Clifton Chenier has been eulogized in magazines as diverse as Nation and Rolling Stone as “the King of Zydeco.” He began recording in the 1950s, when zydeco—described by Jeff Hannusch in Rolling Stone as “the primitive R & B-oriented dance music of the black French-speaking Creoles of southwest Louisiana”—like other forms of regional American music, was dying out. Chenier both enjoyed and was a large factor in the genre’s resurgence during the 1970s and 1980s. In addition to contributing his own live performances and recordings such as the Grammy Award-winning album I’m Here, Chenier was a formative influence on other zydeco artists, including Buckwheat Zydeco, Rockin’ Sidney, and Queen Ida.
Chenier was born June 25, 1925, in the small town of Opelousas, Louisiana. His father was a sharecropper who played the accordion, a staple of zydeco music, at country dances. Chenier also enjoyed listening to the records of zydeco pioneer accordion player Amadie Ardoin, and had learned the instrument himself by the time he was sixteen, practicing with his older brother Cleveland, who played another featured device of zydeco, the rub board. But like many of the rural youngsters of their generation, rather than continue working in the local rice and sugar fields, the Chenier brothers left the countryside for better jobs in more urban areas; they drove oil refinery trucks in Port Arthur, Texas, during the late 1940s and early 1950s.
The two young men continued playing their music, however, performing nights for some of their fellow refinery workers. While doing this, Chenier was discovered by talent scout J. R. Fulbright, who signed him to the small Elko record label in 1954. Chenier cut the singles “Louisiana Stomp” and “Clifton’s Blues” before moving to Specialty Records the following year. With that label, and with his band, the Zydeco Ramblers, he cut his first real hit, “Ay, Tit Fille”—Hannusch translates the contracted French as “Hey, Little Girl.” The single did well on the rhythm and blues charts, especially in the South. Hannusch quoted latter-day zydeco artist Rockin’ Sidney’s recollections of Chenier’s first heyday: “At that time Cliff was as big as Elvis Presley in Louisiana…. When he came to town, it was a big event. People would be talking about his dances a month in advance…. I thought he was the biggest star in the world.”
Nevertheless, Chenier did not attain much renown beyond the Gulf Coast area, and as zydeco continued to slip into the region’s past, he supplemented his small-label recordings with more blues and rhythm and blues numbers. During the early 1960s, Chenier relocated to Houston, Texas, playing small clubs in the section of that city called Frenchtown. There he was
For the Record…
Born June 25, 1925, in Opelousas, LA; died December 12, 1987, in Lafayette, LA, buried in Loureauville, LA; son of Joseph (a sharecropper) Chenier.
Singer, accordionist. Worked in rice and sugar fields as a youth in Louisiana; drove refinery trucks in Port Arthur, TX, 1947-54. Recording artist and concert performer, 1955-87. Featured in the 1973 documentary film Hot Pepper.
Awards: Grammy Award, 1984, for album I’m Here.
discovered by the head of Arhoolie Records, Chris Strachwitz. Strachwitz was interested in preserving some of the dying forms of regional music, and he signed Chenier to a contract in 1963, releasing his first album the following year, Louisiana Blues and Zydeco.
Notwithstanding the title of Chenier’s Arhoolie debut, Strachwitz kept something of a tight rein on the artist, limiting his work in other genres to the benefit of zydeco music. The record executive recalled for Daniel Wolff in Nation: “It was … a battle to get Clifton to record the older French material…. He’d tell me, That isn’t what the kids like!’” But Chenier persisted with zydeco long enough to enjoy its resurgence during the 1970s and 1980s, both in his native Louisiana and on college campuses throughout the United States. In 1973, Chenier and what Frank-John Hadley of Down Beat praised as his “jazzy, waggish-yet-wailful piano accordion and granular blues singing” were featured in the documentary film Hot Pepper; before his life and career ended, Chenier had toured the United States, Canada, and Europe.
In his later years, Chenier was beset by health problems. One of his feet had to be amputated because of diabetes, and he frequently required kidney dialysis. But he continued singing and playing at fairs and other gigs as often as he could. “The last time I saw Clifton Chenier perform,” recounted Wolff, “he was too sick to stand up. But from a folding chair… he played a set of bluesy, rocking accordion solos that made it almost impossible for the audience to stay seated.” Chenier died December 12, 1987, in Lafayette, Louisiana; he had been scheduled to play in a local club that day.
“Louisiana Stomp,” Elko, 1954.
“Clifton’s Blues,” Elko, 1954.
“Ay, ’Tit Fille,” Specialty, C. 1955.
“Ay, Ai, Ai,” Arhoolie, 1963.
“Why Did You Go Last Night,” Arhoolie, 1963.
Also recorded single “Squeeze Box Boogie.”
Louisiana Blues and Zydeco, Arhoolie, 1964.
Live at the San Francisco Blues Festival, Arhoolie, 1982.
I’m Here, Alligator, 1984.
Clifton Chenier Sings the Blues, Arhoolie, 1987.
Also recorded the albums Black Snake Blues and Bon Ton
Roulet, both Arhoolie.
Down Beat, March 1988; December 1989.
High Fidelity, May 1988.
Nation, March 19, 1988.
Rolling Stone, January 28, 1988.
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