Old-School Rules

It's Sunday night at Mr. A's. The Fifth Ward nightclub is pretty empty, but zydeco man Wilfred Chevis is unconcerned about the sparse attendance. It's still early, after all.

"Oh, they'll come, man," he says. "On Sunday nights, you can't even walk in here sometimes."

The spacious lounge is darkly lit; a big-screen TV broadcasts an Atlanta Braves game. Some regulars enter clad in cowboy hats and Wranglers, speaking with lilting Creole accents. Everyone seems to know one another. They shake hands, order their usual cocktails and acknowledge Chevis's presence. Someone informs him that the nearby St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church is having an event this evening.

"Hmm, yeah, they'll probably start coming right after that," he contemplates.

In the meantime, Chevis hangs out at the bar, greets a nephew who's come by to see the show, and then excuses himself to tune up on stage.

The rest of his band files in behind him, including his younger brother/right-hand man Martin, who has been Chevis's washboard player throughout his career. After a brief warm-up, Chevis and the Texas Zydeco Band launch into their set, which will gradually unspool into an hour of originals and familiar staples. A couple hits the dance floor, waltzing during the ballads and cutting loose during the up-tempo numbers. With his huge accordion strapped around him, Chevis effortlessly crushes the instrument in and out, creating sounds that are raucous, funky and, at times, serene. His band is equally capable, particularly brother Martin, who zips his hands up and down the metal frottoir, keeping the rhythms tight.

"It's an art," says Chevis's nephew Joseph. He points to the dancers and then to the band. "Martin and Wilfred pretty much raised me, and I've heard them so many times, but it's still great to see them whenever I can. Man, it's an art."

He's right. Most folks who live in Houston can back up that claim. Zydeco has had a home in this city for as long as anyone can remember.

For Chevis, his introduction to the music came via his father, Volmont (who passed away earlier this year). Volmont Chevis was a practitioner of zydeco's forerunner, la-la, a genre dominated by the button accordion. Another la-la player of note was Clifton Chenier, who soon chafed under the venerable folk genre's strictures. The innovative Chenier quickly learned that the piano accordion offered a wealth of new musical keys. Not satisfied to stop there, he invented the wearable frottoir, which was soon mastered by his brother Cleveland. (Prior to the Chenier brothers, la-la's backbeat had been furnished by plain washboards.) After moving to Port Arthur, then Houston, Chenier began folding the blues into la-la, and zydeco was born. (See "Zydeco's Birthplace," by Roger Wood, September 2, 1999.)

After making Chenier's acquaintance in the '60s, Chevis became enamored with the keyboard accordion and the upbeat sounds of zydeco. "I started with my daddy when I was 11 and played in a band with him until I was 25," he recalls. "But Clifton was the one who initiated me into his style of music. He sold me my first keyboard accordion and taught me, too. He was the master, man. He was a real nice guy. He treated me like a son. He was real good friends with my father since they played together a lot."

The Chevis brothers came to Houston for the first time with Chenier, who introduced the Church Point, Louisiana, siblings to the Bayou City's club owners and booking agents. The brothers soon had so many gigs lined up that they decided to make Houston home. "It surprised me that the music was so popular here," he says. "There were so many places that I could play. With all of the surrounding areas and fairs and cook-offs, it was real popular, and now it's spreading and spreading."

Chevis says that when he arrived here there wasn't much competition. The Chevis brothers dived right in, playing at Catholic parish halls as well as at secular temples like the Continental Ballroom and The Silver Slipper. It wasn't long before they asserted themselves as Houston's top zydeco act; they were also the initial zydeco act to play the Houston International Festival in the '80s.

"When we first came, it was still a new thing. There were only a few places that had zydeco. Now, every seafood restaurant or music festival has it. Between '85 and '90 is when it really took off here."

It was around that time that the genre -- hell, all things south Louisiana -- became the trend du jour in America. Paul Prudhomme burned a redfish, and a new cooking style -- blackening -- was born. French fries and chicken wings suddenly came in two styles: regular and "Cajun-spiced." Paul Simon seasoned Graceland with a dash of Rockin' Dopsie. Stanley Dural, a.k.a. Buckwheat Zydeco, broke out of his southeast Texas/south Louisiana stronghold and conquered the world. Rockin' Sidney's "My Toot Toot," recorded reluctantly by both the artist and producer Huey Meaux, somehow became one of the biggest hits to ever come from a Texas studio.

Chevis, too, was able to grab ahold of the comet's tail. His song "Mona Lisa Keep On Dreamin'" earned a spot on As the World Turns. In 1986 he was named "King of Texas" by mayor Kathy Whitmire and police chief Lee Brown during an event at Miller Outdoor Theatre.

But when other bands jumped on the bandwagon, Chevis didn't view them with fear and loathing. Instead, he returned the favor that Chenier had granted him, and served as a mentor for Third Wave zydeco acts like Step Rideau and J. Paul Jr.

"I helped those guys and the Zydeco Dots," he says. "Just about every band that's playing started with me. But I don't see myself competing with any of those guys. I still don't think there's enough zydeco bands here in town."

Meanwhile, other acts like Lil' Brian Terry (see "Gare-on-teed Phat," by Roger Wood, November 18, 1999) have fused the genre with funk, hip-hop and other contemporary stylings. But Chevis stays old-school. Not that he minds innovation within such a traditional music. "The young generation loves what these other guys are doing," he says. "I stick to tradition. I've done so well with my style, I don't think I'll be changing anytime soon. I'm 56 years old, man. I can't be changing now."

Why bother? The guy was inducted into the Zydeco Hall of Fame ten years ago. He says the honor was the crowning achievement of his career. "When it happened, it was such a surprise," he says. "It happened so fast. They called, we talked, and then they did it. It's been the most important thing to me."

He's certainly not lacking for work, especially this time of year, when crawfish fests are popping up every other week. And he's putting the final touches on Zydeco Texas Style, his next record. Chevis is clearly enjoying life as one of Houston's premier zydeco men.

"Houston's been very good to me," he says. "You know what it is? It's the people, man. The people here have been very good to me. I love them. I play about five or six nights a week, and they've always been good to me. Maybe it's the music, or maybe it's me. I don't know. I play churches, festivals and parties. Whatever it is, this is one zydeco town, man."

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Mike Emery