Zydeco Legend to spice up he MACC
For his last night hosting “The Late Show,” Jimmy Fallon opened with a musical surprise, singing and playing guitar alongside zydeco accordion legend Buckwheat Zydeco and the show’s house band, The Roots, with a rousing performance of Bob Dylan’s “On a Night Like This.”
“It was such an honor to be a part of it,” says Stanley Dural Jr., more commonly known as Buckwheat Zydeco. ” ‘On a Night Like This’ is quite a meaningful song for us. It’s the title track of our first Island Records album in 1987, and it really helped spread the word about Buckwheat Zydeco and zydeco music to many people.”
Buckwheat and his Ils Son Partis Band will perform, along with fellow zydeco legend C.J. Chenier and the Red Hot Louisiana Band, at the Mardi Gras Hawaii 2014 celebration Saturday at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center.
Over the course of 35 years, Buckwheat Zydeco has performed with a range of artists from Eric Clapton and U2 to The Boston Pops, and was part of the closing ceremonies of the 1996 Summer Olympics, broadcast to a worldwide audience of 3 billion people.
“With zydeco music, it has to be real,” says Buckwheat. “You can’t program it. When I play live, I never have a set list. With a set list, it’s almost like a robot. When I go onstage, I get on and let it rip. I just go where the audience wants to go, and it works.”
Born in Lafayette, Louisiana, in 1947, he acquired his nickname because, with his braided hair, he looked like Buckwheat from “The Little Rascals.” While his father was an accomplished, traditional Creole accordion player, he preferred listening to and playing rhythm and blues. By the late 1950s, he was backing Joe Tex, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and other artists on the organ. In 1971, he formed Buckwheat and The Hitchhikers, a 15-piece funk and soul band. But then, in 1976, he accepted an invitation to join Clifton Chenier’s Red Hot Louisiana Band as organist.
Discovering the joy and power of zydeco, he marveled at the effect the music had on the audience. “Everywhere, people young and old just loved zydeco music,” he says. “I had so much fun playing that first night with Clifton. We played for four hours, and I wasn’t ready to quit.”
Within a couple of years, he felt ready to start his own band under the name Buckwheat Zydeco. In 1988, Eric Clapton invited the group to open his North American tour, as well as his historic 12-night stand at London’s Royal Albert Hall. As more doors opened, Buckwheat found himself sharing stages and/or recording with Keith Richards, Robert Plant, Willie Nelson, Mavis Staples, Dwight Yoakam and Paul Simon.
On his most recent album, “Lay Your Burden Down,” which won a Grammy, Buckwheat features covers of songs by Bruce Springsteen (“Back In Your Arms”), Jimmy Cliff (“Let Your Yeah Be Yeah”) and Memphis Minnie (“When The Levee Breaks,” made famous by Led Zeppelin). With Sonny Landreth on stinging slide guitar, Buckwheat’s version steers close to Zeppelin’s monumental rocking cover.
“My albums usually have some songs I’ve written and some that are covers,” he says. “But, if I’m doing someone else’s song, I take it and make it a Buckwheat Zydeco song. You have to do that because you don’t want to copycat.”
“The results are stunning,” raved a Living Blues review of the album. “This is an album that can introduce a new generation of music fans to the world of zydeco music and serve as a wonderful reminder about what a great zydeco band can do.”
Like Buckwheat Zydeco, C.J. Chenier and his band cook up an irresistible spicy stew of blues, French folk and New Orleans boogie that packs dance floors.
“I love seeing all the happy faces,” C. J. (Clayton Joseph) Chenier emphasizes. “This is not sit-down music. It’s happy-feet music; it kind of makes you smile. I love to see the effect the music has on people; it’s incredible. People are dancing and having a good time.”
C. J. Chenier works hard to get a joint jumping, having been schooled by the undisputed king of zydeco, father Clifton Chenier. Zydeco is largely the creation of Clifton. Over the course of 40 years, this accordion great recorded more than 100 albums introducing the world to this vibrant, blues-based roots music.
In January, the Recording Academy honored C.J. with a Lifetime Achievement Award. “He gave me my life,” C.J. says about his father. “He gave me my talent. He gave me my start in the music career.”
Raised by his mother in Texas, C. J. grew up hardly knowing his father or zydeco music. As a teenager, he played saxophone in a Top 40 band influenced by the R&B of James Brown and groups like Kool and the Gang. At 20, he was surprised to get a call from his father, inviting him to play saxophone with the Red Hot Louisiana Band. As Clifton’s health declined, he introduced his son to the accordion, and C.J. would sometimes have to front the band.
When his father died in 1987, C.J. became the full-time leader of the Red Hots, establishing his own reputation as a gifted accordion player. “He said, ‘Always be the best playing my music; don’t let anybody outdo you playing your own music,’ ” C.J. recalls.
Apart from exhilarating accordion playing, zydeco attracts people with its percussive underlay, created by the rhythmic brushing of a metal washboard. This instrument, now known as a rubboard, was invented by Clifton. “My dad designed it, and a metalworker made it,” C. J. explains. “It’s being used in all genres of music now.”
It was through his performances with the Red Hot Louisiana Band that Clifton’s accordion skills caught the attention of Paul Simon, who was looking for instrumentalists for the album that would become 1990’s Grammy-winning, “Rhythm of the Saints.” “That was an experience of a lifetime,” C. J. recalls. “He knew exactly what he wanted.”
Hailed by Living Blues magazine as the “best living zydeco singer and accordionist,” the Boston Globe also raved: “C.J. Chenier attacks the accordion with the tension and drive of James Brown, creating turbocharged dance music.”
His latest recording, “Can’t Sit Down,” lives up to its name with a lively collection covers and originals. “Just like his legendary father, Clifton, C.J. Chenier puts out high energy dance music that makes you sweat,” enthused a No Depression review.