REMEMBERING FERNEST ARCENEAUX
(1940-2008)

I'm saddened to report the death on September 4, in Lafayette, LA, of one of zydeco's true giants, Fernest Arceneaux, of complications of diabetes. The St. Martinville resident, who, after the death of mentor Chenier, was anointed his successor as "The New Prince of Zydeco," was 68. Zydeco, indigenous to South Louisiana and played with an accordion and frottoir (rubboard), had its roots in the music first played by field hands, sharecroppers. And as far as this genre of music was concerned, Fernest Arceneaux was the real deal and an unmistakable link to its pioneering founding father, Clifton Chenier, who, out of universal recognition of his accomplishment, was christened "The King." Fernest, indeed, belonged to this "old school" zydeco which was blues-based and sung originally in French, the direct descendant of this "La La music" or "La Musique Creole" first performed at rural house parties and fish fries of long ago. You can count on your fingers the number of authentic zydeco exemplars remaining in South Louisiana (Rockin' Dopsie, Rockin' Sidney, and Boozoo Chavis have passed): Geno Delafose, Jude Taylor, C.J.Chenier, Lynn August, Nathan Williams, Thomas Fields, and Roy Carrier. Like Clifton Chenier, the former five of this select group tackled (like Chenier) the piano accordion, a daunting instrument which is formidable in size and complexity and is capable of producing an almost infinite array of blues variations; whereas Fernest, like Fields and Carrier, preferred the equally difficult to master, triple-note (usually keyed in the F, D-flat, E-flat or G-C-F designation) which, unlike the Cajun one-note, could also handle its share of blues progressions. What set Fernest apart from many-- including a seeming plethora of "Young Turk" entertainers who would rather espouse the light weight, less versatile, Cajun one-note or diatonic variety (you get a note by pulling the squeezebox in either direction)--is not only his choice of instrument but also his unwavering devotion to traditional material. One thing you could count on if you were privileged to witness a Fernest Arceneaux show: he wouldn't ever be caught trying to put a zydeco spin on rap music in order to please a youthful audience, say at the recently defunct Hamilton club in Lafayette or still extant Slim's Y-KiKi in Opelousas, two of his most favorite haunts. No, he wasn't much for experimenting with hip-hop or other modern musical modes. He was simply the ultimate purist. And, in fact, would sometimes pull a number out of his hat that no one else could remember(or much less execute), like the rollicking, tango-like "La Poisson (The Fish Song)," the French waltz, "Oh Ma Ma," or Chenier's "My Negress (Pine Grove Blues)," all reprised on his magnificent Mardi Gras CD of 1994, Zydeco Blues Party. Like the majority of his zydeco contemporaries, Fernest, born in Carencro, LA, on August 27, 1940 had a rural upbringing, being a member of a sharecropper's family, the head of which would entertain his friends and kin at the aforementioned "La Las," wherein French music prevailed. Of his father, the affable Fernest often expressed to me his deepest regard. "He could have been a professional musician, but he was a hard working man who decided to forego playing to support his large family. You see, there were six brothers and five sisters," he said. By age six, Fernest himself was trying out instruments such as the Cajun one-note accordion and guitar and soon thereafter established his priorities in life. "I knew what I wanted to do when I was growing up. So, I didn't see much sense in going to school," he added. As a matter of fact, the whole Arceneaux household and extended family has always revolved around music (his nephew Corey now leads the Hot Peppers), be it the newly emerging R&B of New Orleans or the many informal jam sessions held on the back porch. "My home was really popular back in the 50s because my sister, Mildred, made the finest home-brewed beer in those parts. Clifton [Chenier], Dopsie [Alton Rubin], and [Hiram] Sampy would come over all the time and sample her beverages and then serenade the neighbors," he said. Not long after his mother's death in 1952, Fernest made his professional debut at an area club. Fernest freely admitted that by the late 50s, it wasn't hip to be playing the "old fashioned songs" of his father, so he concentrated on the R&B and rock and roll of the time, fronting, as guitarist, a combo which included two drummers. Somewhere along the line, this notorious booming backbeat of his earned him the moniker "Fernest and the Thunders" which thereafter stuck. Oddly enough, as much as he (and his outfit) was a big attraction during the 60s, he didn't record until the mid-70s, when Clifton Chenier, who never abandoned zydeco and whose career in the 60s was resuscitated by Arhoolie's Chris Strachwitz, suggested that he take up the accordion again. Now riding the crest of zydeco's resurgence, he was approached by famed producer, the late J.D. Miller of Crowley, LA, who in 1970 founded the Blues Unlimited label after parting ways with Ernie Young's Excello of Nashville, with which he had had a lease agreement for the previous decade and a half. Among Fernest's label mates for Blues Unlimited of that era was blues pianist Henry Gray, Baton Rouge's legendary Tabby Thomas, and zydeco greats (the late) Marcel Dugas, Sam Brothers (Five), Buckwheat Zydeco (Stanley Dural), Rockin' Dopsie (also spelled Dupsee), and the very young Terrance Simien and the Mallet Playboys. During Fernest & the Thunders nearly decade-long association with Blues Unlimited, the group released no less than eight singles, many of them reworked R&B or soul classics like "Mustang Sally (#2007, 1976)," Earl King's "Lonely Lonely Nights (#2009, 1977)," King Karl's (Bernard Jollivette) "Irene (# 2008, 1977)," Fats Domino's "My Girl Josephine (#2011, 1978)," Little Richard's "Send Me Some Lovin' (#2023, 1982)," and "Zydeco Boogoloo (sic) (#2017, 1981)." Fernest appropriated this latter rocker from Tom & Jerrio's (Robert Tharp and Jerry Murray) obscure 1965 gem, "Boo-Ga-Loo (ABC-Paramount # 10638)," and it became a sensation in the Southwest Louisiana region. Until his death, it still remained his signature song and calling card. From time to time, Fernest would sing on these efforts but was more likely to seek the assistance of Kathryn Ervin (later leader of Kat & the Kittens), Bobby Price, or Gene Morris, the latter two distinguishing themselves as well on the recordings of Marcel Dugas on this same logo. Most of these recordings appear on a hard to find 1980 LP, Fernest & the Thunders (#5005), copies of which remain available according to renowned recording engineer Mark Miller, son of J.D. Miller. In addition, Miller during that time frame had an agreement with the British label, Flyright, which released this body of work overseas as Zydeco Blues (Fly CD 36), which is still in print. During his Blues Unlimited stay, Fernest also had quite an all star cast of characters backing him up, including noted guitarist Chester Chevalier, bassist Peter Helaire, and brother Dalton on rubboard (preceded by brothers Ashby and Sylvan). But the most illustrious of the lot was Clarence "Jockey" Etienne. Jockey, one of the most celebrated of blues percussionists, began his career backing Guitar Gable (Gabriel Perrodin) and the late King Karl and continued in that capacity while also handling session chores for J.D. Miller in the 50s, along with a roster of studio musicians which included pianist Katie Webster, tenor Lionel Torrence (Prevost), drummer Warren Storm, bassist Bobby McBride, guitarist Al Foreman, and harp man Lazy Lester (Leslie Johnson). They all served in a supporting role for such Excello figures as Lonesome Sundown (Cornelius Green), Lightnin' Slim (Otis Hicks), Carol Fran, and Slim Harpo (James Moore), all of whom created or defined the stark and brooding "swamp blues," a brand which became synonymous with South Louisiana. In the 60s, Jockey left Gable, who had gone into the U.S. Army, and took up with various touring bands, including soul superstars Solomon Burke, Johnny Adams, and Joe Simon, before teaming up with Fernest in the mid-70s. After giving Jockey an audition and hearing his resounding, fatback beat, Fernest confessed, "I didn't need to have two drummers anymore." Although Fernest never became a household name in zydeco circles stateside, he was revered "across the pond" and, in fact, went abroad many times starting in 1978, and, again, he acknowledged Clifton Chenier with giving him this second career boost. In 1977, it so happened that the legendary accordionist was offered a handsome fee to travel to Europe for an extended series of concerts, but circumstances forced him to either cancel or postpone his junket. When asked for a recommendation for a replacement, he immediately volunteered the name of his protg. "I remember it well. Lil' Buck Sinegal, Clifton's guitarist, came over to my place after his gig at the Blue Angel club and broke the good news to me," said Fernest. But this fortuitous opportunity was not without its consequences. "Well, I had to learn to sing all by myself after I went overseas because these people [aforementioned Morris, Price, and Ervin] had day jobs and couldn't travel: none of them," he added. But it wasn't until the intercession of Belgian radio host Robert Sacre, a frequent visitor to Louisiana, that Fernest found success regularly entertaining Old World audiences. It was Sacre who introduced him to Rolf Schubert, noted Cologne, Germany-based impresario, who thereafter kept the group busy, crisscrossing the continent. Jockey reminisced recently about a brutal touring itinerary that brought the Thunders to all the major European capitals, including an appearance at the prestigious 1980 North Sea Jazz Festival (Fats Domino, Rockin' Dopsie, Carmen McRae, Clark Terry, and Dizzy Gillespie) then held at the Nederlands Congresgbouw in The Hague. "We'd often be gone for three months at stretch. One time we had thirty-six one-nighters in a row. By the time we got to the hotel, it was time to go to the gig; that is, if we had a hotel," he said. With Fernest traveling the continent so long thereafter, it shouldn't be a surprise that he made many recordings on foreign shores. A tour of Germany in 1980 resulted in an album, Live and Well, on the Ornament label, an undertaking which evolved strangely. According to Fernest, it began with an avid fan following the band from gig to gig on the schedule, apparently just taping the repertoire for his own listening enjoyment. "This guy was like a pest, until finally we agreed that it [the recording] should become a project, just to get him off our backs," Fernest confided. The ardent admirer in question was Siegfried Christmann, who actually did a creditable job bringing this endeavor to fruition. In 2000, this vinyl LP was re-issued as Rockin' Pneumonia on the German import label, Chrisly, and some of the tracks appear on another Chrisly anthology of that same year (John Lee Hooker, Willie Mabon, etc), The Real Blues Sampler. Even then, Fernest's reputation was such that he was attracting top notch sidemen on his excursions to far flung outposts (which later included Australia). Aside from Chevalier and Etienne, he singled out bassist Wayne Burns (ex-Chenier and Dopsie member) as solidifying his rhythm section. Also known as "Blue," Burns was a much sought after musician, since he had the ability to play the bass like a guitar and was always "good to go," meaning that, unlike a lot of musicians, he not only was available (without a day job) but also owned his own equipment. "Blue" would go on in the 90s to back Lynn August and later Jude Taylor. The next year, while in England, Fernest & his Thunders recorded for John Stedman on his JSP label (John Stedman Productions) which was founded in 1978 and then distributed by Rounder (of Cambridge, MA) in the U.S. Stedman, whose catalogue nowadays is mostly devoted to traditional jazz and blues reissues, began his enterprise by corralling blues bands as they passed through the British Isles (Charlie Sayles, Deborah Coleman, Lucky Peterson, Joe Louis Walker) and then directing them to his studio. Jockey Etienne remembers the session well. "We started in the morning, finishing one album and then we broke for a hamburger and it was back to business. By the afternoon we had another one under our belts," he said. By that time, the Thunders had acquired another vocalist, bassist Victor Walker, who sang most of the songs. Nonetheless, the talented Walker's stay in the group was short lived as he was gunned down in an altercation over a woman back home in Lafayette not long after. In 1995 these two 1981 vinyl LPs, Zydeco Stomp and From the Heart of the Bayou, were repackaged as one super CD, bearing the name of the former, and, evidently is still in print, since it seems ubiquitous in retail bins throughout Europe. And in many ways, this 18-track monster amply illustrates what Fernest Arceneaux is all about with most of selections reflecting his passion for this uniquely American musical species, the blues---"Sweet Little Angel," "Reconsider Baby," "Chains of Love," and "I Can't Live Happy." As a result of this session, Fernest is also represented on another John Stedman venture in this same year, the compilation, No Free Rides: A Blues Sampler, along with cameos by other bluesmen: Guitar Shorty, Charlie Sayles, Otis Grand, and Byther Smith. Through Stedman's aforementioned agreement with Rounder, Fernest also appears on two still in print 1998 compilations on Rounder's affiliate, Easydisc. The first is Zydeco Stomp, composed of exclusively instrumental selections of assorted artists, and secondly Zydeco Party, the latter a showcase for other Rounder performers as well, including the late John Delafose, Beau Jocque (Andrus Espre), and Boozoo Chavis, and Lynn August. In 1987, Fernest recorded his last European album, Gumbo Special, under the supervision of Rolf Schubert who released it under his eponymous aegis. Taped in Cologne (Koln), the album was remarkable in that it featured on rubboard Patty Harrison, who would later go on to front her own band, Blue Sister. Gumbo Special was reissued in CD form in about 2000 on the German CMA label and since the company is now bankrupt, Schubert thinks it is out of print. Sandwiched between the latter two European recording dates was one LP completed stateside for local Lafayette producer Shelton Skerrit in 1985. Although supposedly long out of production, Zydeco Thunder on Greybeard records seemed to have popped up all too conveniently at concession stands at festivals well into the 90s. By the late 80s, Jockey Etienne and Chester Chevalier quit Fernest Arceneaux to form (with accordionist brothers, Murphy and Joe Richard, and bassist Morris Francis) the Creole Zydeco Farmers. And to compound his problems, shortly thereafter, Fernest suffered a debilitating hip injury in an automobile accident which severely restricted his mobility; and even after the end of a prolonged rehabilitation, his condition necessitated his sitting down as he played. But better days would be just around the corner. In November, 1993, Warren Hildebrand of New Orleans invited Fernest to record for his newly formed Mardi Gras records in that Crescent City and what resulted was considered by many critics to be the finest of this genre ever taped: Zydeco Blues Party. Produced by Jerry Embree and expertly recorded at Ultrasonic Studio by famed engineer David Farrell, Zydeco Blues Party was simply a masterpiece of both exceptional clarity (rare in any zydeco venture) and creative energy on Fernest's part. And of no less significance was the fact that Hildebrand saw to it that he was surrounded with seasoned veteran sidemen, including guitarist Paul "Lil' Buck" Sinegal and tenor John Hart, erstwhile stellar components of the late Clifton Chenier's Red Hot Louisiana Band, Rockin' Dopsie Jr. on rubboard, Joseph Edwards on drums, and Alonzo Johnson on bass, the latter three survivors from the then recently late Rockin' Dopsie's band. A single was released from the session, the blues shuffle, "I'm On My Way Back Home" (MG #204), which became a big juke box favorite in Acadiana. Parts of this session also appear on quite a few Mardi Gras anthologies of that period as well: the 1993 Best of Louisiana Music (with Johnny Adams, Irma Thomas, and Boozoo Chavis), the 1996 Super Cajun sampler with Jude Taylor, Waylon Thibodeaux, and the Cajun Playboys, and the 1997 Zydeco Dance Party (leased to K-Tel). Samplings of Zydeco Blues Party also can be found on Mardi Gras's Best of Zydeco in 2006 and Ultimate New Orleans in 2007. On the strength of Zydeco Blues Party, Fernest came out in a big way in 1994, a re-emergence which was marked especially by a West Coast swing, including well received engagements at the San Francisco Blues Festival, the Bay Area Cajun/Zydeco Festival, and the Ojai Bowlful of Blues. By 1995, he had performed at such noted venues as Tobacco Road in Miami, Mississippi Nights in St. Louis, Berri Blues in Montreal, and Tornado Alley in Wheaton, MD. In May of this same year, he returned to the U.S. after a triumphant appearance at the Byron Bay Blues Festival in Australia and by July he was on the slate of the Bucks County Blues Picnic in Pennsylvania. Kept quite occupied by agent Mike Kaufer of Royal Blues productions in California during that time frame, Fernest also made a memorable appearance for the Baltimore Blues Society at Rosedale in which his regular road band: Charles Goodman on bass, Mike Taylor (brother of Jude) on guitar, brother Dalton "Poppa" Arceneaux on rubboard, Ivory Broussard on tenor, and Shane Bernard on drums: also supported another headliner of that magical evening, the inimitable Reverend Billy C. Wirtz. On another tour through Baltimore, Fernest, this time with the classy drummer, Nate Jolivette replacing Bernard, captivated the audience at the Cat's Eye Pub in Fells Point, despite strong competition from similar acts performing at the annual Artscape Festival. Tony Cushing the late owner of this venerable Baltimore institution remarked on that evening that "Fernest was the best of all the zydeco acts" he had booked there over the years. Fernest remained active into the new millennium and, in fact, ushered in the new century by recording again for Mardi Gras, an endeavor indeed right up his alley---Old School Zydeco: a title which, in the case of his particular career, couldn't have been more apt. Turning back the clock to his youth when "La La" reigned in the rural regions, Fernest is relaxed and well within his comfort zone delivering such back porch crowd pleasers of that vintage (which he also then incorporated into his stage act), such as "Hipp Ti Yo," "Big Mamou," "Joe Pete Has Two Women (Joe Pete A Deux Femmes)," and "J'ai Passe Devant Ta Porte." Old School Zydeco, like an epic song stitch of the past, ably served to complete the history of Fernest Arceneaux, along with the blues-based Zydeco Stomp and Zydeco Blues Party. As late as a year before his death, Fernest was still fulfilling obligations to perform at such venues as El Sid O's club in Lafayette and Rock N' Bowl in uptown New Orleans. In March of 2007, he was reunited with drummer Jockey Etienne and appeared at the Ogden Museum (925 Camp St. in the Big Easy) as part of the "Ogden After Hours Series" of concerts which featured Louisiana artists of note. And not long after, he made quite an impression as an invitee to that year's installment of the Ponderosa Stomp. His wake was held on Friday, September 12, at the Melancon Funeral Home in Carencro, LA. And his funeral services and Mass took place the next day at Notre Dame Church in St. Martinville. He was buried in the adjacent Catholic cemetery, Our Lady Queen of Peace. Perhaps if he were more ambitious, he probably could have made a name for himself. But the easy going and unassuming Fernest Arceneaux was content to merely have a few rounds (sometimes more) and play the music he loved. Positively no one enjoyed entertaining more and it always showed. His enthusiasm was infectious. And he rightfully inherited his title. For after Clifton Chenier, he was simply the greatest, a magician onstage with the accordion. And like "The King," when he was hot, when he was on his game, no one could touch him. And you can quote me on that. And his passing closes the book on zydeco's first generation.

-------Larry Benicewicz, Baltimore Blues Society