Clifton Chenier - accordian, vocals; Cleveland Chenier - rubboard; Antoine Victor - guitar; Jumpin' Joe Morris - bass; Robert St. Judy - drums
French Creole accordionist and singer Clifton Chenier, the undisputed King of Zydeco, was a ubiquitous figure on the juke joint and dance hall circuit of southwestern Louisiana long before breaking through to more widespread acclaim after his appearance at the inaugural New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 1970. Held outdoors in what was then known as Beauregard Square (originally Congo Square, an open space where slaves were allowed to gather on Sundays to sing, dance and play music during the 18th century), this George Wein event included performances by international jazz stars like the Duke Ellington Orchestra and Ella Fitzgerald along with local artists such as guitarist Snooks Eaglin, the Olympia Brass Band, Pete Fountain, Al Hirt, Papa John French and the Mardi Gras Indians.
Born on June 25, 1925, the son of sharecropper and amateur accordion player, Clifton Chenier absorbed the influences of bluesmen Muddy Waters, Peetie Wheatstraw and Lightnin' Hopkins along with the New Orleans R&B artists Fats Domino and Professor Longhair. By 1944, he was performing with his brother Cleveland in the dance halls of Lake Charles, Louisiana. Chenier began his recording career in 1954 when he signed with Elko Records and scored a regional hit with "Clifton's Blues." He then jumped to the Specialty label in 1955 and had a national hit with a cover of Professor Longhair's "Hey Little Girl" (sung in French as "Ay Tite Fille"). His reputation spread through a string of rootsy recordings through the '60s and early '70s with the Arhoolie label, including Louisiana Blues and Zydeco and Bogalusa Boogie. He later received a Grammy Award for his 1982 Alligator album, I'm Here!
Jointly introduced here by Duck Allen, curator of the archive of New Orleans jazz at Tulane University, and Arhoolie Records head Chris Strachwitz, Chenier dazzled the New Orleans crowd with his unique brand of dance music brought up from his hometown of Opelousas, Louisiana, and which he sung in a French patois. A flamboyant performer and virtuosic player, Chenier set the template for all zydeco accordionists who followed in his wake, including Rockin' Dopsie, Buckwheat Zydeco, Beau Jaques, Roy Carrier, Sunpie Barnes and Rosie Ledet.
Accompanied by his brother Cleveland on rubboard (or frottoir), bassist Jumpin' Joe
Morris, guitarist Antoine Victor and drummer Robert St. Judy, Chenier kicks off his
April 23rd set with the rollicking "Zydeco Boogie Woogie," which he said he used to "wake the boys up a little bit." He next turns in a lovely rendition of the country lament "Release Me" (sung in French) that also showcases his powerful vocals and melodic invention on the accordion. The lively "Zydeco Sont Pas Sale (Snapbeans Ain't Salty)" is a quintessential fast-stepping dance number from the heart of southwestern Louisiana while "You Promised Me Love" is a delicate French waltz rendition of a Ray Charles ballad. Chenier and his crew conclude their New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival set with a French version of "Let the Good Times Roll," putting a Creole exclamation point on that popular Louis Jordan number.
Chenier performed at the White House in 1984 and though he suffered from kidney disease and a partially amputated foot in his final years, he continued performing until one week before his death on December 12, 1987. In 1989, he was inducted posthumously into the Blues Hall of Fame. - Bill Milkowski