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Nine O'clock Blues: Clifton Chenier

Jim Hobbs
Flickr - Creative Commons

Laissez Les Bons Temp Rouler! If for some reason you didn’t know or haven’t guessed that translates to “let the good times roll.”

The late Clifton Chenier was one of the most prominent links between Blues and Zydeco. Known both as the 'King of Zydeco' and the 'King of the South.'


Born in Opelousas, Louisiana in 1925, he was a Creole French-speaker who came from a musical family with an accordion player father, and a guitarist, fiddler, and dance club owner uncle. Among Clifton’s extra-familial musical influences were French and Cajun 2-steps and waltzes, Texas Blues, big-band jazz, and Creole music.

His artistic influences include Muddy Waters, Peetie Wheatstraw, Lightnin' Hopkins, the New Orleans R&B of Fats Domino and Professor Longhair, plus the 1920s and '30s recordings by Zydeco accordionist Amede Ardoin. Chenier took those threads and added his own distinctive flair. His first recordings were regional hits that began with Clifton’s Blues in 1954, followed by "Ay 'Tite Fille (Hey, Little Girl)," which was a cover of a Professor Longhair song.

If you ever saw Clifton Chenier perform live, you will surely remember his cape and crown, flamboyant personality, and that gold tooth. His approach to shows was not at all unlike a rock singer. As Clifton once put it, "Zydeco is rock and French mixed together, you know, like French music and rock with a beat to it. It's the same thing as rock and roll but it's different because I'm singing in French."


Also on this week’s program we’ll hear from Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, the alto-saxophonist with an impish vocal style that served him equally well for jump Blues and swing Jazz.

In the interest of full disclosure I must point out that I had the pleasure of meeting and playing with “Cleanhead” once in the early 1970s and, though he was a bit on the decline by then, I found him a delight to talk to and play with.

Vinson picked up the sax in High School and soon after he went to work in the late 1930s big band of Milton Larkin where he sat in a horn section that included Arnett Cobb and Illinois Jacquet. Not a bad education at all. After he left Larkin, Vinson toured with Big Bill Broonzy before joining the Cootie Williams Orchestra where he stayed from 1942 to 1945.

In 1945 Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson started his own big band keeping his feet planted in both the Blues and Jazz. Among Vinson’s other collaborations were Cannonball Adderley, Jay McShann, Roomful of Blues and Miles Davis, for whom he wrote the classics “Tune Up” and “Four.”

Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson toured frequently in the States and Europe until his passing from a heart attack in 1988.