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A 'Dynamite' Chronicle of King of Zydeco

June 04, 1993|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

Louisiana-brewed zydeco music is so infectious that it's easy to assume that almost any zydeco record will suffice when you are in a party mood. But that attitude is unfair to the late Clifton Chenier, the king of zydeco.

In an extraordinary, four-decade career, Chenier both popularized and defined the sound, which grew out of a dance-minded mixture of French, Acadian and R&B music.

The highlights of Chenier's recording career are contained in a highly recommended new two-disc set titled "Zydeco Dynamite: The Clifton Chenier Anthology." The Rhino Records collection contains 40 selections, mostly recorded in the '60s and '70s for Arhoolie Records.

Chenier, who was born near Opelousas, La., in 1925, learned to play the accordion from his father, John, and from the recordings of Amedee Ardoin, who is credited with being the first black Creole musician to play blues on the accordion.

While still in his teens, Chenier played some at dance halls in southern Louisiana, but it would be years before he could devote himself full time to music. In the mid-'40s, he cut sugar cane around New Iberia, La., and later drove oil refinery trucks in the Port Arthur, Tex., area.

All the while, however, Chenier kept his eye on music, eventually establishing enough of a reputation with his Hot Sizzling Band to get a contract in 1954 with Specialty Records.

Though none of his records ever made the national R&B charts, Chenier had a modest hit at Specialty with "Eh, Petite Fille," which opens the Rhino compilation. By 1956, Greg Drust points out in the album's liner notes, Chenier was able to leave the oil fields behind and concentrate on music.

Chenier, who died in 1987, was plagued by failing kidneys and diabetes late in life and included riders in his contracts in the '80s that he must perform in locations where he could get a kidney dialysis treatment once every three days.

But that burden never dimmed the spirit of one of America's genuine musical treasures. As Drust declares in the liner notes, "If these scorchers don't make you move like an alligator in a pond of hot sauce, you'd better consult a physician."

Also in the racks:

* James Brown's "Soul Pride--The Instrumentals 1960-1969" on Polydor. A two-disc box set consisting of 36 instrumental tracks, including the 1969 hits "The Popcorn" and "Ain't It Funky Now," and previously unreleased tracks. (2 hours, 22 minutes, photo-essay booklet)

* "The Best of Ace Records: The R&B Hits" on Scotti Brothers. The companion piece to an earlier pop hits retrospective, the album contains 14 R&B selections from the vaults of Johnny Vincent's Mississippi-based label. Among them: Huey (Piano) Smith's "Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu" and "Don't You Just Know It." (34 minutes, liner notes by Billy Vera)

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