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NIGHT LIFE THE CLUB SCENE

Dad's Footsteps : C. J. Chenier is now leading the band founded by his father, legendary zydeco player Clifton Chenier.

July 25, 1991|BILL LOCEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Blue Monday promoter Michael Kaufer has been bringing just about everybody who is anybody in zydeco music to Ventura County over the past few months.

Wayne Toups was here, then Nathan Williams and noJ. Chenier is on the way to headline this week's Blue Monday presentation at Alexander's in Ventura.

Chenier is the son of the king, the legendary Clifton Chenier. The senior Chenier wore a crown onstage and helped popularize zydeco music--he even coined the z-word. Helping to carry on his father's legacy, the young Chenier has lots of backup--his father's band, the Red Hot Louisiana Band.

The elder Chenier, "The King of Zydeco," played his music from the '50s until his death in 1987. Undergoing kidney dialysis treatment and with one leg amputated, Chenier continued to perform until the end.

When he was growing up, young Chenier only saw his father a couple times a year because he lived with his mother in Port Arthur, Tex., and not in Louisiana.

"Man, it was Dullsville," said Chenier in a voice so deep he'd make James Earl Jones sound like a soprano. He was describing Port Arthur in a recent phone interview from his Lafayette, La., home. "My dad gave me a call one day in Port Arthur and said, 'Pack your bags. Hit the road.' I was 20 years old then."

The young Chenier wasn't totally unprepared because he had been playing sax and piano in a local Top 40 cover band since the ripe old age of 16. But he had never heard zydeco in Port Arthur, which then was like Ventura County is now--with nothing very new or interesting on the radio. The few Texans who had heard zydeco laughingly called it "chanky chank."

"I was in his band for 9 1/2 years before he passed away," said Chenier. "The whole first year was pretty rough. I knew no zydeco at all. I was green. I couldn't tell one tune from another. But I didn't really feel too much pressure. Sometimes some old guys would say some stuff because I'm not exactly like my dad. But that's because I'm not him."

After four years with the Red Hot Louisiana Band, the elder Chenier appointed his son band leader. Now he plays his father's accordion, the one with the name "Clifton Chenier" inlaid in mother-of-pearl.

"It wasn't that easy learning the accordion; man, I'm still trying to figure that thing out. Being that Clifton Chenier was the only accordion player that I ever really listened to, there's no other style I could have. I never even listened to his records. I mostly listened to him live standing next to him. It was onstage experience."

And now the band is on the road all the time, more than all the drivers in a Burt Reynolds car-crash movie. But these guys rock more, and attract fewer cops and more dancers.

"We come to California maybe twice a year; it's a day-and-a-half drive straight through," said Chenier. "We're on the road most of the time, maybe six or seven months a year. Zydeco is expanding. We've played in every state and just came back from three weeks in Europe."

All of a sudden, there's so much music coming out of Louisiana that some people tend to confuse zydeco with Cajun music. Both of them make you feel like dancing, and neither of them is on MTV, at least until Guns N' Roses does a cover song.

"Zydeco is not sit-down-and-listen music; it's dance music, music to dance to with a little blues," said Chenier. "We like seeing everybody dancing and having a good time; we draw energy from that."

The band's most recent release is "Hot Rod," which is about eight months old. There was also a 1988 release, "Let me In Your Heart."

" 'Hot Rod' is doing OK, I hope," said Chenier. "Man, I'm far, far, far, far from rich. We're going to start a new album in November or December. Maybe we'll get on MTV. I hope so."

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