Where we come from, if people don’t dance ft it’s an insult!,” said Terrance Simien in Billboard.”The real deal is: We a lot of times get people in the crowd who are kinda shy and really wanna dance. We kinda force things so the ones that should dance will come up.” Simien accomplishes this by interspersing frantically fluttering hand gestures with riffs from his diatonic button accordion equipped with an extra-long bellows that he allows to hang and shake as he bounds about the stage playing it behind his back and between his legs.
Zydeco has always been high energy music, but Simien’s frenetic presence sets him apart from his contemporaries. According to Rick Mason in the St. Paul Pioneer Press-Dispatch, even when Simien was virtually unknown in Louisiana, his performance at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival generated sparks in the crowd. With “his face painted in a vivid rainbow of colors” and his “long hair flying in every direction, Simien tore up the place with a sweaty, explosive performance,” Mason remarked.
The word zydeco is a modification of les haricots, or snap beans, as popularized by the traditional Cajun song “The Snap Beans Aren’t Salty.” According to Timothy White in Billboard, zydeco grafts Acadian folk songs on to the Afro-Caribbean rhythms brought to Louisiana by French-speaking slaves and free men of color after the Haitian Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century. German immigrants introduced the accordion to the fiddle-focused Cajun instrumentals in the 1870s, and the washboard or “frottoir,” played with spoons or bottle openers, gave zydeco its unique percussive drive.
Clifton Chenier did much to popularize the music in the 1950s; in the St. Petersburg Times, Simien credited him with opening new vistas for zydeco. Chenier expanded the slower, mostly acoustical sound of traditional zydeco by adding drums and electrical instruments, infusing it with a strong rhythm and blues feeling. Indeed, today’s zydeco bands often carry strong guitarists capable of delivering hard-edged blues.
Simien noted in the St Paul Pioneer Press-Dispatch that the music continues to evolve: “We grew up listening to different kinds of music—rock and roll, soul, reggae, pop, and stuff like that. So I incorporate some of that stuff with our zydeco music, just by writing songs that might have been influenced by maybe a Bob Dylan, a Mick Jagger, or something like that.”
For the Record…
Born September 3, 1965, in Mallet, LA.
Formed the first incarnation of the Mallet Playboys, 1981; group played at World’s Fair in New Orleans, 1984; band showcased at Lone Star Cafe, New York City, 1985; appeared in film and on soundtrack of The Big Easy, 1987; toured North Africa, 1988; released debut album with the Mallet Playboys, Zydeco on the Bayou, 1990; group appeared on Lonesome Pine Specials, PBS, 1992; band signed with Black Top/Rounder Records, 1993.
Addresses: Record company —Black Top Records, P.O. Box 56691, New Orleans, LA 70156.
Born in Mallet, Louisiana, on September 3, 1965, Simien spent three years studying jazz and classical trumpet at Lawtell Elementary and grew up watching his mother sing in the choir of St. Ann’s Catholic Church. Like many people of his generation, Simien initially didn’t care much for zydeco. As he said in the St. Petersburg Times: “There was a time, mostly in the 1970s, when zydeco was almost extinct. It was confined to the older generation. Younger people thought it wasn’t cool to go to the zydeco dances. I was into soul music and rock and roll.”
But that changed when he stopped going to the record hops at the church hall because he thought they were too juvenile and uptight. At 13, he started sneaking into local clubs like Slim’s Y-Ki-Ki in Opelousas. In the St. Paul Pioneer Press-Dispatch, Simien recalled that he “fell in love with the music ‘cause it was something that I could really dance to and didn’t have to dress a certain way or dance a certain way. It was laid-back stuff, man, something I could really relate to.”
Soon Simien was a regular listener to the weekly Lou Collins’ Black Zydeco Special out of Eunice, teaching himself the music of Fernest Arceneaux, the Sam Brothers, and Clifton Chenier on a $250 Hohner single-row diatonic accordion he had received for his fifteenth birthday. Unlike other zydeco performers such as Buckwheat Zydeco and Clifton Chenier, who play the bulkier piano version, Simien has stuck with the cruder button accordion. Although it limits virtuoso technique, Simien’s instrument of choice rocks harder and lets him move around more, according to Eric Snider in the St. Petersburg Times. In 1982 Simien started the initial and short-lived incarnation of the Mallet Playboys, because as he explained in Billboard, it “was an older clan that didn’t want to learn more than five songs.”
Simien was more careful with his band selection from then on, holding auditions to assemble a younger group comprised of his longtime rubboard player Earl Sally, bassist Popp Esprite, Troy Gaspard on drums, and Mark Simar on guitar. Simien had been splitting his time between working with his father as a bricklayer and playing at local clubs. At the 1984 World’s Fair in New Orleans, however, he was noticed by a woman who booked him for several dates in the Washington, D.C., area. Soon the band was touring all over the United States.
In 1985 Simien performed at New York’s Lone Star Cafe. He related in The New Folk Music that “all kinds of musicians showed up to hear us. Keith Richards and Ron Wood got on stage and played. Paul Simon came down to hear us, Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan.” Simon heard about Simien from Dickie Landry, a Cajun saxophonist, composer, and producer who had spent a couple of decades in the New York music scene. Simon considered the band for his Graceland album, but ultimately settled on the more traditional Rockin’ Dopsie.
Nevertheless, their meeting was fortuitous because Simon produced a 12-hour recording session for the band. As Simien recounted in the St. Petersburg Times: “Paul gave us the tapes and said, This is a present, do what you want to do with it.’” Simon even sang background vocals on the song “You Used to Call Me,” which was released as a regional single on the small Grand Point label. And as Rick Mason commented in the St Paul Pioneer Press-Dispatch: “The single nonetheless became part of the band’s promotional package, helping the Playboys secure gigs for its increasingly hectic international schedule.”
Dickie Landry also got Simien an audition with director Jim McBride and Dennis Quaid for a cameo during a club scene in the 1987 movie The Big Easy. Hired on the spot, Simien ended up co-writing one of the two songs on the soundtrack. The year 1987 also marked the band’s first European tour, which included the prestigious Bern Jazz Festival in Switzerland, where they opened for Fats Domino and Sarah Vaughan. In 1990 Simien and the Mallet Playboys released their first album, Zydeco on the Bayou, on Restless and performed on a national Chevrolet commercial. The band tours constantly and has opened for Los Lobos and Robert Palmer.
In 1992 the Mallet Playboys taped a television show for PBS’s Lonesome Pine Specials and began recording their second project, There’s Room for Us All. This album is indicative of Simien’s eclectic musical vision. From adding a talkbox to zydeco oldies and turning Boozoo Chavis’s classic “Dog Hill” into an extended party mix, to experimenting with reggae and soul—for years Simien has covered Peter Tosh—Simien continued to expand zydeco.
The album also boasted the presence of guests like bassist/producer Daryl Johnson, pianist Art Neville, and the Meters. As Simien commented in Billboard, “The album’s title says it best: There’s a lot of musicians on this record that came from different bands and different backgrounds, and there are a lot of different people in this world that we gotta learn to love and accept.” For Simien there is even room for the audience, whom he often welcomes on stage, giving them tambourines, cowbells, and washboards, inviting them to join him as he carries on.
With the Mallet Playboys
Zydeco on the Bayou, Restless Records, 1990.
There’s Room for Us All, Black Top/Rounder Records, 1993.
Harris, Craig, The New Folk Music, White Cliffs Media Company, 1991.
Billboard, July 31, 1993.
Black Top Records Biography, 1994.
Kalamazoo Gazette (Michigan), November 4, 1990.
Montgomery Journal and Advertiser (Alabama), April 13, 1990.
Philadelphia Inquirer, November 7, 1990.
Rolling Stone, April 21, 1994.
St. Paul Pioneer Press-Dispatch, July 6, 1990.
St. Petersburg Times, August 19, 1988.
Times-Picayune (New Orleans), September 30, 1988.
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