonist Blind John Hart and guitarist Paul Senegal. If people only had to get one Chenier record this would be it.
In 1984, Chenier won a Grammy in the Ethnic Music category for his album “I'm Here!” recorded on Chicago's Alligator label.
Clifton toured widely with his Red Hot Louisiana Band, but in his later years he was plagued by diabetes and kidney problems. About his illness, he said, It's hard to get on the bandstand, playing, and you've got something hurting you. You're pretending to the people, but you're hurting. Sometimes I get tired a little, but I'm a person like this: When I'm playing, I'm playing. Ain't no tired there. One speed, let's go, and when I say goodnight, that's it. Oh yeah, that's it. I'm at the end of the line then.
Clifton Chenier “The King of Zydeco,” died in 1987.
Source: James Nadal