Clifton Chenier (1925-1987)

Clifton Chenier Album Cover
Clifton Chenier Album Cover
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King of Zydeco and Louisiana Blues Clifton Chenier, singer, pianist, harmonicist, lyricist, and composer, was born on June 25, 1925, in Opelousas, St. Landry Parish, Louisiana to Joseph Chenier, an accordionist and sharecropper, and Olivia Kennerson Chenier, who introduced him to the rudiments of playing the instrument at an early age. He had an older brother, Cleveland Joseph Chenier, and a sister, Delia Chenier Richard.

By 16, Chenier had perfected the accordion and was doing shows with his brother, who played the metal washboard strapped to his chest with a metal object going up and down rhythmically. Clifton later designed a comfortable and aesthetically-appealing modern rubboard vest.

In 1945, Clifton Chenier married Margaret Vital Chenier, and the following year, the couple moved to Houston, Texas. Nine years later in 1954, Chenier and his brother recorded “Louisiana Stomp” and “Clifton’s Blues” on the Elko label. He began codifying music and a dance called Zydeco which blended rhythmic elements of Cajun and Creole French music with African American blues, R&B, Caribbean, and rock and roll. Capitalizing on the melodies syncopated sound and movement of this new genre of music, Chenier formed the Zydeco Ramblers, released “Ay ‘Tit Fille” (“Hey Little Girl”) on Specialty Records label in 1955, and began touring the southwestern United States.

In 1963, Chenier recorded “Ay Ai Ai” and “Why Did You Go Last Night?” with Arhoolie Records, and the following year, in 1964, Chenier’s first album, Louisiana Blues & Zydeco, was out and was the label’s top-selling artist. By 1965, Chenier had introduced the word, Zydeco to the musical lexicon.

Bogalusa Boogie was Chenier’s studio album released in 1975 through Arhoolie Records. It was sung in Creole French and English and is the only Zydeco album to earn the highly coveted Five Star rating from Rolling Stone magazine. Bogalusa Boogie is based on the artist’s storyline, theme, sound, passion, and musical timelines.

At the 26th Annual Grammy Awards at the Shrine Auditorium in New York City in 1984, Clifton Chenier & His Red Hot Louisiana Band won a Grammy Award for “Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording” for his album I’m Here! recorded on the Alligator label. That same year, he received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

The accordion maestro Clifton Chenier, the father of Clayton Joseph Thompson (C.J. Chenier), died of from complications related to diabetes on December 12, 1987. He was 62.

In 1989, Chenier was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in Memphis, Tennessee and in 2011, he was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame for his album, Bogalusa Boogie. Three years later in 2014, he was presented a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and two years later in 2016, the Library of Congress National Recording Registry inducted Bogalusa Boogie. Finally, in 2019, Clifton Chenier was inducted into Museum of the Gulf Coast, Music Hall of Fame in Port Arthur, Texas.