Lifetime Achievement Award: Clifton Chenier

Arhoolie Records President Chris Strachwitz pays tribute to the King of Zydeco
  • Photo: Paul Natkin/Getty Images
    Clifton Chenier
  • Photo: Steve Granitz/WireImage.com
    Chris Strachwitz
January 16, 2014 -- 1:56 pm PST
By Chris Strachwitz / GRAMMY.com

(In addition to the GRAMMY Awards, The Recording Academy presents Special Merit Awards recognizing contributions of significance to the recording field, including the Lifetime Achievement Award, Trustees Award and Technical GRAMMY Award. In the days leading up to the 56th GRAMMY Awards, GRAMMY.com will present the tributes to the 2014 Special Merit Awards recipients.)

In the cotton-and rice-growing prairie country of Southwest Louisiana in 1954, a black talent scout, John Fulbright, heard a remarkable Creole accordionist and singer who billed himself as "the King of the South," and his name was Clifton Chenier. Together, they went to a Lake Charles radio station where Clifton cut his first rocking accordion instrumental, "Louisiana Stomp," for the tiny Elko label. Although that first record went nowhere, it was soon leased to the bigger Imperial label, which in turn drew the attention of the even bigger Specialty firm. A year later, Clifton's Specialty release "Ay-Tete Fee" made the R&B charts, sending Clifton on a brief nationwide tour of the chitlin' concert circuit. But greater fame would have to wait. After the tour, Clifton returned to the segregated black beer joints of Southwest Louisiana and East Texas where French-speaking Creoles kept on dancing to his music.

In 1964 I was in Houston, visiting my favorite blues singer, Lightnin' Hopkins, who one night asked if I wanted to go and hear his "cousin Cliff." Keen to go anywhere Lightnin' wanted to go, I accompanied him to a tiny beer joint in what he called "Frenchtown," and there was this lanky black man with a huge piano accordion on his chest singing the most low-down blues in a strange patois for a small dancing audience. This was Clifton Chenier and I was totally enthralled by his totally unique Creole music.

Records were meal tickets in those days. As soon as Clifton heard from Lightnin' that I was a "record man," he expressed his desire to record — tomorrow! I did manage to arrange a session at the old Gold Star studio, and "Ay Ai Ai," a catchy Creole song but with English lyrics, enjoyed local radio and jukebox play. When it came time to make an album, I wanted to capture the sound of that Creole or "French music" I had heard at that beer joint. But Clifton wanted to make it rock and roll. After some debate, we settled on a compromise: half rock and roll and half "French." But it was the "French" two-step "Zydeco Sont Pas Sale," with "Louisiana Blues" on the flip side, that became a regional hit, and sent Clifton well on his way to becoming known as "the King of Zydeco."

Soon he and his Red Hot Louisiana Band were playing for wider audiences. The Rolling Stones went to hear them at a church dance in Los Angeles, they played the Fillmore in San Francisco and soon the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Tours of Europe followed as well as an appearance at Carnegie Hall in New York and in 1983 Clifton became a GRAMMY winner and an NEA National Heritage Fellow in 1984. By blending the older local rural Creole music with rhythm & blues, a touch of rock and roll and his unique personality, Clifton Chenier invented what today is known the world over as zydeco music.

(Chris Strachwitz is the president of Arhoolie Records, a label he founded in 1960 that specializes in blues, Cajun, zydeco, and other forms of roots music. Strachwitz first recorded Clifton Chenier in 1964. Chenier's Bogalusa Boogie, released on Arhoolie in 1976, was inducted into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame in 2011. A Blues Hall of Fame inductee, Strachwitz is currently nominated for Best Folk Album as the producer for They All Played For Us: Arhoolie Records 50th Anniversary Collection.)

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