Zydeco's Birthplace

Hint: It's where you're standing

"He took me over to this little beer joint in Houston in an area they call Frenchtown," Strachwitz says. "And here was this black man with a huge accordion on his chest and playing the most unbelievable low-down blues I'd ever heard in my life. And singing it in this bizarre French patois."

Upon being introduced to Strachwitz, Chenier immediately asked to make a record, and they ended up at Gold Star studio the very next day. But to Strachwitz's dismay, Chenier arrived with a full band complete with instruments popular in R&B. The producer craved the pure, stripped-down folk sound he'd heard the night before, but Chenier longed to be hip, not old-fashioned.

"It was always a battle, every time we recorded," says Strachwitz, recalling how Chenier strongly believed he had to emulate popular styles in English to get a hit. "And I begged him to sing in French. So he said, 'Okay, Chris, I'll make you a deal. If you let me cut one side of the album rock and roll,' as he called it, it was really R&B, 'I'll make the other side French for you.' "

From left to right: Robert Clemon, Clifton Edmond and Albert Chevalier were zydeco pioneers in Houston.
From left to right: Robert Clemon, Clifton Edmond and Albert Chevalier were zydeco pioneers in Houston.

That compromise led to a regional hit titled "Louisiana Blues" sung completely in French, followed up shortly by the signature anthem of the genre, "Zydeco Sont Pas Salé." The result, according to Strachwitz, was that Chenier came to think that " 'maybe this French stuff is okay and people'd like to hear this'Š.And he really became proud of his heritage."

While that heritage surely reaches back to Louisiana, its contemporary mode of expression was first achieved and refined in Houston at some of the city's old Frenchtown venues. The most widely known is the Continental Lounge and Zydeco Ballroom, which -- sad to say -- has been closed since the 1997 death of longtime proprietress Doris McClendon. But just a few blocks away on Crane Street, The Silver Slipper still packs the house with authentic zydeco every Friday and Sunday night (though Saturdays are reserved for R&B).

And beyond these venerable clubs another tradition continues, whereby the major black Creole churches in the local diocese take turns sponsoring Saturday-night zydeco dances, rotating them on a regular basis with updates announced weekly in The Catholic Herald.

Of course, since the mid-1980s live zydeco has been featured in clubs and restaurants all over the city. For instance, Chevis does steady work playing for the Pappadeaux restaurant chain. And The Big Easy (a popular blues venue on Kirby) features zydeco every Sunday. The music is also performed regularly at numerous other establishments, from the popular Richmond Strip to Third Ward.

So Houston's largely unpublicized role as urban center of the zydeco universe continues to this day. Most significant, the city is home base not only to established past masters but also to a younger generation of streetwise, hip-hop-influenced bands such as J. Paul Jr. and the Zydeco Newbreeds, Lil' Brian Terry and the Zydeco Travelers, and Step Rideau and the Zydeco Outlaws.

An in-demand national performer and recording artist, the 33-year-old Rideau -- like Chenier, Chevis and many others before him -- was born in Louisiana but came of age as a player only after migrating to Texas. Despite popular misconceptions to the contrary, he knows he's at the center of the action. "Houston is the true zydeco city," he says. "New Orleans isn't. It's jazz and all that other stuff. But this is where it's really at for zydeco."

Roger Wood contributes the chapter on southeast Texas zydeco in the forthcoming The History of Texas Music: From the Beginnings till 1950 (Texas A&M University Press).

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