C.J. Chenier holds a special distinction in the pantheon of American music, one shared only by the likes of Hank Williams Jr., Mud Morganfield and Ziggy Marley. These musicians are the offspring of men who, for all intents and purposes, created their respective genres of music.
The way to deal with that fact, Chenier told me a few years back in an interview, is simply to ignore it.
"I read that a lot of times when I got started," Chenier said. “They were comparing me to all these people. But I'm just playing music. So, no, as a matter of fact, (the legacy) never even crossed my mind that way. To me, I just keep going."
The accordionist and his aptly named Red Hot Louisiana Band will be in Northern California next week. You can catch them August 7 at SFJAZZ and August 9 at San Jose Jazz’s SummerFest.
Chenier's father, Clifton, was born in Opelousas, La., and spent his childhood cutting sugar cane and learning the accordion. After World War II, he moved with his brother, Cleveland, to Lake Charles, La.
Once there, Clifton Chenier worked on oil rigs by day and played music at night, marrying traditional Cajun songs and rhythms to the then-nascent sound of electric blues and R&B. He played parties before graduating to concerts and a recording career that stretched over 30 years.
The younger Chenier knew from his youth he wanted to play music, but his influences included soul stars James Brown and George Clinton and jazz legends John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Chenier picked up the saxophone, played in Port Arthur Top 40 bands, and studied music at college. He dreamed of a career in jazz or funk.
A week before his 21st birthday, however, his father asked a favor: Join the Red Hot Louisiana Band. Did Chenier ever consider saying no?
"No, I never felt that way," he said. "Probably because it was never forced upon me."
Chenier spent the next decade with his father, learning to love zydeco even as he watched the elder musician's legend grow. In 1983, Clifton Chenier won a Grammy for the album "I'm Here!" but the award was something of a last hurrah, as his health had begun to fail.
Chenier had, by then, taken up the accordion and, at his father's request, opened some shows. the time Clifton Chenier died of diabetes in 1987, his son was ready for the spotlight.
Under Chenier's leadership, the Red Hot Louisiana Band recorded albums for Arhoolie and Slash, and played festivals around the world. Chenier was featured on Paul Simon's "Rhythm of the Saints" album and the Gin Blossoms' "New Miserable Experience." Chenier signed with Alligator a decade ago in the mid-‘90s.
Time and his own creative input have enabled Chenier to create an identity separate from that of his father's.
"My daddy always told me to be good at being myself," Chenier said. "I can't go through life imitating him or re-creating his style. I should let my creative juices flow sometimes, too.”
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