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Clifton Chenier (born in Opelousas, near Lafayette , the June 25 , 1925 – died in Lafayette on December 12 , 1987) is a zydeco musician, and among the most celebrated musicians who play in that genre that ever lived, having been called the King of Zydeco music, and King of the Bayou (by Paul Simon).
Zydeco, stylistically, is a mix of Cajun and Creole music with influences of jazz and blues. Clifton played the accordion, and was the first to use this instrument to play blues style music.
Here is a rare clip of Clifton Chenier playing live, and you can see from the video footage that he infuses his music with a spirit that simply makes people want to get up and dance!
Clifton Chenier learned to play accordion at a very young age thanks to his father Joseph Chenier.
He began playing at various balls and parties on Saturday nights, with his brother Cleveland Chenier, playing a corrugated washboard, which is quite literally a washboard, but can be used as a musical instrument as well.
Here’s Clifton a little later in his life – 1979, with Honeyboy Edwards, and Lightnin’ Hopkins in NYC.
Ok, backing up a ways.
In 1945, Clifton left the family farm to work in the sugar cane fields. He then went to Lake Charles to join his brother Cleveland. There, he met other great pioneering zydeco musicians and refined his style, leading to the distinctive style that won him a Grammy later in life.
His professional career began in 1954 , when he signed with Elko Record and recorded Clifton’s Blues (under the name of Cliston Chanier ) which was a local success. He continued with Ay-tte-fee ( Hey, little girl , the spelling of the Cajun title has had many variations!) which made him more widely known.
Here is Clifton’s recording of Louisiana Stomp as Cliston Chanier.
He toured extensively with the Zydeco Ramblers and signed with Chess Records in 1956 . The Chess label did not do too much publicity for its records, and so he left in 1958, and moved on over to Houston.
He finally signed at Arhoolie Records in 1964, expanding his audience to a more “white” audience. Clifton was welcomed warmly in 1969 at the American Folk Blues Festival, a legendary festival indeed, making him even more famous for this bourgeoning style of music known as Zydeco.
In 1973 he signed the music of the Alain Corneau France film company. In 1979, he was diagnosed with severe diabetes and had have one of his feet amputated.
Clifton’s career was crowned by a Grammy Award in the year 1983 for “I’m Here”, and then in 1984 he was made a National Heritage Fellow for his contributions.
He died in 1987 of a kidney disease in Lafayette, Louisiana. Clifton Chenier was buried in All Souls Cemetery in Loreauville, Iberia Parish, Louisiana.
Posthumously, Clifton was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, and then later, in 2011, he made it into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame.
Clifton’s son, CJ Chenier took over for his father, and continues his music producing legacy of red hot zydeco concerts and records.
“My music is not complicated. It’s nothing but French dances with a little swing to get people moving.”
- Clifton Sings the Blues (2004)
- Louisina Blues & Zydeco / Bon Ton Roulet (2001)
- Live at Grant Street (2000)
- Comin ‘Home (2000)
- Live at 1966 Berkeley Blues Festival (2000)
- Cajun Swamp Music (1999)
- Bayou Bayou (1999)
- In New Orleans (1998)
- Zydeco Are Not Dirty (1997)
- I’m Coming Home (1996)
- On Tour (1996)
- We’re Gonna Party (1994)
- Live at St. Mark’s (1988)
- 60 Minutes with the King of Zydeco (1988)
- Bogalusa Boogie (1987) * Sings the Blues (1987)
- The King of Zydeco (1985)
- Live! at the Long Beach & San Francisco Blues Festivals (1985)
- Country Boy Now (1984)
- The King of Zydeco Live at Montreux (1984)
- I’m Here! (1982)
- Live at San Francisco Blues Festival (1982)
- Blues & Zydeco (1981)
- Boogie ‘n’ Zydeco (1980)
- Bayou Soul (1979)
- Clifton Chenier & His Red Hot Louisiana Band in New Orleans (1979)
- Clifton Chenier and His Red Hot Louisiana Band (1978)
- Cajun Swamp Live Music (1978)
- Frenchin ‘the Boogie (1976)
- Bogalusa Boogie (1975)
- Out West (1974)
- Clifton Chenier Live (At a French-Creole Dance) (1973)
- Bayou Blues (1970)
- King of the Bayous (1970)
- Clifton’s Cajun Blues (1970)
- Louisiana Blues (1969)
- Black Snake Blues (1966)
- Louisiana Blues & Zydeco (1965)