Photograph: Joe Citizen plays washboard and triangle for Corey Ledet. (Photograph by Freddie Herpin.)
Editor and Contributing Writer
The 97th Clifton Chenier birthday party was saluted eclectically Saturday afternoon, with nearly two hours of musical tributes, legendary performances and family remembrances that brought smiles and tears to many who came to hear the stories and songs that made him a Grammy Award winner and Louisiana musical legend.
As Corey Ledet covered most of Chenier’s most recognized Creole-blues and jazz-influenced songs on a piano accordion, the floor of the St. Landry Parish Tourist Center opened and several guests responded by dancing to the mixture of sounds Chenier used fascinate his audiences at dance halls throughout his iconic career.
Chenier who died 35 years ago, might have also appreciated seeing Joe Citizen scratching out percussion rhythms on his metal washboard, as well as Plaisance-area accordionist Ryan Perkins joining in with Ledet for several songs.
The commemoration event was the second since state lawmakers established June 25 as Clifton Chenier Day which celebrates annually the musical impact Chenier, born near Opelousas, cast internationally.
In 2025 a Cilfton Chenier Centennial Committee formed by the City of Opelousas several years ago will honor the 100th anniversary of Chenier’s birth with a series of special projects and activities
Chenier won a Grammy for his album, “I’m here,” in 1983. A year later, Chenier was endowed with a National Heritage Fellowship.
Following his death Chenier was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, followed by his 2014 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
During the height of his career, Chenier was the headliner for his Red Hot Louisiana Band, which backed by guitars, bass, saxophones and drums, played nationally and internationally from the 1950’s until just before he died of diabetes and kidney complications.
The NEA Heritage website says that by the age of 16, Chenier had left his family farm and mastered the accordion, playing professionally backed by his brother Cleveland, who played the washboard with a metal bottle opener.
Citizen replicated that Chenier-influenced percussionist style on Saturday, as he rubbed his board with a pair of kitchen instruments.
Ledet, a two-time Grammy nominee, said he often plays Chenier’s songs on stage and acknowledged that he was probably immersed with Chenier-cloaked influences at an early age.
“You could probably say I have known Clifton since before I was born. My father used to play Clifton Chenier songs at our house all the time, so I came out of the womb hearing (Chenier) play,” Ledet said during a post-performance interview.
Ledet told those who attended that his grandfather was the first drummer in one of Chenier’s bands during the late 40’s.
“So I think there has always been that connection there (with Chenier) for me,” Ledet added.
Early during his performance, Ledet switched from the diatonic accordion to a piano accordion similar to the one Chenier played throughout his career and sang in Creole French, some of the Chenier-written songs that often reflect a mixture of Cajun, zydeco and rhythm and blues.
Several of generations of Chenier relatives from the Plaisance area spoke about Chenier, while Roderick Sias, a committee member of the Zydeco Preservation and Historical Society, said a fund raising campaign has been launched to create a statute of Chenier and possibly a postage stamp with Chenier’s image.
Claire Chenier, a relative who lived near Clifton Chenier off Pulford Street in Opelousas, said Clifton Chenier was plagued with diabetic problems throughout the later stages of his touring career.
“Clifton was a great person who came from a great family. When he lived in Lake Charles, he drew a rub board on the sand there one day and told a man that he wanted something like that to be made out of metal. Now every zydeco band uses that. It’s ashamed he never got a patent for it,” said Clair Chenier.
Claire Chenier said there was also a sadness that seemed to envelop Clifton Chenier towards the end of his touring career.
“He used to make me cry when he would sing that song, “I’m Going Home to My Mother.” At that time his mother was deceased. Seeing him on stage with his leg going bad like that was so sad,” she said.