Zydeco star C. J. Chenier was born on September 28, 1957 in Port Arthur, Texas, right next to the Louisiana state line. He has been called “The Crown Prince of Zydeco” by various music publications. According to Chenier, leader of the famous Red Hot Louisiana band, those titles are fine, but the truth lies in the music. “What we’re playing here are real songs,” he says proudly “Songs that tell stories and make you dance.”
That clarification is important to C.J. It is a lesson he learned from his father, acclaimed zydeco pioneer Clifton Chenier. C.J.’s music has always embraced zydeco traditions, but he continues to push the music to new levels. “I won’t limit myself,” says C.J., and it’s clear why.
C.J. was aware of his father’s music but also had other tastes. He liked James Brown and Funkadelic, John Coltrane and Miles Davis. C.J. learned saxophone early on and as a teenager played in black top 40 bands in Port Arthur. He studied music in college and dreamed of making it as a jazz or funk player.
Then, one week before C.J.’s 21st birthday, Clifton asked him to bring his sax along and join the Red Hot Louisiana Band. “I didn’t know any of the songs they played,” he recalls, “but the guys helped me out and brought me along. And then one day the music hit me, and I knew this is what I wanted to do.” In 1985, as the effects of diabetes began to seriuosly affect his father, C.J., at Clifton’s request, picked up the accordion and started opening the shows. “He didn’t push it,” C.J. remembers. “He let me decide for myself. But when he first called me to go out and play with his band, I think it was his idea all along that I would carry on his music.“
After Clifton’s death in 1987, C.J. inherited his father’s accordion as well as the Red Hot Louisiana Band. But he took his father’s music and built upon it, adding elements of jazz and funk he grew up with. When asked about his accordion playing, C.J. is quick to defer to his father, whom “nobody could ever touch,” says C.J.
C.J. Chenier and the Red Hot Louisiana Band continued to forge ahead, releasing three solo albums (one on Arhoolie and two on Slash) and playing hundreds of concerts a year. They attracted the attention of fans, critics, and fellow musicians by playing major festivals like the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, San Diego’s Street scene, and Milwaukee’s Summerfest. Singer-songwriter Paul Simon noticed C.J., and picked him to play on his Rhythm Of The Saints album and then asked him to join the “Born At The Right Time” tour. But that’s not all. He also shows up as a guest on the Gin Blossoms’ New Miserable Experience album.
C.J.’s next step led him to Alligator Records, the label where his father won a Grammy award for his album, I’m Here (it was also the first Grammy for the then new label).
C.J.’s label debut, Too Much Fun, became a favorite with fans and critics alike. Living Blues magazine, in their 1996 Critics’ Awards, named Too Much Fun Best Zydeco Album of 1995. Features ran in major newspapers and magazines everywhere, including The Chicago Tribune, Billboard, Blues Revue and The Los Angeles Times.
1995 appearances on the Jon Stewart Show and CNN brought C.J.’s music to his widest audience yet. But all this attention didn’t change his philosophy toward his music. “You go to a gig by a jazz band,” he says, “and everybody’s sitting down, sipping drinks. You play zydeco and you see shoes flying off. You can’t come to my show and stay unhappy all night long. You’re going to break a smile and stomp your foot before too long. This is happy music, and it makes you dance.”
C.J. Chenier recorded his 2011 album Can’t Sit Down live, in just one session, at Rock Romano’s Red Shack Studio in Houston, Texas. His goal was to capture the freshness of his music. and this is why he decided to produce the album himself.“I figured that nobody knows better what I want than I do,”he says. “Nobody knows better how I want my accordion to sound. Nobody knows better how I want my band to sound. So I decided to stop going with other people’s ears and start going with my own.”
Can’t Sit Down includes pieces by C.J. ‘s father, Clifton Chenier, including the opening track ‘Can’t Sit down’. “I really liked it so I said, OK, let’s try this one,‘and everybody fell right in. It just clicked. That’s a sign that something is a keeper, when everybody can fall in and it feels good.”
One of C.J, Chenier’s original compositions is a tribute to his uncle, Cleveland Chenier. “He’s the grandfather of the washboard, “ says C.J. “Nobody has the technique he had. My uncle Cleveland used to call me sometimes on Sundays and he’d say, I’m coming to pick you up. We’re gonna take a ride.’We’d go ride around. He’d always have a half pint of Crown Royale in his top coat pocket. He’d pick me up on Sundays and him and me would hit a club here and hit a club there, and just have a good time.”
Curtis Mayfield’s “We Gotta Have Peace”closes the album. “That song reflects what I’ve been feeling,”C.J. says. “We need peace, we gotta have it. That’s why I have my grandson talking in the beginning, because if we don’t get it together, where is his future?“
My Baby Don’t Wear No Shoes (Arhoolie, 1988)
Hot Rod (Slash, 1990)
I Ain’t No Playboy (Slash, 1992)
Too Much Fun (Alligator Records 1995)
The Big Squeeze (Alligator Records AL 4844, 1996)
Step It Up! (Alligator Records 2001)
The Desperate Kingdom of Love (Word Village 46841, 2006)
Can’t Sit Down (World Village 46819, 2011)
Live at 2012 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (Munck Mix, 2012)
Live at 2013 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (Munck Mix, 2013)
Live at 2014 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (Munck Music, 2014)
Live at 2015 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (Munck Mix, 2015)
Live at the 2016 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (Munck Music, 2016)
Author: Angel Romero
Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music and progressive music for many years. He founded the websites worldmusiccentral.org and musicasdelmundo.com. Angel produced several specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music and electronic music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World, Lektronic Soundscapes, and Mindchild Records. Angel is currently based in Durham, North Carolina.