Zydeco legend Boozoo Chavis was nicknamed the “Creole Cowboy” for both his signature white Stetson hat and the fact that he raised horses. Chavis was a master of the box-button accordion and, along with the Clifton Chenier, pioneered the sound known as zydeco, a blend of Cajun and R&B that is native to Louisiana and East Texas. While Chenier is credited with cutting the first zydeco record, Chavis had the first zydeco hit, “Paper in My Shoe,” in 1954. Distrustful of the music industry and embittered by what he saw as underhanded dealings by his label, Chavis withdrew from the music profession for two decades, devoting himself to raising horses in the Dog Hill neighborhood near Lake Charles, Louisiana. It was not until the 1980s that he returned to music, participating in the zydeco revival for the next 17 years, and exciting audiences with his raucous playing and racy lyrics. Chavis was prolific in the studio, recording several albums. Among his lasting contributions to music is his first hit, “Paper in My Shoe,” now a standard in the zydeco repertoire.
Born Wilson Anthony Chavis in Church Point, Louisiana, Chavis was brought up by his mother in the poor, rural neighborhood of Dog Hill. Raised in the Creole culture of rural Louisiana, Chavis claimed part Cherokee ancestry and considered himself “French.” His mother was a cleaning woman who also worked the circuit of unlicenced horse races called “bush tracks.” In 1944 she saved enough money to purchase a threeacre tract of land where she raised and trained horses. Chavis acquired an accordion from his musician father and taught himself to play. Soon he was sitting in with the elder Chavis and fiddler Morris “Big” Chenier. Occasionally, Chavis would play with Chenier’s nephews, Cleveland and Clifton Chenier, the latter destined to also become a zydeco legend.
By the early 1950s Chavis was playing the box-button accordion and developing a name for himself with his interpretations of the Cajun “la la” music that would develop into zydeco. In 1954 he attracted the attention of producer Eddie Schuler, owner of Goldband studio in nearby Lake Charles. At Goldband, where many significant contributions to recorded Cajun and zydeco music were made, Chavis recorded the self-penned “Paper in My Shoe,” an uptempo song with a good dance beat about a man too poor to afford new shoes. The song struck a chord with the music’s rural audience and sold a reported 150,000 copies. While it was not the first zydeco recording—Chenier had his first hit with “Ay-Tete-Fee” the year before—it was the new music’s first hit and remains a dancehall standard.
Chavis toured the South and exploited the popularity of his single, but he grew increasingly suspicious of his producer. Believing he was not being paid his due, Chavis was reluctant to return to the studio to record a follow-up. By the time his second single, “Forty-one Days,” was released, the momentum gained from “Paper in My Shoe” was lost. When “Forty-one Days” failed
Born Wilson Anthony Chavis on October 23, 1930, in Church Point, LA; died on May 5, 2001, in Austin, TX; married Leona Predium (deceased); six children.
Began playing accordion in his early teens; played barn dances and in small clubs in and around Lake Charles, Louisiana, sitting in with Creole fiddler Morris “Big” Chenier and his nephews, Clifton and Cleveland Chenier; recorded first zydeco hit, “Paper in My Shoe,” 1954; released follow-up single, “Forty-one Days,” 1955; released single “Hamburgers and Popcorn,” with B-side “Tee Black,” 1964; retired, 1964-84; signed with Maison de Soul label, 1984; released Louisiana Zydeco Music, 1986; live recording with Nathan & Zydeco Cha Chas released as Zydeco Live, Volume 1, 1987; signed with Rounder, 1991; released Boozoo That’s Who, 1993; appeared in documentary The Kingdom of Zydeco, 1994.
Awards: National Heritage fellowship, 2001.
to sell well, Chavis became embittered and retreated from the music business.
Although he continued to play locally, Chavis did not record again—with the exception of 16 sides recorded at his home in 1964—until the early 1980s. Instead, he devoted himself to his other love: raising and training racehorses. Of those tracks, only the singles “Hamburgers and Popcorn” and its flip side “Tee Black” were released by Goldband in 1964. Fans would not hear Chavis’s remaining 14 home recordings until 1990 when The Lake Charles Atomic Bomb was released on the Rounder label.
In the early 1980s, when a burgeoning interest in blues and regional folk music created a receptive environment, Chavis finally returned to the music profession. He became a regular feature at local roadhouses and was prolific in the studio, remaining busy for the rest of his life. His performances and recordings of his distinctive brand of zydeco profoundly influenced new generations of Cajun musicians.
In 1984 Chavis signed a five year-contract with the Maison de Soul label, based in Ville-Platte, Louisiana. His Louisiana Zydeco Music was released by the label in 1986 and featured a rerecording of the seminal “Paper in My Shoe.” Once again the song lit up jukeboxes and became a regional phenomenon. Boozoo Zydeco followed in 1987, and included another well-received single, “Make up Your Mind.” The prolific Chavis went on to release Zydeco Homebrew and Zydeco Trail Ride in 1989. Meanwhile, a live recording with Nathan & the Zydeco Cha Chas that had been released as Zydeco Live, Volume 1, on the Rounder label in 1987, initiated what became an important collaboration with the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based label during the 1990s. Chavis’s Boozoo Chavis was included in Elektra’s respected American Explorer series, and the musician was also honored when NRBQ recorded their tribute song, “Boozoo That’s Who,” in 1989.
In 1991 Chavis signed a two-album deal with Rounder. Boozoo That’s Who was released in 1993, followed by 1994’s Live! At the Habibi Temple, Lake Charles, Louisiana. Chavis released one record on the Warner Bros, label, Hey Do-Right, produced by NRBQ keyboardist Terry Adams, in 1997 but quickly returned to Rounder, signing a two-year contract in 1999. Who Stole My Monkey?, the first recording for the new deal, demonstrates Chavis’s unique blend of blues and R&B with traditional zydeco, and includes covers of songs by Sonny Boy Williamson and Big Joe Turner, as well as the X-rated, under-the-counter singles “Deacon Jones” and “Uncle Bud.” Johnnie Billy Goat followed in 2000; at the time of his death, Chavis was working to complete another album. Afraid of flying, Chavis never left the continental United States except for a brief trip to Canada. Instead, he toured the United States relentlessly, played New York for the first time in 1990 and performed at the New York Jazzfest for ten consecutive years. In 2000 he was a featured act at the San Francisco Jazz Festival.
Chavis’s importance to zydeco music remains unchallenged, and only Chenier commands the same respect among zydeco followers. Born within five years and 30 miles of each other, each developed a distinctive musical style within the genre. As Michael Tisserand pointed out in his liner notes to Who Stole My Monkey?: “Today there are two schools of zydeco, and to a large part they stem from these two men. Performers such as Nathan & the Zydeco Cha Cha’s acknowledge Chenier as the inspiration for their piano-key accordion sound, while button-box players such as Beau Jocque openly credit Chavis.” While Houston transplant Chenier incorporated an urban blues sound into his music, Chavis “stayed on the farm,” according to Tisserand, and his music retains the rough, raw echo of the music’s rural roots.
In 2001, shortly before his death, Chavis was awarded a National Heritage fellowship, the highest honor in the folk and traditional arts. Falling ill while on tour in Texas, Chavis suffered a heart attack on April 29, 2001. Hospitalized in Austin, he died of pneumonia on May 5, 2001.
Louisiana Zydeco Music, Maison de Soul, 1986.
Boozoo Zydeco!, Maison de Soul, 1987.
Zydeco Trail Ride, Maison de Soul, 1987.
Boozoo Live, Volume 1, Rounder, 1987.
Zydeco Homebrew, Maison de Soul, 1989.
Boozoo Chavis, Elektra/Nonesuch, 1990.
The Lake Charles Atomic Bomb—Original Goldband Recordings, Rounder, 1990.
Boozoo That’s Who, Rounder, 1993.
Live! at The Habibi Temple, Lake Charles, Louisiana, Rounder, 1994.
Who Stole My Monkey?, Rounder, 1999.
Johnnie Billy Goat, Rounder, 2000.
Sonoma County Independent, February 13-19, 1997.
Antones Records, http://www.antones.com.boozoo.html (May 5, 2002).
ARTISTDirect, http://imusic.artistdirect.com (May 5, 2002).
“Boozoo Chavis,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (May 5, 2002).
“Boozoo Chavis,” Blues Ring, http://www.mnblues.com/profile/boozoo2000.html (May 5, 2002).
“Remembering Boozoo Chavis,” Bluesworld.com, http://www.bluesworld.com (May 1, 2002).
Additional information was obtained from liner notes for Who Stole My Monkey?, 1999.
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