Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

CHENIER, Clifton

(b 25 June '25, Opelousas LA; d Dec. '87) Accordionist, vocalist. Worked as farmhand, as truck driver in oil industry; said to have been given an accordion and lessons by his father, performed at dances, etc though he insisted he had never played accordion until he went to live in Texas. Sang in French patois, Creole and English; later described his music as 'simply the French two-step with new hinges so she can swing': this captures basically Cajun structure and tradition, but by the time an Elko label talent scout discovered him he'd absorbed infl. from Amadé Ardoin and Sidney Babineaux to Lowell Fulson and Clarence Garlow, and played the distinctly black zydeco variant. His first sides, 'Cliston Blues' and 'Louisiana Stomp', spelled both title and his name wrong. (Compilation Louisiana Swamp Blues '97 on Capitol compiles Chenier's first recordings, Boozoo Chavis etc.) He actually preferred to play rhythm & blues, but R&B on the accordion was too strange for audiences; he told the anecdote against himself of the time he played San Francisco's Avalon Ballroom at the height of the psychedelic era backed by Blue Cheer, an early heavy metal group: the result was a debacle.

The search for a wider audience led to label-hopping: he recorded for Argo, Arhoolie (who also leased singles to Bayou), Crazy Cajun, Checker, Jin, Specialty, Maison de Soul and Zinn. Had lots of regional hits; 'Squeeze Box Boogie' was a '50s hit in Jamaica. He suffered from diabetes; a renal infection '79 led to amputation of part of his right foot; this slowed him down but he remained one of the most important in the genre, having popularized a music barely known beyond the Gulf of Mexico. Noteworthy albums incl. Bon Ton Roulet '66, King Of The Bayou '70, Bogalusa Boogie '75, compilation Classic Clifton '80 on Arhoolie; Boogie And Zydeco on Maison de Soul/Sonet; Boogie In Black And White on Jin with Rod Bernard (an R&B-flavoured excursion). He was nominated for Grammys in '79 and '86 (for Live At The San Francisco Blues Festival). Film Hot Pepper '73 made in Lake Charles and other towns by Les Blank for Flower Films incl. music, interview with his 108-year-old grandmother, lots of pretty girls and kids.