Clifon was born on a sharecropper's farm
near Opeluosas in 1925. With elder brother Cleveland
he helped his impoverished parents work the fields from sunup
to sundown, riding mules and picking cotton. Fascinated by his
father Joseph's accordion playing Clifton started traveling
with Josph to Saturday-night suppers and house parties.
his father gave Clifton his first leaky, wheezy instrument,
Cleveland borrowed their mother's rub board and they made music
together, influenced by the records of Amadie Ardoin and local
performers like Sidney Babineaux and Jesse and Zozo Reynolds.
Now an R &
B star, Clifton was the "King of the South" as he
toured nonsop with his band, the Zodico Ramblers. These hectic times are fondly recalled by his former guitarist
Phillip Walker: "In 1953 I left Lonesome Sundown to go
with Clifton Chenier.
the time, 1955, we had all the heavy load, Clifton would have
his own spot, he never played behind the other artists.
Chenier's home is Opelousas, Louisiana, but his headquarters was Port Arthur, Texas. We used to play around Port Arthur,
our local territory when we wasn't on dates was Corpus Christi,
Houston, Dallas, Oklahoma City into Louisiana, Lafayette,
Breaux Bridge. Then when the big dates would come up they
would send us a letter: 'Be in Dallas at the office on so-and-so
we'd have as high as a hundred one-nighters, then if we was
off a couple of weeks we'd do our own gigs, but when the real
booking would come up sometimes we would go from coast to
coast before stopping. Yeah, we worked plenty, a whole
lot! I'd be so tired I'd just be wishing for that day to come
when we'd be off, that wasthe good old days -- now they're
the rough days! We played fifteen days at the Crown Propellor,
I think it was burnt down, at Sixty-third and Cottage Grove,
In the late
fifties Clifton was still recording R & B rather than
zydeco, although whenever he performed locally he included
some French numbers in his program. After leaving Speciality he languished with Chess, recieving
little promotional support for either "The Big Wheel"
(Argo) or "Bajou Drive" (Checker), two strutting
He lowered his sights by joining Jay Miller's
tiny Zynn label, but of three singles only "Rockin' Accordian"
caught the natural zest of his music -- Chenier was a rare
failure for Miller as a producer. In 1964 Clifton's faltering
career was given muchneeded direction by record owner Chris
Strachwitz from Berkeley, California.
guidance, Clifton promptly returned to his zydeco roots. The first Arhoolie album, "Louisiana Blues and Zydeco,"
found ready acceptance in South Louisiana and East Texas,
although Chris needed time to convince his regular blues customers
about the merits of zydeco music. Albums were released periodically,
besides the debut LP and best were "Bon Ton Roulet"
(1966), "King Of The Bayous" (1970), and "Bogalusa
Sporting a gaudy
mock crown, the King of Zydeco was on the road all the time,
playing his loud, socking music along the grinding Gulf Coast
chittlin circuit. Clifton
was received like royalty at suck clubs as the Casino in St.
Martinville, the Bon Ton Rouley in Lafayette, Richard's Club
in Lawtell, John's Bar in Lake Charles, and all the way to
Houston, where a vibrant zydeco scene supported such local
artists as Lonnie Mitchel and Herbert "Good Rocking"
Sam. The first step towards wider acceptance came with Chenier's
appearance at the 1966 Berkeley Festival, which prompted further
bookings on the West Coast. Canada and Europe beckoned next.
During the seventies
Clifton Chenier's name became synonymous with zydeco. Personal
talent aside, a key factor in hsi increasing prestige was
his splendid group. The ever-present rub-boarding Cleveland
Chenier and lively drummer Tobert Peter (surname St. Judy)
were joined by Blind John Hart, a thrilling sax player; guitarist
Paul Senegal; and bass guitarist Joe Brouchet. Called the
Louisiana Red Hot Band, they were just that - they sizzled!
affectionately in South Louisiana as "the blackest coonass,"
will always be the King of Zydeco. Chris
Strachwitz has the last word: "Clifton is a real giant
in his field, no doubt about it. When you hear all the dozens
of Chenier imitators it becomes even more obvious. Clifton
is a giant on his instrument -- no one comes close -- he has
a great gutsy voise and a very expressive and emotional delivery
when he feels like it. And his band is always good.
I feel bad that no one has come and
made a real star out of him. clifton is not only a
unique artist in the zydeco field, but he is a jazzman, an
endless improviser. He sings the blues and he can do Cajun
numbers better than anyone else. But in recent years he has
not wanted to do much French stuff, he feels the kids like
R & B and it sells better than any other types for him.
I can't praise the man enough - he is a giant! There will
never be another Clifton Chenier."
The National Trust Guide to
By Roulhac Toledano