Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



The most succesful zydeco band of all. Accordionist Stanley ‘Buckwheat’ Dural Jr. (b 14 November 1947, Lafayette Louisiana; d there 24 September 2016 of lung cancer) had his hair braided in childhood and was nicknamed after the Our Gang character. His father played the accordion, not professionally, but among his friends was the great Clifton Chenier. Stanley Jr. was a prodigy on keyboards, and was enchanted with rhythm and blues, to his father's displeasure, but Buckwheat wanted nothing to do with what he regarded as the music of an older generation. He formed his own band, Buckwheat and the Hitchhikers, in 1971, a big band including a horn section and backing vocalists, and Buckwheat playing his first love, the Hammond organ. But somewhere along the way his father had taken him to a Chenier gig, and Buckwheat's life began to change. Life on the road was tough for the big band, and Buckwheat disbanded, thinking to take a year off, but then Chenier called from Texas. Buckwheat still wasn't sure he wanted to play zydeco, but life on the bandstand with the superb entertainer Chenier changed his mind forever. The first time he played with Chenier, Buckwheat said, Chenier was saying good night to the audience, and Buckwheat thought they had just started: they had been playing for four hours. Since then his mantra has been, "Don't criticize what you don't understand."

Zydeco, the black Louisiana variant, is often conflated with Cajun music, and later in his career Buckwheat wanted his audience to understand that zydeco is not Cajun, and his contracts stated that the word ‘Cajun’ would not be used. Buckwheat worked for Chenier for two or three years, meanwhile mastering the piano accordion. He said in an interview,

For me, from an organist to keyboards, them little buttons gave me the Blues. You sitting on a keyboard, you just play. But this thing, you got to inhale and exhale, inhale and exhale. So that was the idea, the coordination. In and out, in and out, and trying to make it work with what you're doing. Oh, that gave me the Blues. 

But he got the hang of it, and formed Buckwheat Zydeco and the Ils Sont Partis Band in 1979, combining many elements, he said, ‘like good jambalaya.’ (‘Ils sont parties’ means roughly ‘They're off!’, which Buckwheat remembered from the racetrack in Lafayette.) Soon the band had 300 songs in its repertoire, and Buckwheat was a master at giving the audience what it wanted, throwing blues, R&B, rock'n'roll, and country songs into the mix.

Seven albums came out on the Blues Unlimited, Black Top and Rounder labels. The Rounder albums, Waitin' For My Ya-Ya and Buckwheat's Zydeco Party, were both nominated for Grammys. Meanwhile, Buckwheat fan, journalist and producer Ted Fox became his manager. Interviewing Chris Black of Island Records for his book In The Groove, a collection of interviews with producers, Fox discovered that Black didn't know much about zydeco, and sent him a Buckwheat compilation. The result was a recording contract, with Fox producing. The rehearsal and studio time was meager, because Black was not expecting a big hit, but it was twice what Buckwheat had ever had before. ‘Buck's Nouvelle Jole Blon’ was included in the hit film soundtrack The Big Easy in 1987, the same year his On A Night Like This was the first zydeco album on a major label. Its title track a cover of the Bob Dylan song, it was named one of the ten best albums of the year by Jon Pareles at the New York Times, was the first Buckwheat album to reach the Billboard chart and achieved another Grammy nomination. The next album was Taking It Home, including the first of many guest shots: Eric Clapton dubbed a solo onto ‘Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad.’ After Where There's Smoke There's Fire, Island was sold and Black semi-retired; Buckwheat label-hopped for a while.

Choo Choo Boogaloo was aimed at children, on the Music For Little People label; Five Card Stud came from Virgin/Charisma (now Polygram), both in 1994. Along the way, On Track was a return to Island, later on Virgin. Trouble came out on Atlantic/Mesa/Blue Moon in 1997, but Atlantic sold the label, and generously gave the masters back to Buckwheat, who with Fox finally formed his own label, Tomorrow Records, and reissued Trouble in '99, followed by Down Home Live in 2001, and Jackpot! in 2005, his first studio album in eight years. Fox also produced a compilation of 20 years of Buckwheat tracks, also on Tomorrow.

In 1994 Buckwheat was not too big a star to overhaul the engine on his own tour bus. He played and sang ‘Jambalaya’ at the closing ceremonies of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, for a TV audience of many millions (the athletes formed a conga line). On the 4th of July 1998 he played with the Boston Pops Orchestra. He played for both Clinton inaugurals and at the 150th birthday party of the Democratic National Committee for Vice-President and Mrs Al Gore. He composed and performed the theme for the PBS series Pierre Franey's Cooking In America, and several of Buckwheat and his wife's Louisiana recipes have appeared in cookbooks. The stars he opened for, played and recorded with and/or had guesting on his albums include David Hildago of Los Lobos, Robert Cray, Willie Nelson, Dwight Yoakam, Mavis Staples, Keith Richards and many more. His music was heard in the soundtracks of films between 1989-97 including Fletch Lives, Hard Target, Little Buddha, Gone Fishin', The Waterboy and several more; there have been too many TV appearances to count. By now, everybody knows what the irresistible, danceable party music zydeco is: it’s whatever Buckwheat said it is.

Buckwheat was signed by Alligator and made his first album for that label in early 2009, Lay Your Burden Down, produced by Steve Berlin (Los Lobos), who had produced Five Card Stud, widely regarded as one of Buckwheat's best. Lay Your Burden Down won a Grammy in 2010.