Chenier, Clifton (1925-1987)

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Chenier, Clifton (1925-1987)

Although he passed away in the late 1980s, Clifton Chenier remains the undisputed King of Zydeco. It was Clifton Chenier who took the old dance music of the rural Louisiana Creoles and added blues, soul, and country and stirred it all up until it became what we now call zydeco. His name was virtually synonymous with this type of music, and he became the most respected and influential zydeco artist in the world. Chenier popularized the use of the big piano key accordion, which allowed him to play a diversity of styles within the expanding zydeco genre. He pushed the envelope with energetic renditions of French dance standards or newer tunes transformed through zydeco's characteristic syncopated rhythms and breathy accordion pulses. Chenier assembled a band of musicians who were not just good but were the best in the business; they were a close-knit group that became legendary for high intensity concerts lasting four hours straight without a break. And there at the helm was Chenier, gold tooth flashing like the chrome of his accordion, having the time of his life.

Clifton Chenier was born on June 25, 1925 into a sharecropping family near Opelousas, Louisiana. He became dissatisfied early on with the farming life, and headed west with his brother Cleveland to work in the oil refineries around Port Arthur, Texas. Having learned from his father how to play the accordion, Chenier decided to attempt a transition toward performing as a professional. Driving a truck during the day and playing music at night, Chenier, along with his brother on rubboard, soon became a popular attraction in local roadhouses. Often the pair comprised the entire band, and this was zydeco in its purest form, an extension of the earlier French "la-la" music played at Creole gatherings throughout southwest Louisiana, now taken to new heights and amplitude for a wider audience. Chenier credits Rhythm and Blues (R & B) artist Lowell Fulson with showing him how to be a good performer, always mixing it up and pleasing the crowd—these lessons stayed with him for the rest of his career. One of his earliest recordings, "Ay-Tete-Fee" became a hit record in 1955.

During the early 1960s, Chenier began recording albums for Chris Strachwitz's west coast Arhoolie Records, where he eventually became that label's biggest seller. His first Arhoolie album, Louisiana Blues and Zydeco, was a hard-fought compromise between the producer's desire for traditional zydeco, and Chenier's wish to cross over into soul and the potentially even more lucrative R & B. The final version of the album represented a mixture of these two directions and included for the first time on record a blues number sung in French. Following that release, Chenier's popularity soared, and a frenetic schedule of touring ensued. Over the next few years, Clifton Chenier would realize the wisdom of Strachwitz's insistence on sticking close to unadulterated zydeco, which was already a musical gumbo of various ingredients, and he became more of a traditionalist himself, championing Creole culture and the French language wherever he played.

All through the 1970s Chenier and his Red Hot Louisiana Band traveled the "crawfish circuit" between New Orleans and Houston, playing in parking lots, in clubs and bars, and in Catholic church halls where zydeco dances were sponsored with increasing frequency. This kept the music rooted in its place of origin, and served to accentuate the rising awareness of Creole ethnic identity. When touring further afield, he became a regular attraction at blues festivals around the country and even made a successful sweep through Europe. It was about this time that he began wearing a crown on stage, dubbing himself the "King of Zydeco." His musical performances were featured in several documentary films, including Hot Pepper and J'ai Ete au Bal. In 1984, Chenier won a Grammy Award for the album I'm Here, and was now a nationally, and even internationally recognized musician. But his health had gone downhill. Plagued by poor circulation, he was diagnosed with diabetes and had portions of both legs amputated. After a final, tearful performance at the 1987 Zydeco Festival in Plaisance, Louisiana, he canceled a scheduled tour due to illness, and on December 12, 1987, at the age of 62, Clifton died in a Lafayette hospital. His legacy lives on, as does his fabled Red Hot Louisiana Band, now led by son C.J. Chenier, an emerging zydeco artist in his own right.

There has never been anyone, before or since, who could play the accordion like Clifton Chenier. While his vocal renditions of songs were truly inspired, his voice always served as accompaniment to the accordion, rather than the other way around. Besides having talent and the gift of making music, he was able to establish a warm and unaffected rapport with his audience. He knew who he was, he loved what he was doing, and he genuinely enjoyed people. Fans and critics alike are unreserved in their emphatic assessment of Clifton Chenier's artistry and his place in the annals of popular music. And musicians in the Red Hot Louisiana Band fondly recall the feeling of playing with this soulful master who had so much energy and who injected such pure feeling into his music. As former member Buckwheat Zydeco put it, "Clifton Chenier was the man who put this music on the map."

—Robert Kuhlken

Further Reading:

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

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