Clifton Chenier - Creator of Zydeco Music
This singer, guitarist, and harmonica and accordion player is regarded by many as the "king of zydeco music". When Clifton Chenier and his band played at Johnny Land's Rodair Club in Port Arthur, little old ladies and young girls would get up and dance around ecstatically. Toes would be tapping at every table. Zydeco music was created by accordion player Clifton Chenier. Chenier was from Louisiana, but Zydeco was invented and popularized in honky-tonk bars between Houston and Lake Charles, in lower east Texas during the 60s & 70s.
Chenier first came to Texas looking for a job. In those days, when Creole and Cajun people migrated from Southwest Louisiana they tended to go where the work was - and that wasn't New Orleans. They went west to places in Texas like Port Arthur, Beaumont, Galveston, and Houston. That's why you don't see many Zydeco bands in New Orleans - in fact, they're only found in the tourist traps there. Zydeco, with all its' Cajun roots, is a Texas thing.
Born in Opelousas in 1925, Clifton was the son of a sharecropper and amateur accordion player, Joe Chenier, and the nephew of a guitarist, fiddler and dance club owner, Maurice "Big" Chenier.
Young Clifton 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, "Easy" Blasa in 1937, Chenier was taught the basics of the instrument by his father. By 1944, Chenier was performing in the dance halls of New Ibreia, while picking cane to feed his family.
In 1946, he followed his older brother, Cleveland, to Lake Charles. He absorbed a wealth of tunes from musicians such as Zozo Reynolds, Izeb Laza, and Sidney Babineaux, who, despite their talents, were never recorded. The following year, Chenier travelled to Port Arthur, along with his wife Margaret, where he worked for the Gulf and Texaco oil refineries until 1954. Still playing music on weekends, Chenier was discovered by J.R. Fulbright, who recorded him at radio station KAOK, and issued records of these and subsequent sessions.
Chenier's first national attention came the first KAOK single, "Ay Tete Fille (Hey, Little Girl)", a cover of a Professor Longhair tune, released in May 1955. The song was one of 12 that he recorded during two sessions produced by Bumps Blackwell, best known for his work with Little Richard. By 1956, Chenier had left his day job to devote his full-time attention to music, touring with his band, the Zydeco Ramblers, which included blues guitarist Philip Walker. The following year, Chenier signed with the Chess label in Chicago. In 1958, Chenier moved to Houston, and from here played all over the south. Although he toured with Etta James throughout the United States, Chenier's career suffered when the popularity of ethnic and regional music styles began to decline. He recorded thirteen songs between 1958 and 1960, but none charted.
During the 60s, Chenier played a major concert in San Francisco, backed by Blue Cheer , and recorded for a number of notable labels, including Argo and Arhoolie Records , in a bid to reach a wider audience. "Squeeze Box Boogie" became a hit in Jamaica in the 50s, but generally his style of music was not widely heard before the 60s. The turning point in Chenier's career came when Lightnin' Hopkins' wife, who was a cousin, introduced Chris Strachwitz, owner of the roots music label, Arhoolie, to his early recordings. Strachwitz quickly signed Chenier to Arhoolie, producing his first hit single in four years, "Ay Yi Yi"/"Why Did You Go Last Night".
In 1976, Chenier recorded one of his best albums, Bogalusa Boogie, and formed the Red Hot Louisiana Band, featuring tenor saxophonist "Blind" John Hart and guitarist Paul Senegal.
Chenier reached the peak of his popularity in the 1980s. In 1983, he received a Grammy award for his album, I'm Here!, recorded in eight hours in Bogalusa, Louisiana. The following year, he performed at the White House.
Chenier crafted the definitive zydeco sound that still sets today's standard. He did so by blending Creole folk with rhythm & blues. Chenier adapted this material to the accordion and sang it in Creole French. Beyond these innovations, Chenier's skill as an accordionist has yet to be surpassed. In later life, in addition to suffering from diabetes, he had part of his right foot removed due to a kidney infection in 1979. Although this prevented him from touring as frequently, Chenier continued to perform until one week before his death on December 12, 1987. Following his death, his son, C.J. Chenier, took over leadership of the Red Hot Louisiana Band. Three generations of Chenier musicians have now made their mark in Texas. GATOR