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Buckwheat Zydeco - By Ted Fox
Early one sultry summer Saturday morning some 42 years ago, restless nine-year-old Stanley Joseph Dural, Jr., unable to stay in bed any longer, gingerly picked his way among some of his eleven sleeping brothers and sisters. Sleep? Who could sleep on a day like this? "Joe" made his way out to the porch of his family’s tiny two-room house at 233 Paul Breaux Avenue in the Truman Addition of Lafayette, Louisiana. Wiping the dew off an old stool, the youngster pulled it up to a dilapidated upright piano. His little fingers tinkled the keys, at last producing the sound that had been racing through his head all night…"ain’t that a shame…" Oh yeah, his idol, "The Fat Man," Fats Domino, was coming to town!
Later that day, he ran down to the Truman Court Motel (one of the only motels in town for blacks in 1957). He stood out front in the heat for an hour, two hours, more, waiting and gazing upon a sparkling, gorgeous pink Cadillac. It was as big as a battleship to his nine-year-old eyes. Suddenly the lobby door banged open, and amid the gruff laughter of men, Fats emerged. Little Joe rushed to the great automobile and deftly opened the door for its owner. "Hey, Mr. Domino," the awe-struck lad squeaked.
"Hi kid," came the low rumbling reply. That night little Joe slipped in the back entrance of The Jazz Room, just as he had so many times before, and watched from the shadows, transfixed by the power and spectacle of the great man’s performance – and the audience’s rapturous response.
Dural always knew that music would be his life, and memories like these form the core of the Buckwheat Zydeco story. Though his family called him Joe, he’d been dubbed "Buckwheat" by his pal Eddie Taylor because his hair looked like that of the Little Rascals character, and the nickname stayed with him, although today his friends usually call him "Buck" or Stan. Buck’s father was an accomplished accordion player. Stanley, Sr. played the old time music of the black French-speaking Creoles of southwestern Louisiana – some called it "la la" music or zodico or zydeco. It didn’t really have a name when his father was growing up. It was just music -- music meant for relaxation in the home, not to be played professionally in clubs.
Old-time zydeco was sung in Creole French, and relied only upon the accordion, a washboard, and perhaps drums. The term zydeco is believed to come from an idiomatic "Creolized" pronunciation of the French word for "the snap beans," "les haricots," from an old song, "Les Haricots Sont Pas Sale" (the snap beans aren’t salty). Zydeco developed into a hybrid genre blending Afro-Caribbean rhythms, and blues, with soul, rock, country and the French-rooted Cajun music of the Creoles' white Louisiana neighbors.
But, Buck wanted no part of his father’s music. Just like kids everywhere, he loved contemporary music. His father punished him for playing popular songs on the piano – one time forbidding Buck from playing at all for a year. But father could never get son to quit loving and playing rhythm and blues. Even before his audience with Fats Domino, accomplices would sneak him into Lafayette clubs so he could climb on stage and play with the band. This same determination and passion are one of the keys to the success of Buckwheat Zydeco.
Soon Buck began working in bands like Sammy and the Untouchables and Little Buck and The Top Cats ("Little Buck" is Paul Senegal, the guitar player, who is also known as "Buckaroo"). With them he played keyboard behind Gulf Coast R&B and soul greats such as Barbara Lynn, Joe Tex, and Bobby Bland. Jerry Wexler once told me that the best soul band he ever saw was "Solomon Burke with a borrowed band." When Burke played in Lafayette, Buckwheat would play keyboard in that "borrowed band."
All along, Buck’s father continued to disparage his son’s choice of music; he urged Buck to check out Stanley Sr.’s great friend, the master and creator of modern zydeco, Clifton Chenier. Buck simply had no feeling for a style of music he identified with his father’s generation, and he didn’t see how the accordion could compare with the sound of his true love, the Hammond organ. Eventually, though, he agreed to attend a Clifton Chenier show at Antlers, a club in Lafayette. It was an epiphany. Buck was amazed at the sound the "master" got from an accordion. And, he loved the way Clifton incorporated the blues into his style. Buck ended up on stage that night playing keyboards.
Seeing and comprehending Chenier changed Buck’s life. In 1976, Buck disbanded the Hitchhikers and joined Clifton as a keyboard player. Two years later he quit and spent an entire year "woodshedding;" practicing with the big piano accordion until he felt he had mastered it. At the same time, he taught himself to sing, despite a problem with stuttering. Rapid speaking had always helped his stutter, and his machine-gun delivery became a lifelong element of his on-stage patter, but he was amazed to discover that the more he sang, the less he stuttered. In fact, it cured his stutter almost completely. After a year of diligent practice he felt he was ready, and in 1979, 20 years ago this year, he launched Buckwheat Zydeco and the Ils Sont Partis Band.
"Ils Sont Partis" is French for "they’re off," and is the call that begins each horse race at Lafayette’s Evangeline Downs. Indeed, off they were. Buckwheat Zydeco wowed local crowds with their big sound. The band recorded for a small local label and one in New Orleans. Soon, though, the band emerged on the national scene.
Buckwheat Zydeco’s critical and creative fortunes rose in 1983 when he began working with Scott Billington, a talented and perceptive producer for Rounder Records. In April of that year, on the band’s first concert tour of the Northeast, they stopped in to Blue Jay Studio in Carlisle, Massachusetts. After a couple of days they emerged from the bunker-like edifice with a wonderful, prophetically titled album, "Turning Point," which was released in 1984. Buck’s "Zydeco Boogaloo" became one of the genre’s signature songs and has been covered by many others. The title track, originally by deep soul great Tyrone Davis, is quintessential Buckwheat Zydeco: A natural and authentic blend of modern zydeco and southern soul music masterfully arranged and performed. This was the first bold statement heralding a new zydeco sound. It was the cut that really turned me on, and undoubtedly thousands of others, too.
I was a writer who was interviewing record industry legends like Jerry Wexler, Milt Gabler, Clive Davis and others for Audio magazine and a book, "In The Groove." I had also interviewed Chris Strachwitz, the founder of Arhoolie Records, the man who made most of Clifton Chenier’s classic albums and many other wonderful zydeco and Cajun records. I fell in love with zydeco music and spent as much time as I could in the clubs around Lafayette; and whenever a zydeco band visited my home, New York City, I was there. Among the top were: Rockin’ Dopsie, John Delafose, Fernest Arceneaux and the Thunders, and of course "The King," Clifton Chenier, who still gave amazing performances despite being so hobbled by diabetes that he could no longer stand up. But I always felt that Buckwheat Zydeco was the best and most exciting. Buck was more than an electrifying performer and expert instrumentalist with a great band. He was an innovator with the genius to craft a bold new sound for zydeco. We hit it off immediately and became good friends.
In April 1985, again on a short break from a northeastern tour, Billington brought the band back into Blue Jay Studio for another fine album, "Waitin’ For My Ya Ya," which was released later that year. "Lache Pas La Patate," the cut we have included in this anthology, is an old-time traditional song arranged as a quick-stepping zydeco by Buck, with Calvin Landry’s popping trumpet to give it Buckwheat’s signature contemporary edge. As Ben Sandmel wrote in the original album liner notes, "Buckwheat’s youthful eclecticism has alienated some purists, but who cares?" One would have to be a pretty intransigent purist not to enjoy how this cut works it’s magic in the purest way. Yes, some traditionalists and professional ethnomusicologists had begun carping about Buckwheat Zydeco’s departure from the narrow and closely proscribed path of so-called traditional zydeco. But Buck paid them no mind. On the "Turning Point" album he wore a king’s crown and royal purple cape that was a nod and tribute to the "real" king of zydeco, Clifton Chenier. But the "Ya Ya" album cover left all that behind and featured a modern shot of Buck, head barely peering over the top of his accordion, facing up and off to the future…nothing but blue skies in the picture.
Soon I heard that the tape was being used in Blackwell’s famous Compass Point Studio in Nassau, The Bahamas, to re-energize faltering recording sessions. I wrote Chris suggesting that he record Buckwheat Zydeco. Three days later he called and said that not only did he want to make a record with Buck, but he also wanted to sign the band to a five- record deal, and asked me to manage them and produce the record. Buck and I had been talking informally about this for some time. We did the deal, and Buckwheat Zydeco became the first zydeco group signed to a major label.
The first Island album, "On A Night Like This," changed everything for Buckwheat Zydeco, and, I think, for zydeco music in general. Having a major label behind us meant that Buckwheat Zydeco -- and zydeco music -- would enjoy formidable promotion, marketing and distribution. Still, I don’t think anyone at Island, including Blackwell, thought that a Buckwheat Zydeco record had any real pop potential. We were given a budget allowing us four days to record tracks and one day to mix – a pitifully small commitment for any major label recording. But it was more than twice what Buckwheat Zydeco had ever received. And we were determined to maximize the opportunity.
We adopted a more professional approach to developing a recording, beginning with more careful song selection, and, a first for a Buckwheat Zydeco record, fairly extensive rehearsal outside the studio. We spent a week at Paul’s Playhouse, a club in the tiny rural community of Sunset, north of Lafayette, working from 10 a.m. into the night. Buck honed the zydeco classics, such as the two smokers included here, "Ma ‘Tit Fille" and Clifton Chenier’s "Hot Tamale Baby." He also covered Bob Dylan’s title tune and the Blaster’s "Marie Marie," and made them his own. After that week we knew we had something great.
Coincidentally, the album came out that July just in time for Dennis Quaid’s New Orleans-based hit movie "The Big Easy" which featured a number of Louisiana artists, including Buckwheat Zydeco. The buzz built thanks to the film, and especially the critical response to our Island debut album which Jon Pareles of the New York Times called one of the ten best records of 1987, and which earned Buckwheat Zydeco’s fourth Grammy nomination. The album started selling. It cracked the Billboard Pop chart and remained there for several weeks. "On A Night Like This" has probably become the biggest selling zydeco album ever.
The second Island LP, released in 1988, was called "Taking It Home," but it may have been more accurate to title it "Make A Change," in honor of the song of the same name that became such a crowd pleaser. Buck’s anthemic "Make A Change," with its heraldic horn arrangement, is his sincere statement about the power of music to unite. Listening to this song one has to approach it not as traditional zydeco, but rather as a lush, swinging, and uplifting example of Louisiana soul by a rhythm and blues innovator secure in, but not limited to, his zydeco roots. It’s one of Buck’s favorite songs.
Also represented on this disc is Buckwheat Zydeco’s first and most unusual pop star collaboration, "Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad?" We had originally met Eric Clapton outside of London at Island Records’ 25th Anniversary party at Pinewood Studios. Buck sat in on the Hammond B-3 during an all-star jam featuring Clapton, Ringo Starr, Andy Summers of The Police, and others. Buck arrived via the rear of the stage, after the jam had already begun, without Clapton noticing him. As soon as Eric peeled off one of his gorgeous blues-rock solos, Buck matched it on the organ and bumped it a notch. Eric responded and upped the ante. Buck topped him. Clapton then came back even stronger. A furious "cutting contest" ensued and the crowd of about 6,000 hipsters went wild as this ordinary all-star jam took off. Then, in the middle of a solo, Eric quit, and turned around to see who had been so deftly challenging him; he stuck out his hand and, with a broad smile, said, "I’m Eric Clapton, who are you?" Eric became a Buckwheat Zydeco fan. That summer he came to New York especially for our record release party for "On A Night Like This," at S.O.B’s, and played a fabulous blues set with the band. Hoping to capture the excitement of Buck and Clapton’s interplay, I suggested that we do the plaintive, wailing, Derek and the Dominos’ tune, "Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad?" We cut our tracks at Southlake Studio, leaving room for Eric to overdub his guitar. Clapton’s friend and sometime collaborator, Rob Fraboni, took the master tape to England where Eric added his guitar work. Apparently Clapton was as pleased with the result as we were because he offered us the opening slot on his summer and fall 1988 North American tour, and then, the following January, twelve nights with him at the Royal Albert Hall in London.
Our third Island LP, "Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire," marked the producing debut of one of our favorite musicians, David Hidalgo, of Los Lobos. In 1987, Buckwheat Zydeco and Los Lobos worked side-by-side opening shows for Island’s superstar act, U-2, at the Orange Bowl and Tampa Stadium. Los Lobos also asked us to open for them at the Universal Amphitheater in L.A. We felt it was time to work with an outside producer. I felt that Buck and David would be simpatico personally and musically – and we knew David’s gorgeous guitar work and backing vocals would add to the Buckwheat sound. Although David had never produced, he was intrigued by the possibilities of working with Buck. We made the record in Hollywood, at the Sunset Sound Factory. The resulting album is, I think, one of Buckwheat Zydeco’s best. And it is perhaps our most successful attempt at melding traditional zydeco sounds with contemporary covers. With "What You Gonna Do?" Buck created a new zydeco classic, and it has become one of the band’s signature songs. The Rolling Stones’ "Beast of Burden," was suggested by Buck and the band’s Rock of Gibraltar -- bassist Lee Allen Zeno. I was skeptical until Buck started working it up at rehearsal. Wow! Was I wrong. It turned into one of his most successful covers, as Buck discovered and developed the true soul roots of the song. He made this song his own.
For our next album, "On Track," Buck joined me to produce for the first time, recording in a converted church, at Dreamland Studio, near Woodstock, New York. Two of the most exciting cuts on this 1992 album, are chestnuts that most of us have heard dozens of times by dozens of artists, but I would say, rarely as effective or exciting as here. On both "The Midnight Special" and "Hey Joe" we aimed to create showcases for the beauty and power of the Creole accordion, as only Buck could play it, on songs that everyone would know. But make no mistake, one of the main reasons for the effectiveness of these songs is the authentic experience of the man performing them. The lyrics of "The Midnight Special" have personal meaning for him. Buck knows firsthand the anguish of having a loved one locked away in Louisiana’s notorious Angola prison. "Hey Joe" could easily be a slice of life from Buck’s early days on the tough streets of Lafayette where hot tempers and guns have always been an everyday part of life. Still, one might ask (and there are some who seemed obsessed with asking), is this zydeco? It’s never been a question for Buck -- a Creole son of Lafayette. Zydeco is a living and growing music and it is whatever Buck and other Creole performers decide to make of it. The only question I’d ask the listener of Buckwheat Zydeco’s "Hey Joe" is, does it rock? This eight minute powerhouse performance still sends chills up my spine.
In 1994, Buckwheat Zydeco released two of their most unusual albums. For the first, "Five Card Stud," we again knocked on Los Lobos’ door, this time calling on Steve Berlin to produce. Steve is a much sought after producer and musician with eclectic tastes who recently won a Grammy for the all-star Tejano gem, "Los Super Seven." We recorded at Dockside Studio, in Maurice, Louisiana, near Buck’s home, and experimented with several styles: blues, country with Willie Nelson, gospel with Mavis Staples, and pop, covering Bruce Channell’s classic from 1962, "Hey Baby." This last song is about as mainstream pop as Buckwheat Zydeco gets. "Hey Baby" has become a sure-fire crowd pleaser. I was never a big fan of sing-a-longs at live shows, and when I first started working with Buckwheat Zydeco it made me uncomfortable when Buck asked the crowd to sing along. But I soon saw that, with Buck, it always worked. His personal warmth and genuine enjoyment of performing, coupled with his obvious hard work to please makes him one of the consummate old-school performers who can work any crowd into a frenzy of joy. I’ve seen him do it at countless club and theater gigs, opening for tens of thousands of rock fans in arenas, at corporate events -- I’ve even seen him get the seen-it-all, done-it-all honchos at the Warner convention dancing in a conga line. One can feel the excitement of a Buckwheat Zydeco show, and get a sense of this audience communion and energy, on this compilation’s never before released live version of "Hey Baby," recorded in Canada at the Edmonton Folk Festival in August, 1998.
Also released in the summer of 1994 was "Choo Choo Boogaloo" Buckwheat Zydeco’s children’s record – or as the Music For Little People label calls it: "Zydeco Music For Families." As anyone with children knows, most children’s albums are pretty difficult for parents to listen to, even though kids may enjoy them. Whenever I’d play a Buckwheat record at home, my kids Jack, Olivia, Reed, and Will, and their friends would literally leap in the air and start dancing. I knew that Buck could make a classic children’s record that would appeal to parents as well. He has an incredible rapport with children, and has raised five himself. Many parents have told me that the highlight of their youngsters’ lives was when Buck brought the children onstage at a festival to help him sing a song.
Leib Ostrow’s Music For Little People label has released many excellent children’s albums. We came up with the concept of a fantastic train tour of Louisiana and developed a group of classic Creole and Louisiana songs, originals and even the kid-oriented take on classic blues, "Skip To My Blues," included on this album. Buck and I produced it with Leib at Dockside, and came up with an award winning album that seems to appeal to children and their parents.
"Trouble" was actually just the latest in a game of record company musical chairs that landed us a seat at Mesa/Bluemoon, a small L.A.-based label owned and distributed by Atlantic. Back in 1990, when Blackwell sold Island to Polygram, we (and so many other artists in the 90’s) began a corporate Diaspora. "On Track" came out on Charisma Records, a Virgin label which was subsequently slashed by new corporate owners just as our album was finished. "Five Card Stud" marked our prodigal return to Island. Then yet another massive shakeup there led to our, and eventually Chris Blackwell’s, departure. This brought us to Mesa/Bluemoon. Again, just as we delivered the album, Atlantic decided to sell the company, then changed its mind and kept it, and bottom line: Another Buckwheat Zydeco record suffered.
This was the final straw for us. We had enough of the record industry free-for-all of the 90’s. Buck had wanted to start a label for years, but I was reluctant to get into this business. Now I knew he was right – it was time to do it ourselves. We petitioned Atlantic to let us out of the deal and asked it for the "Trouble" masters back. Decently, and generously, they agreed. We formed Tomorrow Recordings, named for Buck’s youngest daughter, but also a name in keeping with our positive, forward-looking vision. We set up www.buckwheatzydeco.com to give us a presence on the web. In January, 1999, we newly released "Trouble" as Tomorrow Recordings’ first album. "The Buckwheat Zydeco Story" is Tomorrow Recordings’ second release. Soon we will sign and release albums by other artists.
The title cut of "Trouble" is a boisterous and full-bodied zydeco blues with bass man Lee Allen Zeno anchoring a rock-solid groove. Buck demonstrates, perhaps more dramatically than ever before, just how much his accordion can do with the blues. And, I think it may be his finest vocal performance ever. "Put It In The Pocket" is pure and simple, Buckwheat Zydeco’s statement that when it comes to full-tilt, get-out-of-the-way-we’re-coming-through, ecstatic, uptempo zydeco, nobody does it better. As Michael Tisserand said in his Living Blues review, this album showcases, "a hot band playing at the top of their game." People magazine called it "10 tracks of propulsive, rollicking dance party music…a swamp-boogie joy ride." A 20-year party with everyone invited -- that’s what the Buckwheat Zydeco story is all about.
-- May 14, 1999