Jump to content

Clifton Chenier

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Clifton Chenier
Chenier Brothers performing at Jay's Lounge and Cockpit, Cankton, Louisiana, Mardi Gras, 1975 Clifton Chenier on accordion, brother Cleveland on washboard and John Hart on tenor saxophone.
Chenier Brothers performing at Jay's Lounge and Cockpit, Cankton, Louisiana, Mardi Gras, 1975
Clifton Chenier on accordion, brother Cleveland on washboard and John Hart on tenor saxophone.
Background information
Born(1925-06-25)June 25, 1925
Opelousas, Louisiana, U.S.
DiedDecember 12, 1987(1987-12-12) (aged 62)
Lafayette, Louisiana
  • Musician
  • songwriter
  • Vocals
  • accordion
  • frottoir
Years active1954–1987
LabelsElko, Specialty, Arhoolie, Crazy Cajun, Chess, Alligator
Formerly ofZydeco Ramblers

Clifton Chenier (June 25, 1925 – December 12, 1987),[1][2] was an American musician known as a pioneer of zydeco, a style of music that arose from Creole music, with R&B, blues, and Cajun influences. He sang and played the accordion. Chenier won a Grammy Award in 1983.[1]

Chenier was known as the King of Zydeco,[1][2][3] and also billed as the King of the South.[4]


Chenier was a native of Leonville, Louisiana,[5] near Opelousas. He spoke Louisiana French as a first language.

Chenier was exposed to music growing up, as he accompanied his father, Joseph Chenier, a farmer and player of the single-row diatonic accordion, to dances. His uncle, Morris Chenier, played fiddle. Musical influences that he cited from radio were Muddy Waters, Peetie Wheatstraw, and Lightning Hopkins, while local influences included Creole musicians Claude Faulk, Jesse and ZoZo Reynolds, and Sidney Babineaux. Clifton began playing accordion around 1947, and by 1950 was playing in a club in Basile with his brother Cleveland Chenier on rubboard. Before launching a professional music career, Chenier worked in fields and at a Gulf Oil refinery in Port Arthur, Texas, outside of whose gates he also played music with Cleveland.[6][7]

Chenier began his recording career in 1954, when he signed with Elko Records and released Cliston's Blues [sic], a regional success. In 1955 he signed with Specialty Records and garnered his first national hit with his label debut "Eh, 'tite Fille"[6] ("Hey, Little Girl", a cover of Professor Longhair's song).[1] The release's national success led to numerous tours with popular rhythm and blues performers such as Ray Charles, Etta James, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, T-Bone Walker, and Lowell Fulson.[6] He also toured in the early days with Clarence Garlow, billed as the Two Crazy Frenchmen.[8] Chenier was signed with Chess Records in Chicago, followed by the Arhoolie label in the early 1960s. Arhoolie gave Chenier exposure to new audiences of blues and rock listeners across the US.[7]

In April 1966, Chenier appeared at the Berkeley Blues Festival on the University of California campus and was subsequently described by Ralph J. Gleason, jazz critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, as "one of the most surprising musicians I have heard in some time, with a marvelously moving style of playing the accordion ... blues accordion, that's right, blues accordion."[9] Over time, the band expanded to include saxophone and organ, and electric effects pedals, with all melody instruments taking turns at solos.[7]

Chenier was the first act to play at Antone's, a blues club on Sixth Street in Austin, Texas. In 1976, he reached a national audience by appearing on the first season of the PBS music program Austin City Limits.[10] In 1979 he returned to the show with his Red Hot Louisiana Band.[11]

Chenier's popularity peaked in the 1980s, and he was recognized with a Grammy Award in 1983 for his album I'm Here![1] It was the first Grammy for his new label Alligator Records. Chenier followed Queen Ida as the second Louisiana Creole to win a Grammy.

Chenier is credited with redesigning the wood and crimped tin washboard into the vest frottoir, an instrument that easily hung from the shoulders.[7] He sketched his idea for a metalworker in Port Arthur named Willie Landry, who made the first frottoir.[12] Cleveland Chenier, Clifton's older brother, also played in the Red Hot Louisiana Band. He found popularity for his ability to manipulate the distinctive sound of the frottoir by rubbing several bottle openers (held in each hand) along its ridges.[13]

During their prime, Chenier and his band traveled throughout the world.

Later years and death[edit]

Chenier suffered from diabetes, which eventually forced him to have a foot amputated and required dialysis because of associated kidney problems.[1]

He died of diabetes-related kidney disease in December 1987 in Lafayette, Louisiana.[2] His funeral took place at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Lafayette.[14]

Legacy and tributes[edit]

Since 1987, his son C. J. Chenier (born Clayton Joseph Thompson) has carried on the zydeco tradition by touring with Chenier's band and recording albums.[15][16] Clifton Chenier's bandmate and protégé Buckwheat Zydeco achieved national success playing the piano accordion.[7]

Rory Gallagher wrote a song in tribute to Chenier, "The King of Zydeco". Paul Simon mentioned Chenier in his song "That Was Your Mother" on his 1986 album Graceland, calling him the "King of the Bayou." Sonny Landreth recalls growing up on the rhythm of Clifton and Cleveland and the Red Hot Louisiana Band in South of I-10, song title and name of the album released in 1995. John Mellencamp refers to "Clifton" in his song "Lafayette", about the Louisiana city where Chenier often performed, on Mellencamp's 2003 album Trouble No More. Zachary Richard mentions Chenier in his song "Clif's Zydeco" (on Richard's 2012 album Le Fou). The Squeezebox Stompers' "Zydeco Train" says, "Clifton Chenier, he's the engineer."

The jam band Phish often covers Chenier's song "My Soul" in live performances.[17]

Chenier is the subject of Les Blank's 1973 documentary film Hot Pepper.

Awards and honors[edit]

Chenier received a 1984 National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts,[18] the U.S. government's highest honor in folk and traditional arts. He was inducted posthumously into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1989,[4] and the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2011. In 2014, he received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.[19]

In 2016, the Library of Congress deemed Chenier's album Bogalusa Boogie to be "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" and selected it for preservation in the National Recording Registry.[20]

Partial discography[edit]

See also[edit]

List of Grammy Hall of Fame Award recipients (A–D)


  1. ^ a b c d e f Craig Harris. "Clifton Chenier". Allmusic. Retrieved December 9, 2011.
  2. ^ a b c Talevski, Nick. (2006). Knocking on Heaven's Door: Rock Obituaries. Omnibus Press. p. 79. ISBN 1846090911.
  3. ^ Fry, Macon & Julie Posner. (1992). Cajun Country Guide: 2nd Edition. Pelican Publishing Company. p. 235. ISBN 1565543378.
  4. ^ a b "Clifton Chenier". blues.org. Archived from the original on April 14, 2013. Retrieved December 12, 2012.
  5. ^ Tomko, Gene (2020). Encyclopedia of Louisiana Musicians: Jazz, Blues, Cajun, Creole, Zydeco, Swamp Pop, and Gospel. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. p. 70. ISBN 9780807169322.
  6. ^ a b c Savoy, Ann Allen, ed. (1984). Cajun music: a reflection of a people. Eunice, La: Bluebird Press. ISBN 978-0-930169-00-8.
  7. ^ a b c d e Snyder, Jared (2012). "'Garde ici et 'garde lá-bas: Creole Accordion in Louisiana". The Accordion in the Americas: Klezmer, Polka, Tango, Zydeco, and More!. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 978-0-252-07871-2.
  8. ^ "Clarence Garlow". Yee.ch. Retrieved December 9, 2011.
  9. ^ Chris Strachwitz (1967), sleeve notes to "Bon Ton Roulet", Arhoolie Records, F 1031, 1967.
  10. ^ "Austin City Limits | Watch Online | PBS Video". Pbs.org. Retrieved May 21, 2013.
  11. ^ "Austin City Limits | Watch Online | PBS Video". Pbs.org. Retrieved May 21, 2013.
  12. ^ Billington, Scott; Guralnick, Peter (2022). Making tracks: a record producer's Southern roots music journey. American made music series. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. ISBN 978-1-4968-3915-2.
  13. ^ Tisserand, Michael (1998). The kingdom of zydeco. New York: Arcade publ. ISBN 978-1-55970-418-2.
  14. ^ Van Matre, Lynn (August 30, 1998). "Snappy Beat". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved July 11, 2022.
  15. ^ "Austin City Limits | Watch Online | PBS Video". Pbs.org. Archived from the original on October 15, 2007. Retrieved May 21, 2013.
  16. ^ "Artist Bio". Cvsmusic.org. Archived from the original on July 25, 2011. Retrieved May 21, 2013.
  17. ^ "My Soul has not been seen in 10 Phish shows". Phish.net. Retrieved May 21, 2013.
  18. ^ "NEA National Heritage Fellowships 1984". www.arts.gov. National Endowment for the Arts. Archived from the original on August 10, 2020. Retrieved November 25, 2020.
  19. ^ "Artist: Clifton Chenier". www.grammy.com. Recording Academy. 2019. Retrieved March 26, 2019.
  20. ^ "Clifton Chenier's Bogalusa Boogie". WNYC. December 14, 2016. Retrieved May 17, 2024.

External links[edit]