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'King of Zydeco' : Clifton Chenier, 62; Cajun Accordionist

December 14, 1987|From Times wire and staff reports

LAFAYETTE, La. — Clifton Chenier, the "King of Zydeco" who inspired toot-tootin' and foot stomping worldwide with his spirited Cajun accordion, has died at the age of 62.

Chenier, who was severely diabetic and had required weekly kidney dialysis, died Saturday at Lafayette General Hospital. A hospital spokeswoman said the cause had not yet been determined.

"He was the king of zydeco," said Lynn Boutin, manager of famed Mulate's Restaurant in Breaux Bridge, La., a bayou hamlet and frequent stop for zydeco bands.

"Because of him, the movement is growing," Boutin said. "There are other bands starting up, playing what Chenier first played--black Cajun music."

Zydeco is thought to be a corruption of the French word "haricot," from the Cajun expression about dancing--"snap a bean." The music is a mix of blues, country, rock, Cajun waltzes and two-steps.

Despite his illness, Chenier had continued to record albums and perform on stage with his Red Hot Louisiana Band, most recently taking a swing through the Northeast just before Thanksgiving. Friends said he was hospitalized shortly after returning from the tour.

He recorded more than 100 albums during his career, and was nominated for a Grammy Award last year for "Live at the San Francisco Blues Festival." He was nominated for a Grammy in 1979 as well.

In Los Angeles, Chenier was known for his twice-yearly concerts at Verbum Dei High School in Watts, which attracted hundreds of fans from a community of transplanted Louisiana residents.

The concerts--which raised about $5,000 a year for the private Catholic school and the nearby St. Malachy's Parish--were the major events on campus each year, drawing overflow crowds of 600 or 650 a night to the gymnasium, school officials recalled.

One year's crowd included rock singer Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones. Tickets for the $10 dinner-dances were gone almost as soon as they went on sale, said the school's athletic director, Lalo Mendoza.

"Every time Clifton Chenier was here . . . you had people of all ages, of all backgrounds, of all ethnic mixtures come here and just pack this place," Mendoza said.

Those who could not get in would crowd the patio outside the gym, "trying to find a little place to listen," he said. "The people just loved to hear his music. . . . It was just awesome."

Although the crowds were mostly black, in recent years the concerts drew increasing numbers of young white couples, who came from as far away as San Diego and Santa Monica, said Father William Adams of St. Malachy's.

"It was really heartening to see these old people" dance, Adams said, describing the music as a rural creole style. "They might be plagued with arthritis, but they shook everything."

Chenier was born June 25, 1925, in Opelousas, La., the son of an accordion player. As a child, he heard both white and black Cajun musicians and later played music on weekends before moving in the mid-1950s to Houston, where he worked the dance halls.

Chenier played the large piano accordion, a versatile instrument suited to blues in many keys. He won his first wide recognition with the 1954 recording "Cliston Blues." He later was joined by his brother, Cleveland Chenier, who played a corrugated metal washboard, and they played together on the 1965 hit, "Louisiana Blues."

Chenier's music, including songs such as "Monifique" in 1967, a slow drag with a heavy beat, and "Tu le Ton Son Ton" in 1970, had wide appeal and influence.

His 1975 recording, "Jambalaya," demonstrated the buoyant, jazz-influenced playing of his later style. The essence of his work and his improvisational ability was captured in the 1973 film "Hot Pepper."

In 1984, Chenier received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Paul Simon, in one cut on his hit "Graceland" album, saluted Chenier as "the king of the bayou."

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