Clifton Chenier (1924-1987) was billed as “King of Zydeco,” and he often donned a crown as if to prove it. The singing accordionist did not create zydeco—a credit generally given Amédé Ardoin, a diatonic accordionist who in 1929 cut the first zydeco record—though he certainly codified the way this Louisiana Creole music is still played in the bayous and beyond. Born in Opelousas, Louisiana, Chenier moved zydeco away from its links to the traditional music of the neighboring Cajun community during the 1950s by infusing it with elements of rhythm and blues. His blues-drenched lines on chromatic piano accordion also gave zydeco a fresh twist, as did the furiously syncopated rhythms older brother Cleveland Chenier scratched on a rubboard attached to his front torso.
The accordionist recorded his first single in 1954, for the obscure Elko label, and signed with Specialty Records the following year. His first Specialty single, “Ay-Tete Fee,” was a Creole French language treatment of Professor Longhair’s “Hey, Little Girl.” It became a hit in some regions of the country, allowing Chenier to quit his construction job, buy a Cadillac, and hit the road with his band, then known as the Zydeco Sizzlers. A teenage Etta James was the band’s vocalist for a period.
Records for Chess, Zynn, and other labels were less successful. Cheiner’s fortunes improved greatly, however, after he began a long association with Arhoolie Records in 1965. The California company encouraged Chenier to record more traditional zydeco (sung in French), as well as blues (in both French and English). Chenier and his hard-kicking Red Hot Louisiana Band, as he’d renamed it, soon became an international attraction. Since his death in 1987, the band has been led by his son, singer-accordionist C.J. Chenier.