LISTEN HERE: (20:10) Clifton Chenier
Interviewed By: Chris Strachwitz
Date: October 1978
Location: Radio Station KPFA Berkeley, California
This is an unedited interview originally recorded on Chris Strachwitz’s radio show on KPFA-FM in Berkeley, CA. All rights to the interview are reserved by the Arhoolie Foundation. Please do not use anything from this website without permission. firstname.lastname@example.org
For an excellent video of Clifton Chenier performing “Zydeco Sant Pas Sale”, see the bottom of this page.
A Note About the Transcriptions: In order to expedite the process of putting these interviews online, we are using a transcription service. Due to the challenges of transcribing speech – especially when it contains regional accents and refers to regional places and names – some of these interview transcriptions may contain errors. We have tried to correct as many as possible, but if you discover errors while listening, please send corrections to email@example.com
Chris Strachwitz: My name is Chris Strachwitz, and I want to welcome you all to my special guest today who I happened to corner over in Richmond where he’s staying with his Red Hot Louisiana band, the whole band. Mr. Clifton Chenier from Louisiana. Welcome Clifton.
Clifton Chenier: All right, all right.
Chris Strachwitz: Glad to see you feeling good again.
Clifton Chenier: Yeah, I’m all right.
Chris Strachwitz: You’re doing a big dance tonight in San Francisco?
Clifton Chenier: Yeah, we’re going to be at All Hallows.
Chris Strachwitz: At All Hallows, folks. We’ll get to that in a little bit later on. While I’ve got you here, I’ve always been meaning to get into some of your music and some of the things that you come from down in the swamp land. Craw-fish holes.
Clifton Chenier: Right right, well it’s got soul.
Chris Strachwitz: Yeah?
Clifton Chenier: Yeah.
Chris Strachwitz: When you grew up you … there weren’t really any black guys playing this kind of French music, were there?
Clifton Chenier: Well, they had some kind of older people playing, but in a different style. They had a lot of old accordion players, but they were playing in a different style. What I did, I put a little Rock into this French music.
Chris Strachwitz: That’s right.
Clifton Chenier: Picked it up some.
Chris Strachwitz: You were really kind of the first guy to do that, to put a kind of Rhythm and Blues feeling into the French music.
Clifton Chenier: Right, right, right.
Chris Strachwitz: How did you get that idea to mix the French music … really just waltzes and two steps, you know, and mix that with Rhythm and Blues?
Clifton Chenier: Well, you see in 1955 I used to play nothing but Rock music on accordion. Then I got so, I said “Well there’s too many Rock groups.” I said, “I’m going to change this a little.” That’s why I got it down to put French in the Rock music. See, how it goes.
Chris Strachwitz: Actually, when you started playing you were playing mostly Rhythm and Blues then?
Clifton Chenier: Yeah, oh yeah.
Chris Strachwitz: You didn’t play much French music, did you?
Clifton Chenier: No, no. I knowed it, but I wasn’t, you know … I said, well it might now sell, but I was wrong.
Chris Strachwitz: How did they finally put you on a record? Who was the man that found you?
Clifton Chenier: John Fulbright. It’s an old man out of Los Angeles, he dead no, poor soul. He really … He’s the one that first brought me to California. After Fulbright here come Chris.
Chris Strachwitz: Uh-oh.
Clifton Chenier: Chris … at we’ve been on there ever since.
Chris Strachwitz: When old man Fulbright first heard you, were you playing in one of those French dance halls or was it …
Clifton Chenier: Yeah we were. We were out in the country, one of those country dances, you know those little clubs out in the wood. Those girls put those little red dresses on and come on out on Sunday evening. We had those little dances like that, you know. So he said “Cliff, you better get out of here, man. You’re play too much accordion to step in the woods like this.” I said, “Well, I’m a country boy, man.” He says, “Yeah, but you better move up a little.” It took him about five years before you could get me out of that. I didn’t want to go nowhere, you know.
Chris Strachwitz: You were used to things do wn there, and I can’t blame you. It’s a nice a nice country down there.
Clifton Chenier: Yeah, back home, you’re home. You know what I mean? Everybody’s for real.
Chris Strachwitz: That’s right, you don’t get no jive from anybody.
Clifton Chenier: No, you don’t get no jive. Everybody’s for real. They like you, they say they like you they like you. They don’t like you, they don’t like you. That’s it.
Chris Strachwitz: That was back in the 50’s, and you had a pretty big hit, actually, with that “Ay-Tete-Fee” that you mixed with specialty records.
Clifton Chenier: That’s what brought me out. That’s what made the people know what accordions could do with a regular “Boppin the Rock” ” Ay-Tete-Fee”, “Think it Over”, “All The Things I Did For You” things like that.
Chris Strachwitz: That sort of came out in a time when Rhythm and Blues was still a really happening thing on the black radio and jukeboxes and stuff.
Clifton Chenier: Yeah, this was swinging then. This was back then, ’55, ’56, ’57, ’58.
Chris Strachwitz: Where did you tour back then in the ’50’s? I remember you went on some shows all around the country, didn’t you?
Clifton Chenier: I first went out on the road with Lowell Fulson, Etta James, and, yeah. That’s who I first went out on the road with. We went all over Chicago, and New York, and Florida, and things like that. I toured here too. Here in California. Way back in 22 years ago.
Chris Strachwitz: Long time ago.
Clifton Chenier: It doesn’t look like it, huh?
Chris Strachwitz: No. Time goes awfully fast, doesn’t it?
Clifton Chenier: Yeah, that’s the time the Five Royals was out there, the Midnighters. We were all together.
Chris Strachwitz: You were usually on a package show with a whole bunch of other artists?
Clifton Chenier: Oh yeah.
Chris Strachwitz: So you only had a chance to play your hit, was it?
Clifton Chenier: Yeah, that’s right. You play your hit, and that’s it. I rarely had time to stretch out to let them know what I could do, you know? After you play your hit record, well that’s it.
Chris Strachwitz: I remember seeing Guitar Slim back in those days, and all he ever played was “The Thing That I Used To Do”.
Clifton Chenier: Oh yeah, we were all together. Guitar Slim, Little Richard, Percy Mayfield. The whole group.
Chris Strachwitz: Now you actually have a chance to play a whole dance with all the kinds of music you do. I know that one time when I first came to Louisiana and heard you a lot, you played a dance outside of Kaplan, I think it was, and you played mostly for Cajun people and you played nothing but Waltzes and Two Steps that night.
Clifton Chenier: Well you see, that’s what it is. You know, sometimes they’ve got some places over there you can play just Waltzes and Two Steps, and that’s all they want to hear. But then some places you’ve got to break it down. They want something else. I have an old generation and I have a young generation following me. Those youngsters sometimes, they want to hear a little Rock with the zydeco mixed up, and those older people just want to hear real old stuff from way back. I know them. They hit on me, I got it.
Chris Strachwitz: Those pieces do come back to you?
Clifton Chenier: They ask me, that’s it. I know them.
Chris Strachwitz: You put a real flavor to them. It all comes out Clifton Chenier. It doesn’t come out like Joe Falcon. Nobody else like that.
Clifton Chenier: No, no, no. It comes right out from … I record records the way I feel, you know. That’s it.
fChris Strachwitz: Who was actually the first black man that ever made a French record?
Clifton Chenier: I think it was Joe Falcon, I don’t know him.
Chris Strachwitz: I mean a man … Joe Falcon was actually a white man. I think it was actually Amede Ardoin.
Clifton Chenier: Amede Ardoin, yeah.
Chris Strachwitz: Did you know him?
Clifton Chenier: No, my daddy used to talk about him so much and tell me Looked I knowed him, but I never did meet him. He had a lot of his records though.
Clifton Chenier: Yeah, they had some boys back home playing them. They had a lot of fellas playing them. I know the fella Claude Faulk, that’ Helen’s daddy she’s sittin’ down right here.
Chris Strachwitz: We should say hello to Helen Faulk. Why don’t you grab that mic Helen, we might just sneak it in on you.
Clifton Chenier: He was an accordion player. I know the Rattleboys. They were accordion players. I know quite a few of them.
Chris Strachwitz: So Helen, some of your relatives played music? Were they related to you?
Helen Faulk: Yes, my daddy.
Chorus Strachwitz: Oh really? Your dad?
Helen Faulk: I had five uncles that did play, and some of their sons, and that was the only one I knew. Then met Clifton and started working with him.
Chris Strachwitz: Were they pretty much just on a washboard and an accordion?
Helen Faulk: They were just washboard and accordion. No drums, no guitar, no bass. It was just a plain … My daddy, when I knew him and they were coming up that’s all they played. Washboard and accordion.
Chris Strachwitz: Did they mix blues into it or was it pretty much just …
Helen Faulk: No, it was more Zydeco music.
Chris Strachwitz: Where does that word come from?
Helen Faulk: Well, maybe Clifton can explain this one.
Clifton Chenier: Well, you see, people say Zydeco, you know, … A long time ago they used to give dances in houses. They hardly had no clubs . Well, that’s when those playing the rubbing board, accordion, and triangle. That was the band right there. People would pass the other people’s houses and say “Where are you going tonight?” “Oh” They said, “Well, they have a Zydeco down at so and so, so I guess I’m going to the Zydeco.” That’s how they started. Zydeco, that’s a slap bean, you know? When I say “Zydeco sont pas sale” I mean “There’s not salt in your snap beans” So that’s why I put Zydeco sont pas sale.
Chris Strachwitz: That’s from that tune, you think that’s how they picked up that word?
Clifton Chenier: Yeah.
Chris Strachwitz: Have you ever heard it called anything else but the Zydeco?
Clifton Chenier: Well the they had another name name, “Going to a lala”
Chris Strachwitz: Lala
Helen Faulk: They had fais do-do.
Clifton Chenier: They had fais do-do or lala. You know. Fais do-do.
“We’re going to the fais do-do or lala”, but there mostly was “Yeah I’m going to the Zydeco tonight.” That’s it.
Chris Strachwitz: That’s a good term and it sure applies to a snappy kind of music, doesn’t it? It made me want to play another number and let people know what’s going on here. I’m talking to the man himself who just about invented Zydeco music, I think. I don’t think he has that much competition down there. Some boys try to play like him, but no it’s just him all that. Why don’t we see what’s playing there? Oh yeah, lets play a little music.
Chris Strachwitz: Why don’t we let the people know where you’re going to be playing. You’re going to be playing tonight a dance in San Francisco at All Hallows. All Hallows church gymnasium. That’s located on Lane street in the Hunter’s Point area of San Francisco. If you’re driving south on 3rd street into Hunter’s Point then turn left on Queseda. Make a left on Queseda and the first right is Lane street. It’s just a little street there just off of 3rd and Queseda and Revere street. You can’t miss it, just ask anybody where All Hallows church is there. It’s a big gymnasium and they’re going to be broadcasting it live tonight over at KFAT, our rival here. They’re doing good things down there.
That’s tonight for Clifton Chenier and the Red Hot Louisiana Band at All Hallows church dance tonight. Lane street in Hunter’s Point area, starting probably around 10 o’clock. Something around that time.
Clifton Chenier: We’re going to rock hard.
Chris Strachwitz: We’re going to rock ’em all night long.
Chris Strachwitz: Tomorrow. Why not read that? Tomorrow night is going to be at the Yountville Saloon, that’s up in Napa Valley. Really pretty area up there, that’s a good club. Napa Valley tomorrow night at the Yountville Saloon. On Monday night he’s going to be at the Bodega Club, I guess tomorrow’s Sunday. The next day on Monday night he’s going to be at the Bodega Club in Campbell. That’s right down on the South Peninsula. South Bay area. It’s a good joint too. You were there a long time ago, I remember that. Some years ago.
Clifton Chenier: Yeah, a long time ago. It’s been a good while.
Chris Strachwitz: The Bodega Club in Campbell. All next week on, oh let’s see, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday Clifton’s going to be in San Francisco at the Coffee Gallery and I believe you’re playing the big Hooker’s Ball at the Cow Palace on the 20th. I hope that’s coming off, that ought to be a heck of a show. Going to cut ’em up, huh?
Clifton Chenier: I’m ready.
Chris Strachwitz: All right.
Helen Faulk: That’s in case they can’t make it tonight. Well, you can make Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, or whenever it’s convenient for you.
Chris Strachwitz: I want you to know that’s Helen Faulk who’s been Clifton’s manager and agent for a lot of years now, and if it wasn’t for you Helen, I don’t know. I think Clifton would be back in them woods.
Clifton Chenier: I tell you what, Chris. The way things going on, I think I’d rather be back in the woods.
Chris Strachwitz: I don’t blame you. I don’t blame you.
Clifton Chenier: Look at the owls and the alligators sing the blues. That’s where we come from. Alligators sing the blues where we come from. Craw-fish got soul, so now we got to shell it.
Chris Strachwitz: You don’t have to fool with motel expenses and keeping everybody happy.
Clifton Chenier: No, no. That’s what I’m talking about. We just let our hair down, you know.
Chris Strachwitz: I don’t blame you one bit. I know it feels so much better when you’re at home and you know what you’re doing and you know how much money you need.
Clifton Chenier: That’s right.
Helen Faulk: He loves the people, it’s just ……..He wants to be in the woods.
Clifton Chenier: Well, you don’t have no trouble when you’re in the woods. Can’t nobody find you.
Chris Strachwitz: Anyway, I know people love you out here Clifton, and you’ve got to come back at least once a year. I know it’s a hard job to get the whole band together and to drive out here and to put up with crazy Californians. You never know who’s coming the road.
Clifton Chenier: I’ll come once a year, but I enjoy it. It’s all right. I’m just talking, but I like the people.
Chris Strachwitz: You have a brand new record out on GNP records, actually. You’ve got a whole bunch on Arhoolie.
I’d like to get back to some more of the kind of music that people play down in Louisiana. You know, when I first heard you I think Lightning took me over to hear you. Because Lightning’s wife is a relative to you.
Clifton Chenier: Yeah, my second cousin.
Chris Strachwitz: Oh really? She’s a second cousin?
Clifton Chenier: Annette.
Chris Strachwitz: Annette? I remember going to this and she says “Well he’s playing at this little French club.” And there he was, Clifton just himself and a drummer. I’ll never forget that. Just about two or three couples, you know? At that time I don’t think they were doing too much. You didn’t have a record out. I remember we went over to Bill Quinn, you know, used to have Gold Star Record and he had that big studio, and we did this little thing called …
Chris Strachwitz: Was that? That was before Louisiana Blues. Ay Ay AY.
Clifton Chenier: Yeah, Ay, Ay, Ay.
Chris Strachwitz: We did that, then we finally got to Louisiana Blues and that was about the biggest seller. I’ll never forget that. You got finished with that number and you jumped on the telephone, and you called Margret and you said “Listen, listen to this record!”
What is that song all about?
Clifton Chenier: Louisiana Blues and Ain’t No Need of Cryin’, and see a… that time when I was down, I didn’t know, it was just … everything was just going backwards. When I recorded records … The words to Ain’t No Need of Cryin‘, because I’m gone. I gave you all of my money. Took all my money, now you gone. They were letting me down, you know? I wanted her to know what that record was saying.
Chris Strachwitz: I know you had the blues that day, but somehow it had a real good feeling and we sold quite a few down there. I think that …
Clifton Chenier: ….was the disk jockey down there, well they really played it. Also GG, you know. A record ain’t no good if you can’t hear it. If your record is played, well, people can hear it. Somebody’s going to like it, you know?
Chris Strachwitz: That’s always been a real problem since you’ve reached a new market now. You play for people around the world.
Clifton Chenier: I’m surprised because right there in Houston, I live in Houston, and they won’t have it played. All the juke boxes got them. Now I leave there and go to Europe and every two or three minutes, there’s only but one or two stations over there, every one or two minutes here’s my record. In Paris, everywhere.
Chris Strachwitz: So you’re really getting into a new kind of world, now.
Chris Strachwitz: I guess the black music has changed a lot in Houston. They used to play your records all the time.
Clifton Chenier: They play all that Disco now.
Chris Strachwitz: Well I guess you’re going to have to make a Disco record, huh?
Clifton Chenier: Well, I guess I’ll just go on … No, I’m going stick to what I’m doing.
Chris Strachwitz: Oh good.
Clifton Chenier: Well, we might do that, I don’t know. I’m kidding. I’m really working on a Spiritual record. It’s something I never did, you know? But I’m going to work on a Disco record too, you know? We have to try everything.
I want to let them know an accordion can do anything. You can play anything on an accordion, if you know how to play it. A lot of people think you just can play Polka music, you know? I’m going to prove to them that you don’t have to play just Polka. You can play anything you want to play if you know how to play it.
Chris Strachwitz: If you’ve got the right kind of feeling behind it.
Clifton Chenier: Get in to it.
Helen Faulk: Yes, Canada was real nice.
Clifton Chenier: Yeah it surprised me.
Helen Faulk: Canada was wonderful. Montreal, Canada. They had nice people.
Chris Strachwitz: Do they speak French up there?
Helen Faulk: Everybody. All their stores are even the French names. No English names at all.
Clifton Chenier: Little boys about six or seven years old, they’ll be talking French. It’s funny. I was at home when I got there, because I can talk French too, see?
Chris Strachwitz: Folks, meet Clifton Chenier tonight in person. The one and only. Come out to the big dance at All Hallows Church gymnasium on Lane Street and Hunter’s Point area, or tomorrow night the Yountville Saloon in Napa Valley. Clifton I sure appreciate you coming by. Why don’t we tell people they should call up right now and become members of this fine radio station? Because this radio station wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for you the people out there, the listeners. Because there are no commercials, they just exist on what people spend every year to send to this radios station, and by that they get a little folio that tells them all the different programs that are on here. Once you folks call right now you can even talk to Clifton if you want to. Call 848-5732.
Clifton Chenier: All right.
Chris Strachwitz: 848-5732
Or if you’re down in Fresno, call 222-5323. But what we want is your money, folks.
Clifton Chenier: Chris the next record. I would love for to dedicate this to a man… I know a lot of people hearing me. He died and they buried him in today day, and I played for him for years. Eddie Richard out of Opelousas,Louisiana.
Chris Strachwitz: He passed, huh? That’s a shame.
Clifton Chenier: Lawtell….
Chris Strachwitz: One of the really most important dance halls in that part of the country, just east of Eunice. Richards’s club. They’ve had French dances for God knows how long.
Clifton Chenier: They buried him today. He liked the dance music so much. We want to dedicate that to him.
Chris Strachwitz: Let’s dedicate this new number to him. Thanks Clifton Chenier, we’ll see you soon.