Zydeco Blues

Are these the final days of the Continental, zydeco's original Houston home?

It's 10 p.m. on an August Saturday night at the Continental Zydeco Lounge and the band, Jabo and the Southside Playboys, has just finished setting up. By all rights and traditions, some serious action should be about to begin. The old Continental feels comfortable and festive, just as in years past. The floor still gives a little when the waitress carries beers past your table, and the ceiling, which is still supported by aluminum-foil-wrapped posts, glows with red jalapeno Christmas lights, cheerily defiant of the season.

And once Jabo has taken up his squeezebox and begun belting his bluesy, urban zydeco, the dancing begins. A tall, droopy man shuffles across the floor like a fast-stepping question mark, and the music is so tight and rhythmic that you have to move, even if you're only dancing with your beer. But the dance floor is far from full; at this moment, there are barely a dozen patrons swaying to the sounds. Continental owner Doris McClendon, tall, thin and newly widowed, sighs and takes a melancholy drag on her cigarette. "I'm glad you saw this with your own eyes," she says. "It shouldn't be like this on a Saturday night."

No, it shouldn't, even though the initial gathering increases gradually to 40. To just break even, McClendon and the Continental would need 150 to 200 paying customers this evening, and they're not going to get them, just as they haven't gotten them for months. There's just no way around it, McClendon admits as she listens to Jabo's accordion-bounce wash across the Continental's empty spaces. After more than four decades as a zydeco launching pad and shrine, the history of the Continental Zydeco Lounge may be drawing to a close.

Of course, bars come and bars go. It's the nature of the business. But some bars burrow their way into a town's collective consciousness, becoming more icon than icehouse. And when those bars are shuttered ... well, there's more to protecting a city's culture than slapping a "historic" designation on some downtown office complex. God knows Houston's cultural life has suffered some cruel hits during the past decade -- goodbye, Shamrock; farewell, Gilley's -- or even the past months -- adios, dear Red Lion. But even among such hallowed names, the Continental Zydeco Lounge (is there a sweeter, suaver name in this whole town?) is a special case, and would be too much to lose.

The glory days of the Continental were in the '40s and '50s, when people had to line up to get in for a blast of the then-raw, young Lonnie Mitchell, a stalwart of the Houston zydeco scene, or, better still, Clifton Chenier, the soon-to-be zydeco king whose legend was just beginning. Houston and the Continental were integral to Chenier's career; it was here that he learned to graft zydeco and the blues, and Houston was the first city where his essentially countrified music found favor. Chenier's last birthday party and his last Houston-area performance were at the Continental.

Doris McClendon has worked at the Continental on and off since she was eight. Her grandparents opened the hall; under them, the Continental served up music four nights a week, instead of the current two, and even on Sunday and Monday nights they had people lined up in the streets.

After her grandparents passed the club along to McClendon's parents, they leased it out to Lonnie Mitchell. Then, in the early '80s, McClendon took it back and kept the club afloat even during the bust, when she and her late husband, Ray, spent "$5,000 out of our own pocket" to keep the doors open. Now that Ray has died, McClendon has a harder time confronting the Continental's problems, but the place holds too much meaning for her to let it go. "I take a lot of pride," she says about her club. "You got to. You got to put your whole soul and mind into it."

Ironically, as McClendon is struggling to keep a zydeco landmark alive, the music itself is enjoying a boom. During the first break, Jabo relaxes in front of the hall and says, "I played Billy Blues last Tuesday, and it was like this." He holds his hands together, fingers crossed as if in prayer, to demonstrate just how full the house was. "Nothing dead about zydeco. Something dead about the Continental."

Even so, this is the third time Jabo has played the Continental in the past two weeks, a break in his policy of not appearing in the same place twice in one month. "Doris is a friend," he says. "I'm trying to help her."

According to Jabo, McClendon can't afford many bands anymore. "Just last Saturday she called me and said nobody else would play," he says. There's more money elsewhere. The Catholic church dances offer $500 or $600 a night, as opposed to the Continental's $300, and in recent years venues that cater mainly to whites have entered the fray, driving fees up even higher.

Mindful of the club's place in Houston's music history, Jabo is working at "$200-$300" below his usual fee, and he winds up paying the band partly out of his own pocket. "I been making a good living on zydeco," he says. "A real good living. Now I'm just trying to keep these doors open."

As for McClendon, "I miss the way it used to be," she sighs. She misses old-time zydeco itself, when a band would "have three pieces: a drum, a washboard and an accordion." Now bands have at least five pieces, and the top ones eight and ten. McClendon's nostalgia contains a measure of hardheaded practicality, of course. A three-piece band wouldn't need as much money.

"Zydeco got too big," she says, "too changed." Sometimes they have bands "who don't stay on the zydeco side," and she has to tell them to stop playing accordion blues. "I tell people this is a zydeco house. People came here to dance," she says, and for her dancing means doing that hopped-up, highly syncopated Louisiana shuffle.

McClendon continues, as if trying to win her own argument against changing times. "Zydeco is happy music," she says. "It doesn't give you time to think. The blues slows you down."

Age slows you down too, and for a long time the audience at the Continental has been getting older and older. The generation that moved from Louisiana to the Fifth Ward's Frenchtown in the '40s to work in the petrochemical plants, and that brought its culture with it, were the core of the Continental's crowd. Now, they're of an age when they don't dance much. Either that, or they've passed.

While there's unquestionably a new generation of zydeco players that's emerged in Houston, and a new generation of zydeco followers, the Continental hasn't been able to take much advantage of that. Cost of the bands is an issue, of course, but it may also be that the very thing that draws an adult crowd to the Continental -- the clearly country roots of the zydeco it presents -- is the same thing that keeps the younger zydeco crowd away.

A few days later, Doris McClendon is still feeling a little gloomy, though she's not giving up hope. She seems stronger than she did just a few months ago, right after Ray's death. After all, she says, another generation has pitched in. Her two daughters, both in their 30s, help her work in the club and are even willing to spend their own money to help keep the Continental open. But that's out of respect for family. "They don't care nothing about zydeco."

Too, McClendon has begun to wonder if her woes might be, in part, a seasonal thing. For reasons she can't explain -- zydeco is summer music, she insists, since "zydeco is for sweating. In Louisiana, the more folks sweat the better they like it" -- business at the Continental has often been better around January. To keep the lounge open until that time, some zydeco luminaries have banded together to hold a few fundraisers, one of which was held in mid-August, with another scheduled for September 10. Mary Thomas, sister of Clifton Chenier and co-host of a KPFT/90.1 FM zydeco and blues program, is just one who's been involved. When asked about McClendon's financial problems, and her talk about maybe closing the Continental, Thomas says simply, "We're not going to let her do that."

McClendon figures that with her daughters' help, and if the fundraisers garner an unspecified, but not impossibly high, amount of money ("You tell people I need too much," she laughs, "they'll think I'm pitiful."), she'll be okay. As she walks toward the Continental's door, backlit by the summer sun, the old, red jalapeno Christmas lights shine overhead. Whether they'll still be shining when the season's right for them, though, is hard to say.

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