Born on a Bayou. The Birth of Zydeco Reggae.

Dark Fire Cloud shares with us stories about his musical influences…

Professor Longhair

How could one man, Professor Longhair, be…1. The spirit of the Mardi Gras2. The spirit of ‘second line’3. The originator of New Orleans Boogie-Woogie piano?
Every year, year after year, even since Professor Longhair’s death (1918-1980), at carnival time or Mardi Gras, you will hear Fess’ signature hits
* Carnival Time* Tipitina’s* Big Chief
Even as a small child I remember Fess’ piano touch and sound. He had this song on the radio
“I want to haller but the joint’s too small I should be running and that ain’t all Young man rhythm caught a hold on me too I got the rocking-pneumonia and the boogie-woogie flu.”
It’s as if Fess’ hand had a tremble in it because of the scintillating tones, the resonance he gets out of a piano.
The 1st time I got to see Fess live after only hearing him on the radio for years, was at the New Orleans Blues and Jazz Heritage Festival. The festival runs for 3 weekends with thousands of people and about 15 – 20 stages all happening at the same time. The trick is to maneuver thru the crowds and be at the right stage at the right time. We were hoping to see Fats Domino at 1:00 at Congo Square and then hurry to catch Prof. Longhair at 2:00, stage 3.
As Professor approached the grand piano, the piano dwarfed him. He was thin and not very tall. As he sat behind the grand piano, he resembled a jockey on horseback, ready at the gate. He wore his customary sunglasses with a large smile, revealing gold teeth and a snaggle tooth, one missing. He wore a watch on his left wrist, but no rings on any finger. Fess began with crowd standards of his like Big Chief and others. The crowd shouted their pleasure back at him, upon recognizing songs they liked.
I stood in disbelief as this apparent 90 lb. weakling turned that grand piano every way but loose. Just when you’re listening and saying to yourself “wow it’s fantastic”, Fess would shift gears in the same song and take you higher. At one point, Fess did a medley of 12 songs in 1, 3 minute song, with dazzling historical accuracy of times on the bayous now gone with the wind. He treated the grand piano with absolutely no respect and seemed to relish the opportunity to play it.
And while the crowd was mesmerized by his fast fingers on the keys, he employed his secret weapon, that soulful voice. Fess’ voice patterns are not conventional or always translatable. People are still trying to figure out what his big hit ‘Tipitinas’ means. He is so full of soul that sometimes he sounds like a coyote.
Professor Longhair is the reason why today I play piano. He was awesome to behold.

King of Zydeco, Clifton Chenier

Clifton ChenierDark-Fire-Cloud_Born-on-a-Bayou
To understand the Zydeco connection of Louisiana, pause and consider Napoleon’s homeland, France. Lafayette, Louisiana with the Cajun roots and Creole roots is very French. My parents 1st language was Creole-French. My people cooked French… Crawfish Etouffée, Jambalaya, Gumbos.
Now all Louisiana loved the Blues. Thru the times, the music morphs into R&B (rhythm & blues), rock & roll, pop, rock, rock steady, reggae, etc. But what the French Creoles did, they refused to let the blues morph away from their scene. Regardless of American national music trends, they continued to play blues. And oddly enough, they played the blues not like it was written in English with guitar strings and harmonica; they played the blues in French with accordion and washboard. Zydeco was born, “Zydeco” being Creole patois for les haricots, green beans in French.
Over the years Zydeco came into its own with its own Grammys and stars. As a struggling reggae musician in Lafayette, one night I decided to buy a ticket to see the king of Zydeco, Clifton Chenier & his Red Hot Louisiana Band. The show was in the ghetto off of 12th street, the black strip, at the Blue Angel Club, a well-known honky-tonk. As I entered the screen door adjusting my eyes to the darkness someone recognized me as not a regular and screamed, “What are you doing in here? You belong across town”. They knew my reggae clientele was mostly white, downtown. I relieved the tension by saying “I had come to see the king”.
I entered the dancehall at band warm-up time, just before the king of Zydeco came out. Great, I was on time, although the 350 pound black policeman with gun in holster and club in hand made me feel a bit uneasy. Clifton Chenier came out with his hair conked down to a full process and a crown on his head. He had a Hohner accordion strapped to his chest with a big smile revealing front teeth of extensive dental work in gold. The “conk”, the crown, the squeeze box, the dentals, the black silk rag tied around his head, the rings on his fingers, the total affect was like looking up at the grill of a Peterbilt 18 wheeler truck. The power was on.
An eerie presence came over the dancehall with the first touch of the accordion as people scrambled to the dance floor. Tones similar to Hammond organs on Leslie speakers transformed the Blue Angel Club into a dancing carrousel. The former lackluster red hot warm up band indeed started to heat up. The accordion’s bellow was breathing life into the dancing couples and like a spatula flips pancakes, Clifton flipped the band this side and that side to the groove. The king of Zydeco at work was magnificent. “C’était très magnifique”. I was awestruck.
The very next day after the show I ‘saddled-up’. I decided to continue playing guitar as I had done for years but to ‘saddle-up’, use a harmonica holder about the neck, and play guitar and harmonica simultaneously. The harmonica I chose was not my old standby, the Hohner Marine Band, but the bigger, juicier, Hohner Echo. It resonates like an accordion. I was able to chord and lead like the king of Zydeco and hold the band’s part with the guitar. Zydeco-Reggae was born and I found my sound.

Cloud meets Bobby Blue Bland

bobbyblueblandCloud play his three quarter size stratocaster his Dad got him when he was 14.

Bobby Blue Bland comes to Lafayette, Louisiana

In 1960 when rhythm & blues was classic my dad, a well- known Louisiana French chef cook, decided that he would grace the local music loving Negroes with a dose of class by bringing a rhythm & blues legend to the country-bayou creoles. Everybody in Louisiana had heard the hits of Bobby Blue Bland for years. Bobby came from the next state over, Texas… Houston to be exact.
* Don’t cry no more
* St. James infirmary
* Cry, cry, cry
* Turn on your love light
* Members only this time
The gala evening was strictly formal attire and I, although only 11 years old, was allowed in as a white-coat waiter with drinks for the thirsty dancers.
As the double-decker Greyhound tour bus swung to the Heymans recreation center in Lafayette we all went out to welcome the band. The center was full of people in tuxedos and dresses anticipating the band’s arrival from Texas. As the band descended from their tour bus, the on-looking crowd laughed because most were wearing dew-rag, silk stocking caps on their heads with cut-offs, undershirts and beach slippers.
About 1 hour before show time, my dad said to me: “Go to the band’s dressing room and bring Bobby and them a set-up”. A “set-up” was a large bucket of ice cubes, drinking cups and one Coca-Cola. As I entered with the “set-up” they were transforming themselves for the show and Bobby Blue Bland was sitting there in front of me. His confidence was contagious. He was in undershirt with a silk dew-rag on his head. He was a big brown man, more husky than slim. There was cigarette smoke and alcohol. It was clear, these were road warriors enchanted with the mistress music. There was even a brass horn section. The ambiance of the room was of a man on a mission. Their unity was awesome.
After warming-up the crowd with some instrumentals, no lyrics, it was star time. It was only then that Bobby removed his stocking cap from his wavy hair. Bobby Blue Bland came out. Like the Louisiana people, Bobby and the band were strictly formal in tuxedos, the band standing behind waist-high folders with BBB across the front.
Bobby’s first song stunned the crowd to tears…an old favorite ‘St. James Infirmary’.

“I went down to St. James infirmary and I saw my Baby there. She was laid on a long table, so sweet, so young and so faire. She’s gone, she’s gone, she’s gone”.

At the end of that first song, as a waiter that night, I distinctly saw women crying at the foot of the stage and like a space ship can move in a flash, the band launched into a rocking-rhythm of “Don’t cry no more”. Bobby had the crowd in his hands and had everybody on an emotional roller coaster ride.
He then made everybody happy.