REMEMBERING BOOZOO CHAVIS

Famed zydeco accordionist and patriarch of this genre of music indigenous to South Louisiana and East Texas died in Austin, TX, while on tour Saturday, May 5. Although his official cause of death was pneumonia, his agent, Jack Rich of Unmanageable Talent, reported that he had suffered a heart attack in the wee hours of Sunday morning, April 29, not long after a Saturday night concert with his band, the Magic Sounds. During his hospitalization, he yet endured a stroke which further hastened his end. He was 70.

Boozoo Chavis, nicknamed the "Creole Cowboy" for his signature C&W attire (complete with white Stetson and naugahyde apron to protect from moisture the bellows of his instrument) did not make the first record considered true zydeco--a species of music that combines Cajun (Acadian French) elements with a rhythm and blues drive. That honor goes to Clifton Chenier by a matter of a mere few months. But he did enjoy zydeco's first big hit--"Paper In My Shoe" (now a standard repertoire number)--which sold an amazing 130,000 copies in 1955, a number which was finally eclipsed exactly 30 years later by the million-selling, world-wide wonder of fellow Lake Charles accordionist, Rockin' Sidney (Simien)--"My Toot Toot" (Maison de Soul 1024/Epic 34-05430).

Wilson Anthony "Boozoo" Chavis of Cherokee ancestry was born in Church Point, LA, on October 23, 1930 and how he acquired this colorful monicker still remains a mystery. He was highly influenced in career aspirations by both his parents. His mother, a tenant farmer like his stepfather, ran several horse circuits which were not regulated and unlicensed--bush tracks--and Boozoo would spend his whole life following in her footsteps as jockey, trainer, and breeder of these stallions for not only such informal courses like Toomey and Chloe but also Delta Downs and the famous Evangeline Downs outside Lafayette. Indeed, his reputation was such that at one time he was caring for the stable of none other than Red Griffin, an oil mogul of the region. His mother, somewhat of an entrepreneur, also would later open a dance hall where his father would play the accordion, often accompanied by Creole fiddler, Morris "Big" Chenier, and his nephew, Clifton. The former was the same artist who switched to guitar in the 50s and recorded a couple of blues singles for Eddie Shuler's Goldband records of Lake Charles. Supposedly, at an early age Boozoo took the winnings from a bet, invested in a calf, and sold it as a heifer, with the profits being converted into a sqeezebox that he could call his own. After the purchase, he, too, as a pre-teen was sitting in with the band.

By the early 50s, Boozoo playing the button, diatonic accordion(or Cajun one-note pulled in each direction) was creating quite a stir in the territory performing French "la la" music (a precursor to zydeco); so much so, that white Cajun accordionist Sidney Brown brought him to the attention of aforementioned legendary producer Eddie Shuler, now a spry 88 year-old with a mind still sharp as a tack. Boozoo had been working on a few tunes and Eddie selected "Paper In My Shoe" as a novelty number in that it not only had a good dance beat but that it might appeal to the rural poor who could identify with a singer so down and out as to not be able to afford to sole his own clodhoppers. "But first I thought it appropriate to back him with an R&B combo to give it that punch that it needed," said Eddie in a recent interview.

Strongly believing in the song, Eddie hired a local of Lake Charles, guitarist Classie Ballou (born Elton, LA, August 21, 1937) with his outfit which included Sid Lawrence on bass, Wilson Semien on drums, and Danny George on sax, to back Boozoo, then 24. "They were the cat's meow in South Louisiana but I figured I had to find the best," said Eddie. Indeed, Eddie thought so highly of this group that he later in 1956 recorded them without Boozoo in 1956 for Goldband. Ballou subsequently recorded fine blues material for another noted area engineer, J.D. Miller of Crowley, which he leased to Ernie Young of Nashville to appear on his Music City labels of Nasco and Excello.

Unfortunately, Boozoo was not used to working with a "big band" and the recording session, instead of gelling, began unraveling. "He'd start in before he was supposed to or come in late or leave off too soon," said Eddie, recalling his exasperation. To say the least, Eddie was at wit's end and was about ready to throw in the towel. "I was getting desperate and I had to salvage the session somehow. So, I bought a pint of Seagram's 7 for $1.35 and gave it to him. After a while it loosened him up and the whole group began meshing really well," added Eddie.

Nearing the end of the evening (of eight hours duration) in the historic wood-framed studio(an annex to his TV repair shop/record store) which also served as the site of Phil Phillip's (Baptiste) million-selling "Sea Of Love" in 1959, Eddie, at long last, thought he had caught a good groove. "We were just about at the 2:47 of elapsed time preferred as the ideal cut-off point by juke box operators when I heard this horrible crashing on the other side of the partition[an ordinary front door] which separated the control room from the studio itself. When I peered around, there was Boozoo on his back and on the floor still playing without skipping a beat even after falling off his stool," claimed Eddie.

Up to his death, Boozoo denied this version of the story but there are enough witnesses alive to corroborate Eddie's expert testimony. And, Boozoo, associated all his life with the race track, wasn't exactly a choir boy. Even in his later years, after his return to prominence, this offstage crusty and cantankerous curmudgeon would love to play the clown onstage. And he could be very ribald and racy at times. There was a period when during his shows, he would distribute souvenir panties(bearing his picture) with the printed instructions to "Take 'em off. Throw 'em in the corner." And then, of course, there was the notorious "XXX rated--not for radio play" perennial jukebox favorite, "Deacon Jones" bw "Louisiana Women Love Uncle Bud (Kom-A-Day 45-304)," numbers so raunchy as to make a sailor blush.

Boozoo's flawed first recording sat in the can simmering for a spell while Eddie decided whether or not to scrap the project altogether. It had already cost him a lot of master tape and $250 for the musicians, a tidy sum back in that era. "I said the heck with it. Let it be a feeler to test the public's reaction. What's there to lose. It would just have to come out a few seconds short[at 2:34] and stand on its own merits. I just had to be very creative and edit out the smashing sound effect. You might say I invented the cold fade in that one," Eddie said with a wicked laugh.

The final product on "Paper In My Shoe" was released on Goldband's subsidiary label, Folk Star (1197, a label also used to impel fellow Goldband stablemate, Clarence "Bon Ton" Garlow's, 1954 "Za Belle" [1130]), in 1955 and, despite its crude and primitive sound, immediately began making a lot of noise in the fertile musical crescent stretching from New Orleans to Houston. Eddie discovered that he had a bonafide blockbuster on his hands but needed help, a network to gain access to other markets. Eddie had a connection to a "Johnny" at A-1 Distributors in New Orleans, who eventually proferred it to Lew Chudd of Imperial--a Los Angeles-based independent label which had begun to exert its stranglehold on Crescent City artists--Fats Domino, Dave Bartholomew, Bobby Mitchell, Smiley Lewis (Overton Lemons), the Spiders, etc. Issued as Imperial 5374, "Paper In My Shoe" really took off and prompted an obligatory tour of the Deep South(with Ballou's supporting cast) to promote the disk.

But Eddie knew that a follow-up was required immediately if he were to keep Boozoo's career in high gear. However, Boozoo was reluctant to return to the studio unless he was paid what he expected and he became suspicious of Eddie's motivations. "It's true that Imperial owed him a royalty installment of $700 or so dollars at 2 cents a record that he sold. But you know how things were in the business. There was always a delay to settle the debt," said Eddie. In retrospect, they should have struck when the iron was hot, because it was already too late when the terrific "Forty One Days" (Folk Star 1201) was issued a few months after the fact and Boozoo thereafter joined the ranks of the one-hit wonders, quickly forgotten as the sensation wore off.

After "Paper" ran its course, Boozoo and Eddie parted ways, but they were far from mortal enemies. Boozoo continued to play in the vicinity and Eddie waited for the right opportunity to again approach his first star for Goldband. It would present itself precisely a decade later when Eddie would pay a call to Boozoo on his several acre homestead at 5820 Leger Road, in a neighborhood called "Dog Hill," ostensibly because it was a former disposal site for stray animals and road kill from the interstate.

No one knows who instigated the visit but besides Eddie, there was along the young accordionist, Jo-el Sonnier, the self-styled Cajun Valentino, and the late British blues historian, Mike Leadbitter, who would eventually edit the great discography, Blues Records, and also Nothing But The Blues, a journal of his peregrinations (including this episode) as well as those of other famous blues writers(Welding, Rowe, Broven, etc.) making pilgrimages to all the blues shrines in the United States.

Joining this trio was native son, Little Brother Griffin, who distinguished himself in Clifton Chenier's band in 1955-57 (his Specialty period) when, oddly enough, the zydeco giant's ensemble (with Philip Walker on guitar) was employed as the house band for all the R&B caravans performing on the "chitlin' circuit" of black theatres in major national metropolises. After touring with blues giant Lowell Fulson, he settled down in Lake Charles backing Sticks Herman and Marcel Dugas before again hitting the road with pianist Katie Webster and her guitarist, Ashton Savoy. He was a drummer in great demand both with Eddie Shuler and J.D. Miller.

Eddie vividly remembers the encounter with a house party atmosphere. "I had just paid $1250 for a new Ampex 350 portable recorder and wanted to put it to good use. It was one of those back porch affairs and Boozoo was in fine form. So, I let the tape roll," he said.

Leadbitter, himself, was spellbound during the party when Jo-el and Boozoo traded riffs a la dueling banjos. "When he[Boozoo] and Jo-el started a two-accordion session, the stomping shook the shack--in fact the T.V. couldn't stand the vibration and flickered out. As Boozoo played 'Tippy Tayeaux,''Catin,' and 'Papa John's,' England seemed very far away. I begged Eddie, who was nearly as shook up as myself, to get Boozoo back in the studio," he said.

That 28th of May, 1964, Eddie recorded sixteen sides but only released a solitary single--"Hamburger's [sic] and Popcorn" bw "Tee Black." The former was a strong blues shuffle with Little Brother Griffin on vocal shouts and Boozoo on the flip. Issued as Goldband 1161, it created a mild ripple on the airwaves of South Louisiana. But little did Boozoo realize at the time that this was to be his last recording date for over twenty years. The other fourteen sides lay moldering in the Goldband vaults until they finally saw the light of day in 1990 as Rounder 2097, The Lake Charles Atomic Bomb.

For the next two decades, Boozoo, outside of house parties, retired from the music business and turned his full attention to the ponies--and he was lucky to have such a lucrative day job to tide him over to the zydeco and blues revival of the early 80s, after which date disco had ceased to be the rage. And what provoked his return to the entertainment arena remains speculation. Rumor had it that someone was masquerading as himself. Whatever the reason, he came back with a vengeance and by 1984 had become a fixture at both Richard's roadhouse in Lawtell on I-190 or the cavernous Slim's Yi-Ki Ki in Opelousas. Over the years, he had been able to withstand successive challenges by all of zydeco's most celebrated young turks, including Zydeco Force, (the late) Beau Jocque (Andrus Espre), and, most recently, Keith Frank and Step Rideau. Not bad for a septuagenarian, who at his death, was at the pinnacle of his popularity in the highly competitive world of this brand of music.

And it wasn't long after his comeback that the public demanded fresh product from the studio. By 1986, Boozoo issued the excellent LA Zydeco Music (MS-1017) on Floyd Soileau's Ville Platte-based Maison de Soul label. Lovingly recorded by the late J.J. Caillier and expertly engineered by Mark Miller(J.D.'s son) at Master Track studio on Parkerson Ave in Crowley, it featured liner notes by New Orleans's Jeff Hannusch (a.k.a Almost Slim), an esteemed writer/critic and blues musician. In addition, Floyd rerecorded and released "Paper In My Shoe(1036)," which again became a regional jukebox phenomenon. Next came Boozoo Zydeco (1021) in 1987 with Floyd and J.J. as co-producers at the same facility. It, too, yielded a single--"Make Up Your Mind" bw (instrumental)"Dancing The Sassy One-Step(1044)"--which too was well received. By 1989, Boozoo had recorded yet a third LP and cassette for Maison de Soul--Zydeco Homebrew(1028)--with Mark Miller in charge. Finally, Boozoo completed a fourth, Zydeco Trail Ride(1034), a project moved to another state-of-the-art studio of La Louisianne on Taft and Stevenson in Lafayette and, this time, under the direction of Rex Hebert and David Rachou. In the early 90s, Floyd, who was reticent to depart from the LP and cassette format, as traditions die hard in South Louisiana, repackaged the latter two undertakings as extended play CDs, with material added from the earlier two efforts. "Dad figured that, at sixteen dollars a pop, people were entitled to their money's worth," said the ever helpful Chris Soileau, now one of the honchos at Floyd's mail order house in Ville Platte.

Evidently, Boozoo's contract with Floyd Soileau wasn't exactly ironclad or exclusive during this time frame because a live CD (at Richard's) came along in 1987--Boozoo Chavis With Nathan & Zydeco Cha-Cha's--a shared album. Released on Rounder (RD-2069), it was supervised by Scott Billington. "It actually turned out all right considering the fact that I had borrowed [blues guitarist]John Mooney's van and set up a Sony F-1 digital recorder in the rear," said Scott. Still in print, it remains a steady seller but what was important about the venture was that Boozoo was able to make the first contact with the internationally distributed Rounder of Cambridge, MA, which would serve him in good stead in the 90s.

By 1990, Boozoo had already recorded five superb albums with the highly respected labels of Rounder and Maison de Soul. Nevertheless, what put him over the top, giving his career the biggest boost, was his inclusion in highly acclaimed American Explorer series of Elektra (Nonesuch) records--Boozoo Chavis (961146-2)--a quantum leap of an enterprise which enabled him to finally tour outside of Louisiana, despite his fear of flying, and to stake his worldwide claim as the "King of Zydeco."

But as the 90s dawned, his studio work was hardly finished. In 1991 he signed a two-CD agreement with Rounder which resulted in a couple of gems. The first was 1993's Boozoo That's Who (2126) produced by Terry Adams and then Live At The Habibi Temple (2130) in 1994. In the latter, Scott Billington had to wonder how he was able to work under the very basic conditions of his first live endeavor with Boozoo at Richard's. "Yeah, with the Habibi thing in Lake Charles, we pulled out all the stops. We even had a 24-track analog console. Can't get much better than that," he said proudly.

After his deal with Rounder expired, there was a short hiatus when Boozoo recorded Hey Do-Right(his daughter's name) for Warner Brothers (74707), also with Terry Adams in the control booth. But Rounder moved quickly to corral him and again in 1999, he signed another 2-year contract, the first project of which he fulfilled with Who Stole The Monkey(2156), the title of which Scott Billington claims he borrowed from a C&W song. It was recorded at yet another well kept secret in the music industry--Dockside--in Maurice, LA. And just a month before his death, Boozoo completed his last studio venture (which as yet is untitled) at venerable Ultrasonic on Washington St in New Orleans under the discerning ear of in house engineer David Farrell, who had a hand nearly all of Hammond Scott's Black Top sessions. The blues oriented CD is full of promise and includes a moving duet between David Greeley on fiddle and Boozoo. This particular cut, done in the old style, is reminiscent of the sympathetic interplay between French legends Canray Fontenot and Alphonse "Bois-Sec" Ardoin. Also added to this mix is Lafayette guitar wizard, Sonny Landreth, as longtime Boozoo sideman, Guitar Thomas, has been ill and somewhat incapacitated of late.

It was an incredible recorded output not only considering his age but also the fact that some of his best efforts came after this "natural southpaw" had lost the last joints of two fingers on his left hand in an accident while hooking a barbecue pit to a trailer hitch.

After his first foray into New York at Tramps in 1990, Boozoo, who performed at Jazzfest for ten consecutive years beginning about this date, really made up for his sluggish start, touring nationally by crisscrossing the country at a furious pace. He'd be seen at Northern VA's Wolftrap as often as he appeared in the Mid-West at, perhaps, the Mississippi Valley Blues Fest. Just last year, he was a major act at the San Francisco Blues Fest. However, he could never be prevailed upon to travel abroad. "It was hard enough just to get him to take a plane and he finally convinced himself that it was safer to fly over land than the big pond of the Atlantic. That's why Canada was as far as he ever attempted," said agent Jack Rich.

Although there is some argument whether Boozoo or Clifton Chenier really invented zydeco, there is absolutely no question that the former is the most influential figure of this style of music as it is known today. And the late Rockin' Dopsie(Alton Rubin), the self-proclaimed "King" notwithstanding, was never such a pioneer (or musician, for that matter) as these two. But there was no mistaking that both, in their own idiosyncratic manner, were true bluesmen.

I'd like to think of Clifton Chenier in the same terms as harp icon, Little Walter--someone who could take a song and turn it inside out, improvise and innovate. Chenier with his piano accordion had infinite range and possibilities of which he took full advantage. His music was polished and sophisticated, urban and urbane, and could even be appreciated by a jazz buff.

On the other hand, the raw and gritty Boozoo was more like a Howlin' Wolf, playing along with the melody, keeping a steady, propulsive, rough-hewn beat. Limited by the diatonic accordion, Boozoo vamped endlessly. It was country or rural but it was unabashedly dance music. Boozoo's sound, unlike Chenier's, was not so much to listen to as to get up and shake a leg to. He stripped it down to its bare essentials--pure, intense, mesmerizing rhythm. Defying form and convention, it was simple and effective and espoused by the masses. All the upstarts and the up-and-comers of today--the Keith Franks, the Chris Ardoins, the Little Pookies--all owe a debt of gratitude to "Paper In My Shoe," whether they care to admit it or not.

But Boozoo's legacy will, indeed, live on. His wife of fifty years, Leona Predium, who survives him, bore him six children, three of whom still occupy prominent positions in the Magic Sounds--Poncho (Wilson Anthony Chavis, Jr.) on accordion, who often spelled his father on the road, Charles on rubboard (or frottoir), and Rellis on drums. "I've just spoken with the boys and they are willing and eager to take up where he left off. In fact, I've just booked them into the upcoming Swamp Romp at Wolftrap," said Jack Rich, who flew to Louisiana to comfort the family in their time of grief.

It won't be quite the same without him, but who could conceive of a better cast of characters to carry on Boozoo's grand tradition.

-----Larry Benicewicz, B.B.S.