Saturday, June 30, 2012

Clifton Chenier Was Zydeco Dynamite

Rhino has issued Zydeco Dynamite, The Clifton Chenier Anthology, which is a two compact disc, 40 track retrospective of Clifton Chenier’s recording career (thirty two tracks on two cassettes). Compiler Greg Durst observes, “If these scorchers don’t make you move like an alligator in a pond of hot sauce, you’d better consult a physician,...…Clifton Chenier will always be the one who makes the Bon Ton Roulet.”

And the good times sure roll on here from Louisiana Stomp, Clifton’s first record for the Elko label, through some of his Specialty recordings that rocked almost as hard as the hottest Little Richard numbers (although Clifton was more down in the alley, and less flamboyant), his lengthy association with Arhoolie Records (from which about half of the recordings are derived), to rarities made for a variety of labels including I’m a Zydeco Man, the title track of his Grammy Award winning album.

One cannot underestimate the importance of Clifton Chenier. He is to zydeco what Bill Monroe is to bluegrass. His french recasting of blues, and rock and roll songs, mixed with adaptations of cajun and creole themes, made the language barrier less imposing. Like Fats Domino, his creole accent, and the total sincerity manifest in his vocals, gave his songs a certain irresistible appeal for those exposed to them. He was a first rate blues singer as well as a person that could get the house rocking for a marathon zydeco live dance.

The compilation opens with a good helping of his rare recordings for Specialty, Chess (the Argo and Checker subsidiaries) and Zynn (one of Jay Miller’s labels), and with the exception of Eh Petite Fille, many of these early recordings are hot rock and roll songs not far removed from the recordings of Fats Domino and Little Richard. Ay Ai Ai is the first of the many Arhoolie recordings represented. Others include Bon Ton Roulet (his French reworking of Louis Jordan’s Let the Good Times Roll), I Am Coming Home, an adaptation of a Charles Brown recording that was Clifton’s favorite recording, the hot live Zydeco Cha Cha where brother Cleveland and drummer Robert St. Judy take a somewhat irresistible percussion break, and I’m on the Wonder, from a session with Elvin Bishop.

Bogalusa Boogie, which many consider Clifton’s finest album, is represented by four selections. One thing that set these recordings apart is the saxophone of John Hart, probably the greatest blues saxophonist since J.T. Brown. Hart is also present from on a number of other selections including Easy, Easy, Baby from an album that also included Stanley Dural (Buckwheat Zydeco) on keyboards and several selections albums on Floyd Soileau’s Maison de Soul label including Hot Tamale Baby.
There is a wealth of material here although there are some gems that were omitted like You Used to Call Me, a bluesy waltz, Ma Negresse, with uncle Morris Chenier contributing alley fiddle, and the country blues flavor of Black Snake Blues. With compiler Durst’s cogent discussion of the man and his music, this is a fine reissue.

For those wanting more Clifton Chenier, Arhoolie has issued Clifton Sings the Blues. It includes 12 recordings that Roy Ames produced in 1969 that have appeared on several labels including Prophesy, Home Cooking and Arhoolie, along with seven cuts from the album Clifton Chenier and his Red Hot Louisiana Band, an album with John Hart and Stanley ‘Buckwheat ‘ Dural. Easy Easy Baby appears to be the only duplication with the Rhino collection. Other songs include Ain’t No Need of Crying, a song Clifton sang in French on Arhoolie as Louisiana Blues; a rocking version of Fats Domino’s Rosemary; Be My Chauffeur which is derived from Memphis Minnie; the standard Trouble in Mind; Worried Life Blues, and a rocking version of Boozoo Chavis’ Paper in My Shoe. Outstanding cuts from The Red Hot Louisiana Band include Hungry Man Blues, which uses the Hootchie Kootchie Man melody, and Grand Prix, a wonderful bilingual tune with Clifton’s lament about the price he paid for loving his woman.

By all means get the Rhino, but don’t stop there. Clifton was one of the true greats of the blues, not simply zydeco, and even with 40 cuts, Rhino merely skims the surface of his musical legacy. With his music, the good times continue to roll.

This review originally appeared in the July/August 1993 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 183) and I have made some stylistic edits. I likely received review copies from the record label or a publicist. Both are available as used (with the Rhino apparently being easier to find). The Arhoolie is also available as digital downloads. Here is the King of Zydeco singing I'm A Hog for You.

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