Rock Moment: Clifton Chenier
There was a place in Bridge City, Texas, called the Sparkle Paradise. It was an old dance hall with wooden floors and an oyster-shell parking lot. There were many good times there, and none were better than when the trailer for Clifton Chenier’s Red Hot Louisiana Band was parked outside. Clifton Chenier was, of course, the grandfather of Zydeco music – that spicy combination of blues and Cajun music played with an accordion and a washboard.
Chenier’s career started in 1954, and he was already a legend in South Louisiana and Southeast Texas. But in the 1980s, people started rediscovering Cajun and Zydeco music and Chenier found himself an international star. He appeared on “Austin City Limits” and his 1982 album I’m Here won a Grammy Award. He found himself playing to more and more young people, but he never lost his original fan base.
That original fan base was made up of two distinct groups – older white people, fans of pure Cajun music, and the black audience who loved Zydeco. The Sparkle Paradise usually attracted mainly the former. By the time Chenier’s band set up on a Sunday afternoon, the place would be packed with what seemed like hundreds of senior citizens. But when he cranked up that accordion for a lively two-step, those codgers would hit the dance floor. The club sold beer and set-ups (Cokes and stuff for the bottle you carried in a paper sack) and by dark most Sundays everyone was four sheets to the wind.
This copy editor from the Port Arthur News and I went to Antoine’s Club, a mainly black establishment in downtown Port Arthur, for one of Chenier’s Friday night shows. His set was completely different for this audience: it relied mainly on blues and Zydeco, and like the Sparkle Paradise crowd, they danced their asses off. Of course, we were the only white guys in the joint and we dressed in natty suits. Ladies – usually the really BIG ladies, if you know what I mean – would come up and ask us to dance. One guy walked up, and as he squinted at us through his cigarette smoke, I thought “Oh shit, now we’re gonna get our white asses stomped.” But he just rocked back on his heels, smiled and said “The BLUES Bru-THAs!”
But that was a Clifton Chenier show. It never failed to entertain, no matter who you were. And you couldn’t help but get up and move (take a listen to the live “Zydeco Sont Pas Sale” and if you don’t want to dance there is something wrong with you). Back at the Sparkle, local celebrity A.J. Judice would get up and play his “ding-a-ling” (triangle) and Clifton’s brother Cleveland would keep rhythm on the washboard (it attached to his chest and he scraped it with metal can openers – listen for it on Chenier’s recordings). Antoine’s Club is long gone, the Sparkle Paradise was severely damaged by Hurricane Rita in 2005 and it never reopened. After Hurricane Ike this year there’s not much left to the entire town of Bridge City; many people lost their homes.
Clifton Chenier died in 1987 and he left behind some great recordings on the Arhoolie and Alligator labels. Find a CD of his and play it loud. And remember for me, some great times in a few places that have now become part of the past.