Chenier, C. J.
C. J. Chenier
Accordionist, saxophonist, singer, songwriter
Before being called out to the Sparkle Paradise Club to take over as saxophonist in his father Clifton Chenier’s Red Hot Louisiana Band in 1978, Clayton Joseph Chenier, better known as C. J. Chenier, was working in an oil refinery. He had had little exposure to zydeco, a form of music popular in Louisiana that combines Caribbean and blues sounds and often features lyrics in French. Nevertheless, this son of the undisputed King of zydeco was well suited for the task, having worked as a professional musician in Top 40 bands since the age of 16. Starting with Carl Wayne and the Magnificent Seven doing gigs around his Port Arthur, Texas, birthplace, according to the Oxford Scene, Chenier picked up all sorts of instruments, most notably the saxophone and Fender Rhodes piano. Under his father’s tutelage, he was soon well versed in the Red Hot Louisiana Band’s tradition, becoming its leader in just four years.
Always a quick study, Chenier explained in Concerted Effort publicity materials that he “started playing accordion in 1985, when my daddy was getting sick … so I started opening shows for him. I learned to play accordion on stage. I had about four months of piano lessons when I was younger, so at least I knew the keyboard, but the other stuff I really had to learn as I went along. It got better. When I joined the band I didn’t even know any zydeco songs.”
Chenier’s playing improved, and by 1989 he was receiving high praise from Living Blues writer Jim Trageses, who described his phrasing on the accordion in up-tempo shuffles like “She’s My Woman” as harmonica-like, “short riffs and staccato notes, repeating phrases over and over with small but important changes each time, building to a climax that brings the song to a logical, satisfying conclusion.” On straight blues numbers his accordion can sound more like a Hammond organ, “with lots of trills followed by short runs.” Trageses claimed Chenier’s debut as sole leader of the Red Hot Louisiana Band “makes a strong case for crowning [him] as the best living zydeco singer and accordionist. Rockin’ Sidney and Rockin’ Dopsie have played longer, and Buckwheat Zydeco is more famous, but ’Let Me in Your Heart’ stands on a plane surpassed only by Clifton.”
Of course, such hyperbole has been the norm since the elder Chenier’s death in 1987, as critics and promoters have sought to fix the public’s imagination on a never-ending, some would say never-existing, Bayou battle for the zydeco crown. It should also be noted that in addition to inheriting Clifton’s name and accordion, C. J. also acquired his band, who have done much to keep him rooted in tradition even as they nurture him in his exploration of new sounds.
Born in 1951 in Port Arthur, TX; son of Clifton Chenier (a singer and accordionist) and Mildred Belle.
Accordionist, saxophonist, singer, and songwriter. Began playing saxophone with Carl Wayne and the Magnificent Seven throughout southeast Texas; worked in an oil refinery, until 1978; played saxophone in father’s group, Clifton Chenier’s Red Hot Louisiana Band, beginning in 1978; became bandleader, 1982; began playing accordion, 1985; released debut album as leader of Red Hot Louisiana Band, Hot Rod, Slash, 1990.
Awards: Grammy Award, with Clifton Chenier’s Red Hot Louisiana Band, for album I’m Here, 1984.
Addresses: Record company — Warner Bros., 3300 Warner Blvd., Burbank, CA 91510. Publicity— Concerted Efforts Inc., P.O. Box 99, Newtonville, MA 02160.
As Jon Pareles reported in the New York Times, the Cheniers’ music has inevitably changed between generations. “C. J. Chenier plays accordion less flamboyantly than his father did, and his voice is a smooth soul baritone without the weather-beaten tone and melancholy depths of his father’s vocals.” Another difference, one that marks the increasing assimilation of French-speaking people in Louisiana, is that C. J. does not speak Cajun French, though he does sing a few French lyrics. While this may offend somezydeco purists, it has served to make the music more accessible to fans.
In fact, in many ways C. J. ’s legacy has kept him more traditional than both the generation before him and his more iconoclastic zydeco contemporaries, such as Terrance Simien. Chenier’s father’s music served as the starting point for most of the musicians who followed him, and the Red Hot Louisiana Band’s music often seemed to hearken back to the 1950s and 1960s. As late as 1992, however, C. J. Chenier’s publicist was attempting to position the musician as an innovator, noting that he had “gone to great lengths to include songs on [the album] / Ain’t No Playboy that, while embracing zydeco roots, also turn the genre inside out.” Chenier’s publicity materials also asserted that the album “takes the music beyond purist zydeco rhythms and traditions to new depths and spaces.”
In the same press release, Chenier commented, “In the past, whenever I’d record I’d put the songs like the one on [I Ain’t No Playboy] on the back burner. They didn’t seem zydeco enough, and just didn’t seem right for what I was doing, so I put them to the side. This time though, I thought it was time for me to stretch out a little, I wanted to put a little more variety on the album.”
Chenier began playing covers of rock hits like ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man” as well as modern zydeco standards like “Toot Toot.” He has also worked with producer Joe Hardy and collaborated with Austin, Texas, songwriter Jeff Hughes. In doing so, he has avoided the danger of his music becoming a cultural curiosity and has instead helped it evolve into a dynamic reflection of the ever-changing, eclectic styles of the region.
Just as his father had created what came to be called zydeco by working the blues and African-Cuban rhythms into traditional Cajun music, itself a mix of French folk songs and New World influences, Chenier has begun to look around and ahead, rather than behind. At the same time, he has not totally abandoned the past. His albums often contain covers of his father’s vast repertoire, and 1990’s Hot Rod included a moving tribute to his father, titled “You’re Still the King to Me”: “There was a lot of folks/Always hanging ’round/Telling a bunch of jokes/Like ’hey, I got the crown. 7 But like he used to say/You can have this crown you see/But if you want to wear this crown/You got to take it away from me.”
It is sometimes difficult to capture the intensity of zydeco music on recordings. Its origins are in hot, crowed dancehalls, where fire marshals often have trouble keeping people out of the aisles. The studio environment presents a problem for some zydeco performers who are great improvisers and whose live sets build as musicians play off each other and the crowd. According to publicity materials, Chenier likes to work fast and catch the immediate feeling that is pervasive in Louisiana clubs. Hot Rod, for example, was recorded in a ten-hour session, while/ Ain’t No Playboy was recorded in less than a week. “Originally we were going to have seven days to record [I Ain’t No Playboy], but I couldn’t figure out what we were going to do with all that time,” Chenier explained.
Experienced musicians help move things along, and Chenier has added a second guitarist and a saxophone player to the Red Hot Louisiana Band, so the work is more spread out. Another reason for such short recording sessions is that the band rarely comes off the road, playing an average of 200 dates a year at fairs, festivals, and clubs throughout the Americas and Europe. After many of those nights, decked out in costumes befitting royalty, Chenier must truly identify with the words he sings to his father’s old waltz, “I’m Coming Home”: “I’m coming home ‘cause I feel so all alone. /I’m coming home ‘cause that’s where I belong.”
With the Red Hot Louisiana Band
Let Me in Your Heart, Arhoolie, 1989.
Hot Rod, Slash, 1990.
/ Ain’t No Playboy, Slash, 1992.
My Baby Don’t Wear No Shoes, Arhoolie, 1992.
Lichtenstein, Grace, and Laura Dankner, Musical Gumbo: The Music of New Orleans, Norton, 1993.
BBS Newsletter, October 1992.
Boston Globe, May 16, 1991.
CMJ (College Music Journal), November 23, 1990; July 24, 1992.
Living Blues, July/August 1989.
Music City Bluesletter, September 1992.
New York Times, February 9, 1989.
Oxford Scene, April 5, 1990.
USA Today, April 24, 1991.
Additional information for this profile was taken from Concerted Efforts publicity materials, 1992.
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