The only way Angelenos could get a true glimpse of the musical world of Clifton Chenier, who died last weekend at 62, was to attend one of the numerous benefit dances featuring the zydeco kingpin at Verbum Dei High School in South Central Los Angeles.
Those performances had the ambiance of a Saturday night church social in Texas or Louisiana. They were held in the school gym, with rows of cafeteria tables flanking a long central strip extending to the elevated stage where the band set up. No liquor was served--you brought your own booze and bought "set-ups" of ice and mixers.
The crowd was mainly transplanted Louisianians who knew Chenier's zydeco music--an amalgam of Cajun music with black blues and R&B. And they came to dance: Half an hour after the music started, the dance floor was filled with everyone from older men in electric green suits to young Creole women dressed to the nines to a smattering of Hollywood sorts (including Mick Jagger one memorable year) checking out the scene.
And it stayed that way for the rest of the night--it wasn't uncommon for Chenier and company to go on stage at 10 and play straight through until 2 without taking a break. I still remember marveling at the way Chenier's powerhouse drummer Robert Peter (or Robert St. Judy or Robert St. Julien, depending on which album credit you look at) periodically towelled the sweat off his face in mid-song without missing a beat.
Chenier's Red Hot Louisiana Band wasn't a precisely drilled, note-perfect unit. Chenier would usually play a few signature opening licks on his accordion and the rest of the group would fall in raggedly for about 30 seconds. But when they finally locked together in the groove, Chenier's ensemble was simply the greatest blues-based dance band I've ever listened and sweated to.
The most exciting moments usually came when the music was stripped down to the core trio of Chenier's accordion, his brother Cleveland's clattering metal rub-board and the thunderous cannonade of Peter's syncopated snare shots.
Chenier's death (of kidney failure and complications from diabetes) came at the time when the music he dominated for a quarter century is finally getting some attention beyond its Louisiana-Texas base. The "Big Easy" sound-track album has been a strong seller. Buckwheat Zydeco's LP has cracked the pop charts, and Rockin' Dopsie picked up a Grammy for backing Paul Simon on the "Graceland" LP.
It's the kind of exposure that Chenier himself never enjoyed. He had one R&B chart single in the mid-'50s with "Eh, 'Tite Fille" but his real recording career started in the early '60s when Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records stumbled into a Houston club where Chenier was playing with only Cleveland's rub-board for accompaniment. That Berkeley-based label would release the bulk of Chenier's records over the next 20-plus years.
But, aside from a few major festival appearances in Europe during the latter years of his career, Chenier never left the Texas-Louisiana club and church circuit that spawned zydeco.
He was enormously proud of his position as the "King of Zydeco," wearing a royal crown and pushing himself to perform even when his health wouldn't allow him to perform at his peak during the last few years--Chenier had had both feet amputated due to diabetes and endured weekly kidney dialysis treatments. Even when he was too ill to go on stage, he insisted on traveling to gigs with the Red Hot Louisiana Band so he could watch from the wings.
But I'll always remember him in his prime: the charismatic performer and accordion virtuoso by whom all others are judged, the songwriter whose tunes are the standards of the genre, and a bandleader who drew the top players to his band. Fans of zydeco didn't need to use his surname. If you just said Clifton , everyone knew who you were talking about.