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Chavis, Boozoo (1930—)

Chavis, Boozoo (1930—)

As the leading exponent of a unique musical tradition known as zydeco, Boozoo Chavis is a genuine artist who is inextricably enveloped within the regional landscapes of his culture. Lake Charles, Louisiana, sits at the western apex of a roughly triangular area of south Louisiana that is home to the black French-speaking population known as Creoles. Here, among the horse pastures and the patchwork fields of rice and sweet potatoes, Boozoo Chavis learned to play "lala music" on the accordion for the rural house dances that formed the centerpiece of Creole social life. When the urbanized sounds of rhythm and blues caught on among local blacks, it was Chavis who first successfully blended traditional la-la songs with a more contemporary bluesy sound and with lyrics sung in English. In 1954 he recorded the now classic "Paper in My Shoe," which told of poverty but with a beat that let you deal with it. Along with Clifton Chenier who recorded "Ay Tete Fee" the following year, Boozoo Chavis is a true pioneer of zydeco music.

In an unfortunate turn of events, Chavis felt he did not receive what was his due from making that early record, and left off pursuing music as an avocation, turning instead to raising race horses at "Dog Hill," his farm just outside Lake Charles. Though he continued to play for local parties and traditional Creole gatherings such as Trail Rides, he did not begin playing commercially again until 1984. Since coming out of semi-retirement he has not wasted any time, however, and has recorded some seven albums loaded with pure gems. Hey Do Right! is titled after the nickname for his daughter Margaret.

Wilson Anthony Chavis was born October 23, 1930 some 60 miles east of the Lake Charles area where he would grow up. He does not recall where his peculiar nickname came from, but it is a moniker widely recognized among legions of zydeco fans today—caps and t-shirts in south Louisiana proclaim in bright letters: "Boozoo, that's who!" Even as he approaches his seventieth birthday, Chavis still knows how to work a crowd. Whether it is in the cavernous recesses of a legendary local club like Richard's in Lawtell or Slim's Y-Ki-Ki in Opelousas, or commanding an outdoor stage at the congested New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Boozoo performs like the seasoned professional he has become, with great vigor and joie de vivre. He characteristically runs through a long sequence of tunes one after another, without even taking a break. His trademark clear plastic apron keeps the sweat from damaging the bellows of his diatonic button accordion, which he still prefers over the piano key instrument that is more common among zydeco artists of his generation. Every Labor Day, Boozoo hosts a picnic at Dog Hill which is open to the public, thereby continuing the tradition of rural house dances where zydeco began. Numerous bands contribute to the day's entertainment, and Boozoo always plays last, making the final definitive statement of what this music is all about.

Afraid of flying, he mainly limits touring to places within easy driving distance of Lake Charles, to all points between New Orleans and Houston, the extremities of zydeco's heartland. But with increasing recognition of his talent and position as leading exponent of zydeco, Chavis has begun to travel more widely, heading for locations like New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, or Seattle. No matter where he plays, Boozoo has never strayed from the recognition that zydeco is first and foremost dance music. His songs include many of the old French waltzes and two-steps from earlier times, but are always spiced up a bit in his inimitable fashion. In a recently published book, zydeco observer Michael Tisserand characterized Boozoo's playing as a "punchier, more percussive style." Thematically, Chavis stays close to home, writing songs about his family, friends, farm, and beloved race horses that sport names such as "Camel" and "Motor Dude."

In the face of ever more urban and homogenizing influences on zydeco, Boozoo Chavis remains rooted in the music's rural traditions. He is just as likely to be fixing up the barn or working with his horses as playing at a dance or a concert. While a half-serious, half in jest controversy has simmered over the years regarding who should follow the reign of Clifton Chenier as the King of Zydeco, most cognoscenti agree that of all the leading contenders for the crown, Boozoo Chavis is most deserving of the accolade. He is the perennial favorite at the Zydeco Festival in Plaisance, Louisiana, where he often waits in the shade of the towering live oaks to greet his many fans and sign autographs. His music, like the person that he is, is the real article.

—Robert Kuhlken

Further Reading:

Broven, John. South to Louisiana: The Music of the Cajun Bayous. Gretna, Louisiana, Pelican Publishing, 1983.

Nyhan, Patricia, et al. Let the Good Times Roll! A Guide to Cajun & Zydeco Music. Portland, Maine, Upbeat Books, 1997.

Tisserand, Michael. The Kingdom of Zydeco. New York, ArcadePublishing, 1998.

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