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Clifton Chenier

June 25, 1925 - Dec. 12, 1987

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Accordionist Clifton Chenier was one of the originators of zydeco, a Louisiana music that fuses Cajun, African American and French Afro-Caribbean sounds. New Orleans, Louisiana, 1974, photograph by Chris Strachwitz/Arhoolie Records
Clifton Chenier performs at the 1978 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, photograph by Michael P. Smith
Clifton Chenier, photograph by Chris Strachwitz/Arhoolie Records, 1979
Clifton Chenier, New Orleans, Louisiana, 1974, photograph by Chris Strachwitz/Arhoolie Records
Cleveland and Clifton Chenier, photograph by Chris Strachwitz/Arhoolie Records
Houston, Texas, 1965, photograph by Chris Strachwitz/Arhoolie Records
Morris Ardoin and Clifton Chenier, May 1966, photograph by Chris Strachwitz/Arhoolie Records
Clifton Chenier, Lake Charles, Louisiana, photograph by Chris Strachwitz/Arhoolie Records
Clifton Chenier and his Red Hot Louisiana Band, 1975, photograph by Michael P. Smith, courtesy Chris Strachwitz/Arhoolie Records
Cleveland and Clifton Chenier, 1975, photograph by Michael P. Smith, courtesy Chris Strachwitz/Arhoolie Records
Clifton Chenier, 1975, photograph by Michael P. Smith, courtesy Chris Strachwitz/Arhoolie Records
Cleveland Chenier, 1974, photograph by Nicholas R. Spitzer
Clifton Chenier, 1974, photograph by Nicholas R. Spitzer
Clifton Chenier, New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, New Orleans, Lousiana, 1975, Photograph by Michael P. Smith
Clifton Chenier, New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, New Orleans, Lousiana, 1975, Photograph by Michael P. Smtih
Clifton Chenier, New Orleans, Louisiana, 1979, photograph by Michael P. Smith
Clifton Chenier, New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, New Orleans, Lousiana, 1981, photograph by Michael P. Smith
Clfiton Chenier, 1984 National Heritage Fellowship Ceremonies, Courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Cleveland and Clifton Chenier, 1984 National Heritage Fellowship Ceremonies, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Clifton Chenier poster, Oppelousas, Lousiana, 1985, photograph by Chris Strachwitz/Arhoolie Records
Clifton Chenier, 1984 Grammy Award winner, courtesy Chris Strachwitz/Arhoolie Records

Clifton Chenier's father, Joseph Chenier, was a local musician who played the accordion at home and at dances known as fais dodos. As a child, Clifton worked on a farm outside Opelousas, Louisiana, and was interested in music. He learned the basics of accordion playing from his father, and by the time he was 16 years of age, he was playing the accordion, accompanied by his older brother Cleveland, who played the frottoir (washboard or rub-board) with a metal bottle opener. The frottoir was adapted by early African American Creoles as a rhythm instrument.

Clifton and Cleveland began performing at house dances, where the furniture was often moved aside to make room for the dancers. In time, Clifton shifted from the small diatonic accordion he had learned from his father to the larger and more flexible piano accordion. In time, the percussion in Clifton's bands grew more complex, and he added electric guitars, bass, drums and saxophone to play larger clubs, dance halls, and juke joints between Houston and New Orleans.

As he matured, Clifton developed his own musical style, one that combined elements of traditional French Creole music with the stylization of rhythm and blues. In 1942, Clifton went to Lake Charles to play in the Clarence Garlow Band. Three years later, he married his wife, Margaret, and in 1946 he moved to Houston to work in the postwar boom.

He soon began performing again at area dances with his brother. In 1954, recording scout J. R. Fulbright, a black recording pioneer, spotted the Chenier brothers and asked them to record for his Elko label, which released a 78 rpm recording of "Louisiana Stomp" and "Clifton's Blues." These two tracks are among the earliest recorded examples of what is now known as zydeco.

In 1955, Clifton signed with Specialty Records, and his first release for that label, "Ay 'Tit Fille" ("Hey Little Girl"), was a rhythm and blues hit throughout the South. Chenier capitalized on its success and took his band, the Zydeco Ramblers, on tour. For the next eight years he recorded with several other regional labels. It wasn't until 1963, however, when he recorded with Arhoolie, a California-based label, that he attained national acclaim. Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records heard Clifton play in Houston, and the next day he recorded "Ay Ai Ai" and "Why Did You Go Last Night?" for Arhoolie at a local studio. The following year Chenier recorded his first album, Louisiana Blues & Zydeco, and quickly became Arhoolie's top-selling artist.

From the 1960s to about 1980, Clifton toured widely with his Red Hot Louisiana Band, but in his later years he was plagued by diabetes and kidney problems. About his illness, he said, "It's hard to get on the bandstand, playing, and you've got something hurting you. You're pretending to the people, but you're hurting. Sometimes I get tired a little, but I'm a person like this: When I'm playing, I'm playing. Ain't no tired there. One speed, let's go. And when I say goodnight, that's it. Oh yeah, that's it. I'm at the end of the line then."

In 1984, Chenier won a Grammy in the "Ethnic Music" category for his album I'm Here!, recorded on Chicago's Alligator label.

Bibliography
Ancelet, Barry Jean, and Elemore Morgan, Jr. The Makers of Cajun Music: Musiciens Cadiens el Créoles. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1984.
Bogey, Dan, Barbara Hoffert, et al. "Book Reviews: Arts & Humanities." Library Journal (October 1, 1998) 123, 16: 92.
Colby, Michael, Barbara Hoffert, et al. "Book Reviews: Arts & Humanities." Library Journal (May 1999) 124, 8: 82.
Draper, Dan. "Clifford's Blues." Texas Monthly (October 1997) 25, 10: 140.
Hannusch, J. "Zydeco Great Clifton Chenier Dead at 62." Rolling Stone (January 1, 1988): 14.
Holston, Mark. "Cutting Edges of Yesterday and Today." Americas (July/August 2000) 52, 4: 54.
Horne, Jed, and Bob Sacha. "Cajun Country." Travel Holiday (November 1994) 177, 9: 56.
Morthland, John. "Blues Brothers." Texas Monthly (July 1999) 27, 7: 68.
______. "Wills Power." Texas Monthly (May 2000) 28, 5: 122.
______. "Unsung." Texas Monthly (October 2000) 28, 10: 112.
Patoski, Joe Nick. "The Big Twang." Texas Monthly (July 1994) 22, 7.
______. "What a Disc." Texas Monthly (October 1992) 20, 10: 128.
Sandmel, Ben. "Allons au Zydeco." World & I (August 1999) 14, 8.
Savoy, Ann Allen. Cajun Music: A Reflection of a People, Vol. 1. Eunice, Louisiana: Bluebird Press, 1985.
Tisserand, Michael. The Kingdom of Zydeco. New York: Arcade, distributed by Little, Brown, 1998.
Walsh, Michael, and David E. Thigpen. "Hot off the Bayou." Time (May 8, 1995) 145, 19: 88.

Discography
Chenier, Clifton. Bogalusa Boogie. Arhoolie 347.
______. Bon Ton Roulet! Arhoolie 345.
______. King of the Bayous, I'm Coming Home. Arhoolie 339.
______. The King of Zydeco Live at Montreux. Arhoolie 355.
______. Live! At the Longbeach & San Francisco Blues Festivals. Arhoolie 404.
______. Out West. Arhoolie 350.
______. Sings the Blues. Arhoolie 351.
______. Zydeco Sont Pas Salé. Arhoolie 9001.

Filmography
Clifton Chenier and His Red Hot Louisiana Band. Videotape, 3/4-inch and 1/2-inch, color, 58 minutes. Directed by Carl Colby. New York: Phoenix Films, 1977.
Clifton Chenier: The King of Zydeco. 16mm, videotape, color, 55 minutes. Produced by Chris Strachwitz. El Cerrito, California: Flower Films, 1987.
Dry Wood. 16mm, videotape, color, 37 minutes. Directed by Les Blank, with Maureen Gosling. El Cerrito, California: Flower Films, 1973.
Hot Pepper. 16mm, videotape, color, 54 minutes. Directed by Les Blank, with Maureen Gosling. El Cerrito, California: Flower Films, 1973.
J'ai Eté au Bal. 16mm, videotape, color, 84 minutes. Directed by Les Blank, with Chris Strachwitz and Maureen Gosling. El Cerrito, California: Flower Films, 1989.

Watch

Excerpt from J'ai Eté au Bal, 16mm and video, directed by Les Blank, with Chris Strachwitz and Maureen Gosling, Brazos Films, 1989

Listen

Clifton Chenier, 'Louisiana Blues,' Clifton Chenier: 60 Minutes With the King of Zydeco, 1986, Arhoolie CD 301

Clifton Chenier, 'Zydeco Cha-Cha,' Clifton Chenier: 60 Minutes With the King of Zydeco, 1986, Arhoolie CD 301

Clifton Chenier, 'Tu Le Ton Son Ton,' Clifton Chenier: 60 Minutes With the King of Zydeco, 1986, Arhoolie CD 301

Clifton Chenier, 'Big Mamou,' Clifton Chenier: 60 Minutes With the King of Zydeco, 1986, Arhoolie CD 301

Clifton Chenier, 'Sa M'Appelle Fou,' Clifton Chenier: 60 Minutes With the King of Zydeco, 1986, Arhoolie CD 301

Clifton Chenier, recorded live at the 1984 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Washington, D.C., courtesy National Endowment for the Arts