Clifton Chenier

Born: June 25, 1925 in Opelousas, La.
Died: Dec. 12, 1987

Clifton Chenier, known as the "King of Zydeco," was born in Opelousas, Louisiana. His father, a musician, got him interested in music and taught Clifton the accordion basics. He would later master the harmonica, organ, and piano. Clifton was also influenced by his uncle, Morris Chenier, and Clarence "Bon Ton" Garlow, one of the first great zydeco musicians.

Clifton worked on a farm outside Opelousas as a child, but by 1942 he and his brother Cleveland were in the Clarence Garlow Band in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Chenier moved to Port Arthur in 1946 to work on the labor gang at the Gulf refinery. During his lunch break, Chenier played the accordion. The first frottoir or metal rubboard was made for Clifton and Cleveland Chenier by Willie Landry. The three men worked together at Gulf Refinery in the 1940s. Cleveland drew the type of musical instrument he wanted in the dirt, and Landry, a Cajun metal craftsman, created the metal rubboard for the brothers. Landry’s son still makes rubboards. Legend has it that the money from tips was better than his salary, so Clifton quit the labor gang to start playing local dates.

 

From 1947 until 1954, Chenier worked outside music and played only weekend gigs. During that time, he formed the Hot Sizzling Band and worked the Cajun and Zydeco areas of Port Arthur, Beaumont, Houston, and Lake Charles. Chenier began his recording career in 1954 when he signed with Elko Records and released “Clifton's Cajun Blues," a regional success. His first hit record was soon followed by "Ay 'Tite Fille (Hey, Little Girl)" and "Bopping the Rock" (1955). Chenier toured extensively with the Zydeco Ramblers. He also toured with Clarence Garlow, billed as Two Crazy Frenchmen. By 1956, Chenier was recording under the Argo label in Los Angeles, California. In the 1960s, Chenier continued to work club dates in Houston and zydeco concerts throughout East Texas, Louisiana, and Florida.

 

In April 1966, Chenier appeared at the Berkeley Blues Festival and was described by Ralph J. Gleason, jazz critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, as "... one of the most surprising musicians I have heard in some time, with a marvelously moving style of playing the accordion." Chenier was the first act to play at Antone's in Austin, Texas, and reached a national audience on the premiere season of Austin City Limits in 1976. Three years later, he returned to the show with his Red Hot Louisiana Band.

 

Chenier continued to appear in clubs, on television, at shows, and at many music festivals, including the Ozark Mountain Folk Fair, the Montreux Rock Festival, and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, introducing zydeco to new audiences. To thousands of fans, Clifton Chenier was zydeco personified; he popularized a genre barely known beyond the Gulf until the 1960s.

 

Chenier was recognized with a Grammy Award in 1983 for his album I'm Here. He followed Queen Ida as the second Louisiana Creole ever to win a Grammy. Starting in 1987, his son, C. J. Chenier carried on the zydeco tradition by touring with his father’s band. 

 

Paul Simon, John Mellencamp, Zachary Richard, Rory Gallagher, and the jam band Phish all consider Clifton Chenier to be one of their musical influences. Clifton Chenier was inducted posthumously into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1989 and is a member of the Museum of the Gulf Coast, Music Hall of Fame. 

Clifton Chenier performs "Keep On Knosking."
Tex Ritter Portrait