Tuesday, November 24, 2009

November 24: Clifton Chenier, "King Of The Bayous"

Artist: Clifton Chenier
Album: King Of The Bayous
Year: 1970
Label: Arhoolie

It is a massive understatement to say that one of the greatest aspects of music is the amazing variance that one finds all over the globe. Whether it is the throat-singing of the Southern Russian Republics or the amazing rhythms created on streets all over Africa, the qualities that are unique to each culture are often what makes them so fantastic. While in the United States, blues, rock, and jazz have been the dominant sound for decades, there is one unique style of music that has its origins in the country, and it is by far one of the most brilliant sounds to ever emerge. Taking the style of spirituals and cajun music and infusing it with the sound of soul and R&B, there has never been another style of music quite like Zydeco. Though it is similarly one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented sounds in music history, the pure joy and love of live that comes through throughout the genre is absolutely undeniable. Though many have made their livings playing the style, there is only one man worthy of the title "King Of Zydeco," the one and only Clifton Chenier. With more than twenty albums to his name, it was Cheniers' work beginning in the early 1950's that brought this amazing sound to the worldwide masses. Though it is nearly impossible to find a Clifton Chenier record that isn't fantastic, standing as his finest work, and easily one of the best albums ever is his 1970 release, the aptly titled, King Of The Bayous."

The Zydeco of Clifton Chenier is like that of nobody before him, as he flawlessly blends R&B, blues, and even a bit of pop styles into the accordion-led sound. From slower ballads to waltzes to an almost polka-eqsue sound, Chenier uses King Of The Bayous to prove that within the style of Zydeco, there is really nothing that is "off limits." This diversity in style is rarely found elsewhere within the genre, and it is one of the many aspects that makes Chenier such an icon. Much of this diversity in style is due to the fact that, as he made a name for himself in the 1950's and 1960's, Clifton Chenier played many dances and other such events, and therefore he needed to have a varied repertoire to please all of the different people. This translates into modern day with an album that has something for everyone, and King Of The Bayous transcends all notions of "traditional" Zydeco, making it a wonderful album for all to experience. Every song on the album is a Chenier original with the exception of the classic honky-tonk tearjerker, "Release Me." The fact that Chenier was able to so perfectly compose such a wide range of sounds serves as further testament to his overall greatness as an artist. The other main reason who this album is so exceptional is simply due to the fact that Chenier was well into this third decade of performing by this point, and his sound, as well as the way in which he interacts with his band was a well honed instrument onto itself.

Most of the seven musicians who are featured on King Of The Bayous had been in Cheiner's band for many years, and this is a major factor in the fantastic sound and overall mood of the record. With Clifton himself leading the band with his brilliant accordion playing, the other musicians bring their own traditional instruments and sound to the songs, making it one of the most enjoyable and authentic sounding records in the history of the genre. As one of his longest collaborators, Chenier's brother, Cleveland plays on every song, bringing one of Zydeco's most well-known instruments, the rub-board. Traditionally used for washing clothes, it was the makers of early cajun music who turned it into a musical instrument. Cleveland Chenier playing is phenomenal on every song, and it is largely his playing that gives King Of The Bayous its authentic mood. Drummer Robert St. Julien had also been in Chenier's band for many years, and his diversity in rhythmic patterns makes him one of the finest ever in the genre. Similarly, bassist Joe Morris plays perfectly across the varying styles, and the combination of him and St. Juilen are truly a remarkable sound to experience. Guitarist Antonie Victor and pianist Elmore Nixon round on the band, and having both of them on hand gives the music of King Of The Bayous a far more full and complex sound then a majority of their contemporaries. After just a few minutes of listening, one can only imagine the awesome power and energy that Clifton Chenier and his band brought to the live performances which made them famous.

While his backing band is fantastic, the true soul and spirit of the group lies within its founder, Clifton Chenier. Famous for the way in which he blended waltzes and "two step" dance styles into the cajun sound, everything that makes him so brilliant can be found on King Of The Bayous. It is his unique approach to the cajun style of music that formed what is now called Zydeco, and in the opinion of most people, there was simply nothing like Zydeco before Chenier's time. Along with his high energy and unique music, Chenier was also well known for his equally entertaining personality, and he was often found sporting a cape and crown during his live performances. Truth be told, Chenier very much saw himself as a rock-style artist, and was famously quoted as saying, "...Zydeco is rock and French mixed together, you know, like French music and rock with a beat to it. It's the same thing as rock and roll but it's different because I'm singing in French." Chenier has by far one of the most mesmerizing voices of any genre, and regardless of what language or subject on which he is singing, his vocal work throughout the album is absolutely fantastic. Combined with his superb accordion playing, there are few artists who had as much personality and raw musical talent as one finds within Clifton Chenier.

Easily one of the most incorrectly maligned and genres of all time, Zydeco music is one of the most upbeat, celebratory, and original sounds ever created. Taking the cajun sound and infusing it with a far more dancable style, it can be seen as influencing countless genres that came after, from the later waves of SKA to southern rock sound, and even a bit of influence on the disco movement. Leading the charge of this sound and style was the man who most consider to be the first, and therefore most important Zydeco musician, Clifton Chenier. Mixing together the more popular sounds of R&B, blues, and rock music with the unique sounds of the Bayou, Chenier birthed a sound that was perfect for dance-halls, yet sounded absolutely nothing like anything that had previously been heard in such settings. With his equally talented backing band, Chenier quickly made a name for himself throughout the Louisiana/Texas area, and word quickly spread around the world of this new and exciting sound. Not only was Chenier a magnificent entertainer in every sense of the word, but the fact that he proved to be an equally amazing composer cements his legacy as one of the most talented and important figures in the entire history of recorded music. Though his entire catalog is well worth owning, to understand why Clifton Chenier is such a pivotal part of modern music, one need look no further then his truly phenomenal 1970 release, the perfectly titled King Of The Bayous.

Standout tracks: "Zodico Two Step," "Who Can Your Good Man Be," and "Grand Mamou."


Rory said...

this is why i love this blog

Travis said...

hey daily guru,

I run a site called Thriller Magazine, and I'm writing a little bit on Clifton Chenier and "King of the Bayous" for my current edition. I'm going to link to your blog as well so that my readers can see your article about the album.

Feel free to let your readers know that they can see your article at www.thrillermag.com

keep up the good work!

Travis | Thriller