Carrying the Zydeco Torch
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Many followers of the New Orleans music scene will recognize CJ Chenier’s surname immediately. That’s because he’s the son of Zydeco godfather and legend Clifton Chenier. Chenier the younger, now a legend in his own right, will take the Foellinger Freimann Botanical Conservatory stage Friday, July 29 as part of the venue’s annual Botanical Roots Outdoor Concert Series.
Chenier will be joined by the members of The Red Hot Louisiana Band – Glenn Griffin on bass, Brian Rochon on drums, Will Jacobs on guitar and Tony Stewart on washboard. Together, they’ll be reminding the audience why Zydeco is and always will be America’s original party music.
“The Red Hot Louisiana Band was my dad’s band, until he passed away,” Chenier explained in a recent phone interview. He and his mates had some down time between gigs in Cleveland and they were enjoying the nice weather and relaxation. “It just made sense that, when he died, we’d keep the name the same, keep the tradition going.”
Keeping the tradition going is exactly what Chenier has been doing since he started touring with his father back in 1978. Chenier, a college music student and a fan of funk, blues, jazz and R&B – everything but Zydeco, which he thought all sounded the same – joined the Red Hot Louisiana Band as a saxophone player.
“I’ll tell you how it went,” Chenier said. “I was working, I wasn’t doing much, and my mom made me go out on the road with my dad. She was like, ‘You don’t have a job, you’re not doing anything else, get out of the house.’ And I did as I was told.”
The Port Arthur, Texas native thought it might be an odd and uncomfortable experience, playing not only with his father but with other men much older than himself. He’d been used to performing in Top 40 bands with musicians his own age. He soon found, however, that being a part of his dad’s group was fun. It was also an education.
“When I got out on the road with him, I started paying attention to the audiences,” Chenier said. “They had so much fun, they were going crazy and doing stuff I’d never seen crowds do at a music show, and that’s how I got attracted to Zydeco. And I thought it’d be strange and tense, playing in a band when I was the youngest member by 20 years at least, but it was really relaxing. They gave me some grief about being green, but it was all good. It turned out really good.”
Seven years into his tenure as a red hot sax player, Chenier was charged with taking over the band. Clifton had grown ill from diabetes and wanted to spend less and less time touring. Chenier filled in for his father on vocals and accordion, opening more and more shows. Then, in 1987, Clifton died. It was up to Chenier to carry the torch.
“I was already opening shows for him and playing all kinds of gigs,” Chenier said. “It was just natural to keep the act together and keep on rolling.”
Chenier’s style, which is part funk, part blues, part jazz, all Zydeco, caught the ear of Paul Simon in 1990, and that songwriting guru asked Chenier to play on his Rhythm of the Saints album. A few years later, he and his band played the Austin City Limits stage, and two years after that, Chenier was signed to Alligator records. His debut album, Too Much Fun, garnered best Zydeco album of the year honors from Living Blues magazine. That album thrust him into the spotlight, and soon fans were seeing him and the Red Hot Louisiana Band on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, VH1 and CNN. Chenier and the RHLB also played South by Southwest, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Milwaukee’s Summerfest and San Diego’s Street Scene.
In 1997, when The Big Squeeze, Chenier’s sophomore effort, dropped, he took home the Living Blues Critics’ Poll award AFIM Indie Award for best Zydeco album. Keep on rolling, indeed.
Chenier gives props to Zydeco for his success.
“When you go to a Zydeco show, you should go in with an open mind and be ready to have a good time. There’s no better good time music to be had anywhere. It’s fun, it’s upbeat, it’s designed for a party. That’s how it all started.”
Zydeco, a rich, aural stew of blues, R&B, rock n’ roll, soul, reggae and Afro-Caribbean and native Louisiana beats, grew to prominence among the Creoles of southwest Louisiana. While its exact origins are still a bit of a mystery (some say it developed first among the Atakapa people of the Louisiana woodlands, and others that it originated in West Africa and was brought to America by slaves) there is no doubt that it became popular in the last century as house party music. It was the kind of music bands would play to get people on their feet, to help them forget their troubles.
Masters of the form, musicians like Clifton Chenier, Rockin’ Sidney and Queen Ida, brought Zydeco out of Louisiana’s swamps and into the main stream in the 1980s. Then the next generation, men like CJ Chenier, Terrance Simien, Chubby Carrier, Geno Delafose, Nathan Williams and Beau Jocque picked up where they left off, introducing younger and younger fans to Zydeco so that the party might never end and a part of New Orleans area history not be forgotten.
In 2007 Zydeco even got its own Grammy category.
For Chenier, the point is having fun. He still remembers the first time he saw an audience lose its collective mind over Zydeco, and his goal is to make sure every crowd he entertains from now on has a foot-stomping good time. That doesn’t mean everyone in the audience has to dance. Not at all.
“This is heartfelt party music,” he said, “so a lot of people will be compelled to get up, dance the night away, but others might just want to sit there, listen to it, take it all in. Whatever they want to do is fine with me. I’m just there to keep it as true as possible. Some people say, ‘Do you play old school Zydeco?’ And I’m like, ‘Old school? I don’t know. We play real school. That’s what we do. You come to our show, and you’re going to get the real school.”