“A lot of people was upset when they (the mayor of Lafayette, Louisiana) crowned my dad King of Zydeco, but when [Zydeco legend] Clifton [Chenier] was living, he done the same thing,” explained self-described “Jimi Hendrix of the frattoir [metal washboard]” David Rubin in Offbeat magazine. Rubin is the son of renowned Zydeco accordionist Alton Rubin, better known as Rockin’ Dopsie. Dopsie related how he met Chenier at the Blue Angel Club in 1955 and sat in with him. As Offbeat reported, he told Chenier, “You’re the only man I heard could play accordion like that, the piano accordion.” Dopsie went on to attest, “And, believe me, he was the best that I ever heard. He was the best. But he told me, ’On the button accordion, Dopsie, nobody gonna ever touch you.’”
During a visit to Chenier in the hospital before his death in 1987, Rockin’ Dopsie, then the crowned prince of Zydeco, promised the king that he would carry on the old French music, which, according to Barry Jean Ancelet in Les Blank’s documentary J’ai Eté au Bal, “was transformed by Chenier in the 1950s to what we know as Zydeco when he added instrumentation to the traditional unaccompanied African musical style known as jure and combined it with other folk melodies.”
Rockin’ Dopsie was born in Carencro, Louisiana, just outside of Lafayette. As a child he worked in the sugarcane and cotton fields. His father was an accordion player who often took young Dopsie to the weekend house parties that were an integral part of rural society. Dopsie’s father bought him his first accordion—a small model with six bass notes—for two dollars when the boy was 14 and insisted that he learn how to play it on his own. Dopsie quickly picked up some tunes, including a few blues numbers from the radio, and soon played at a picnic—where people said he was better than his father. Dopsie played left-handed, thus turning the accordion upside down.
It was not until he went to Lafayette in the 1950s and started hanging around blues clubs, however, that Dopsie began to perform in public regularly. He and his distant cousin, Chester Zeno, a washboard player, played together in local clubs at night for eight years while Dopsie made his living during the day as a hod carrier. During this period he adopted his stage name, after a dancer from Chicago named Doopsie who had come to Lafayette. Dopsie had also established a reputation as a dancer; the sobriquet Rockin’ was added to indicate his status as a musician. Though the spelling of Dopsie has varied over the years, the pronunciation has not; it is still pronounced the way it was originally spelled, with two o’s.
Born Alton Rubin, February 10, 1932, in Carencro, LA; died August 26, 1993, in Opelousas, LA; son of an accordion player; married Alvina LeBlanc; eight children (including sons Alton and David).
Worked in construction and as an electrical contractor; played in clubs, Lafayette, LA, 1950s; signed with Sonet label and began performing in Europe, 1973; appeared on Paul Simon’s Graceland, 1985; first toured Japan and Australia, 1992.
Awards: Grammy Award nomination for best ethnic/folk recording, album, 1989, for Saturday Night Zydeco.
The years that Dopsie spent in nightclubs perhaps left the biggest impression on his music. For though he always played original Zydeco—what he called jazz, blues, and rhythm and blues mixed with French in an interview with Cajun Music author Ann Savoy—he often sang in English, and his recordings always featured dance standards.
Though Chenier encouraged him to pursue music full-time, Dopsie continued to work at day jobs, eventually becoming an electrical contractor. He made a few recordings with independent labels in the 1950s and with Floyd Soileau in Ville Platte, in 1969, and Jay Miller in Crowley, in 1970. But it was Sam Charters, of Sweden’s Sonet record label, with whom he would record his first LP as well as five more over the following ten years. Charters revealed in Living Blues that what he “liked about the band was that it sounded so raw.. . . Dopsie has a sound that was incredibly alive. And he plays sharps and flats on his accordion so it gives it a real wail.”
These European recordings were the beginning of international success for Dopsie. Like many traditional musicians, his popularity in Europe preceded his recognition in the United States. In 1979, Dopsie began twice-yearly European tours that regularly played to large crowds. At a free concert on the harbor in Stockholm celebrating the 25th anniversary of Sonet, he attracted a flotilla of boats that followed his steamer down the river. At the Montreaux festival, in Switzerland, he had 5,000 people dancing in the rain.
Dopsie’s band has long been considered one of the best in Zydeco. It includes two of his sons, Alton on drums, and David on washboard, the latter usually fronting the band as it warmed up the crowd for Dopsie. But more significantly, the band features famous blind saxophonist John Hart, also known as Johnny Hoyt, who had played for years with Clifton Chenier before retiring due to a blood clot in his leg. Hart was brought in by Sam Charters and often doubles the accordion line, giving the band a fuller, more mellow sound. Likewise, the band has included three other former Chenier sidemen—bass player Alonzo Johnson and guitarists Selwyn Cooper and Paul “Buck” Senegal.
In the 1980s Dopsie began to receive widespread recognition in the U.S. from fans as well as musicians outside the Louisiana community. In 1985, pop singer and songwriter Paul Simon went to bayou country to record “That Was Your Mother” with Dopsie; the song later appeared on Simon’s Grammy Award-winning album Graceland. In a Warner Bros, press release that accompanied the record’s unveiling, Simon mentioned that he had noticed an interesting similarity between the accordion music he had heard in Johannesburg, South Africa, from which much of the inspiration for Graceland came, and Zydeco. Simon also included the Los Angeles-based Los Lobos on the album as another example of accordion playing, this one with a traditional Mexican flavor.
It is unclear whether an increased interest in world music or its infectious danceability has ultimately been responsible for the popularization of Zydeco; Louisiana musicians cite the latter, but certainly the attention given to regional music and folk styles in the 1980s and ’90s advanced the accordion sound in pop music. Dopsie recorded with pop stars Bob Dylan and Cyndi Lauper, appeared in films, including Delta Heat, and endorsed products from Burger King hamburgers to Close Up Toothpaste.
In 1989, he received his first Grammy Award nomination, for Saturday Night Zydeco, the album that marked his brief return to a label for which he had recorded previously, Maison de Soul. This album was followed by his Atlantic Records debut, Louisiana Music, produced by Atlantic founder and co-chairman Ahmet Ertegun, who had recorded influential pianist Professor Longhair in New Orleans in 1949.
Dopsie’s career advanced as he played in clubs from Tramps, in New York City, to the El Casino Ballroom, in Tucson, Arizona. And though he toured Japan and Australia in 1992, he still found time to play at the local Lafayette Mardi Gras, where he had given a free concert for more than 20 years, and at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which he had attended since its inception. Wherever he went, he cast a striking figure, in red cape and crown. That’s Zydeco, and as Dopsie put it in J’ai Eté au Bal, “It’s like hair on top your head.”
Saturday Night Zydeco, Maison de Soul, 1989.
Louisiana Music, Atlantic, 1991.
Rockin’ Dopsie and the Twisters, Rounder.
Crowned Prince of Zydeco, Maison de Soul.
Doin’ the Zydeco, Sonet.
Play the Blues, Sonet.
Hold On, Sonet.
Big Bad Zydeco, Sonet.
French Style, Sonet.
Rockin’ With Dopsie, Folkways.
Broven, John, South to Louisiana: The Music of the Cajun Bayous, Pelican, 1987.
Savoy, Ann Allen, Cajun Music: A Reflection of a People, Volume One, Bluebird, 1988.
Cadence, November 1990.
Living Blues, July/August 1978; November/December 1988; July/August 1991.
Melody Maker, April 11, 1979; July 21, 1979; March 15, 1980.
Offbeat, February 1992.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the video documentary J’ai Eté au Bal, by Les Blank, 1991, and press materials from Warner Bros. Records, 1992, and the New Orleans Entertainment Agency, 1993.