Masters of Louisiana Music: Rockin’ Sidney Simien

Born:
April 9, 1938
Lebeau, Louisiana

Died:
February 25, 1998
Lake Charles, Louisiana

In 1984, Rockin’ Sidney Simien released the biggest selling zydeco single of all time, “My Toot Toot.” Two other versions of the song, by Jean Knight and Denise LaSalle, also charted, and as Jeff Hannusch writes, Toot Toot Mania erupted in South Louisiana. What exactly is a Toot Toot? According to the inscrutable Rockin’ Sidney: “It’s whatever you want it to be.”

Sidney Simien—a. k. a. Rockin’ Sidney—is remembered by many for one lone disc, one simple superb novelty tune, “My Toot Toot,” a song he recorded in the middle of the night in a spare bedroom at his house on a MIDI recorder. However, Rockin’ Sidney was no mere flash in the pan, as he packed more than 40 years into various musical conquests.

Sidney J. Simien was born April 9, 1938, in Lebeau, Louisiana, a small farming community in St. Landry Parish. With dreams of a life that didn’t include sharecropping, Simien took up the guitar and harmonica at an early age. During his teens, he formed a band with some of his cousins, Sidney Simien and the All Stars. In 1956, he fronted the cash for “I’m Never Right” / “Make Me Understand,” a single which appeared on Carl, a vanity label owned by Opelousas music shop operator, Jake Graffanino. After the single stalled, Simien began making the rounds of area record labels. Auditions for Excello’s J.D. Miller, as well as Goldband’s Eddie Shuler, were unsuccessful. (Ironically, the Goldband session would be issued two decades later in Sweden and one of the songs, “Tell Me,” was covered by the Fabulous Thunderbirds on the Tuff Enough album.) Shuler did point Sidney in the direction of Floyd Soileau, who was just beginning to make some noise in the record business. Soileau, keenly aware of the popularity of other South Louisiana R&B artists like Lightnin’ Slim, Phil Phillips and Cookie & the Cupcakes were enjoying, was impressed with Sidney’s smooth vocal delivery and simple harmonica work. He thought he could sell some records. Sidney’s 1959 release, on the short-lived Fame label, was the frantic “She’s My Morning Coffee” was backed with the wailing blues, “I’m Calling You.” The single did well in South Louisiana and Soileau was eager to cut a follow up. Sidney obliged with the splendid “Walkin’ Out On You.”

Between 1959 and 1964, Soileau released nine Rockin’ Sidney 45s on Fame and Jin. Highlights included the spectacular “You Ain’t Nothing But Fine,” the swamp pop-structured “Don’t Say Goodbye,” the bluesy “It Really Is a Hurtin’ Thing” (which included some fabulous Katie Webster piano), and the cutesy “If I Could I Would.” Sidney’s biggest record from this period was the telling “No Good Woman,” which broke out of South Louisiana briefly in 1963 and into other regional markets. By the mid-1960s, swamp pop and down home Louisiana blues was swept out of the charts, and off the radio, by soul and British rock music. Sidney’s singles stopped selling so Soileau let his contract expire.

In 1965, Sidney moved to Lake Charles and Goldband’s Eddie Shuler was back in the picture. “I missed out on Rockin’ Sidney the first time,” admitted Shuler. “I realized after hearing ‘No Good Woman’ that not signing him was one of the worst business decisions I ever made. When I got a second chance, I grabbed him.”

At Goldband, Sidney reinvented himself as “Count” Rockin’ Sidney, sported a turban (certainly the coolest head gear ever invented) and outfitted himself in neon-colored sharkskin pajama suits. Despite recording prolifically, most of Sidney’s Goldband releases were largely uneventful, as he abandoned the sounds of South Louisiana in order to pursue urban soul music. Outside of the spirited “Put It On,” and the remake of Elton Anderson’s lament “Shed So Many Tears,” singles like “Do Your Stuff,” “Something Going On,” “Soul Christmas” and “Dedie Dedie Da” were forgettable.

In 1970, after nine Goldband releases, and not a trace of a best seller, Shuler dropped Sidney. With disco on the horizon, like many R&B artists, Sidney’s career began a downward spiral. Forced to cut the Dukes loose, he continued on as a solo act around Lake Charles. Still with aspirations of cutting a hit, Sidney started his own label, Bold, on which he cut several James Brown inspired funk/soul singles.

GOING CRAZY OVER “TOOT TOOT”

When I first encountered Rockin’ Sidney in the mid-1970s, he was stuffed in a tuxedo and playing “Stand By Me” and “Under the Boardwalk” on a Hammond organ in Lake Charles’ Roadway Inn cocktail lounge. (His name was still on the marquee long after the motel closed in the 1980s.) He sincerely appreciated my interest in his music, but requests for “You Ain’t Nothin’ But Fine” and “They Call Me Rockin’” fell on deaf ears. As Sidney explained, while glancing across a room that contained half-a-dozen bored middle-aged salesmen in leisure suits, “This isn’t the place for that kind of music.”

Eventually, Sidney decided it was time to once again reinvent himself. A huge fan of zydeco king Clifton Chenier, Sidney recalled in 1986 that, “When I grew up, Cliff was as big as Elvis Presley in Louisiana. People would talk about his dances for a month in advance. He had a Cadillac convertible that he’d ride in at the Yambilee parade in. He’d sit in the back with his accordion and wave to the people. I thought he was the biggest star in the world.”

Sidney witnessed the rising popularity of zydeco and the many imitators Chenier’s music spawned. In the early 1980s, Simien decided to get on the zydeco train as well, putting down $2,000 for an Italian piano accordion, and started woodshedding.

Sidney though took a roundabout approach to getting his zydeco career started. Rather than making public appearances, which would hopefully attract fans and maybe a recording contract, he took another approach. Sidney started another label, Bally Hoo, and began recording himself in a studio he built at his home. At the time Sidney didn’t have a band, but since he could play guitar, bass, keyboards and accordion, he merely overdubbed each instrument over a prerecorded drum machine track. The results were primitive and often humorous, but more often than not, extremely attractive. The single “Louisiana Creole Man” got lots of airplay in Lake Charles, as did the LP, Joy To the South. Suddenly, Sidney’s phone started ringing, as requests for appearances at clubs began coming in. Meanwhile, back in Ville Platte, Floyd Soileau sensed the commotion and signed Sidney to his Maison de Soul label in 1982. Two fine albums followed, Give Me A Good Time Woman and Boogie, Blues & Zydeco, the latter which featured an all star band that included Katie Webster, Willie Trahan and Warren Storm.

In 1984, Sidney convinced Soileau to release an entire album of solo tracks he recorded at his home studio, several which had already been available on Bally Hoo. Originally skeptical, Soileau eventually consented because he needed a new release, and he was getting one without spending much money. Suitably, the LP, My Zydeco Shoes Got the Zydeco Blues, was packaged in what appeared like a homemade cover. Soileau pressed a couple hundred albums and marketed them with minimal fanfare. Then, as he pointed out, “All hell broke loose.” For some reason, several deejays in South Louisiana began playing the second song on side two of the album, “My Toot Toot.” (When I penned the notes for the album, I mentioned that the song was merely “catchy,” clearly an indicator of what I know about potential hit records!) With the song being played on the radio, jukebox operators demanded a single for their outlets. Soileau obliged, pressing up a few hundred 45s, and it looked like he might have a nice little regional hit on his hands. However, as Sidney aptly stated, “Everybody in the world started going crazy over ‘My Toot Toot.’”

E. Rodney Jones at WXOK (a black urban station) in Baton Rouge heard “My Toot Toot” and he started playing it two or three times an hour on his show. The record rapidly began breaking outside of Acadiana, even becoming a hit in cosmopolitan New Orleans. “The radio stations here wouldn’t touch ‘My Toot Toot’ because of the accordion,” said Warren Hildebrand, who then ran All South Distributors. “It was too down home. But the record was on a lot of jukeboxes and the street jocks played it. Everybody that was out in the streets Mardi Gras day heard it more than once. The next day we were swamped. One little mom and pop store ordered 500 singles. The response for the song was so great WYLD and other stations were forced to play it.”

TOOT TOOT MANIA

The success of Sidney’s original inspired New Orleans producer Isaac Bolden to have Jean Knight cover the record on his Soulin’ label. The Knight version got lots of airplay and feelers from major labels. Malaco was initially interested, but at the last minute, Bolden placed the record with Atlantic. Not to be outdone, Malaco had Denise LaSalle cover Jean Knight’s cover, and both versions charted! Doug Kershaw and Fats Domino also recycled the song, as did John Fogerty, who even came to Louisiana to shoot a “My Toot Toot” video. A Spanish cover of the song was also a hit in Mexico. Meanwhile, Sidney’s original was outselling the competition between Houston and Memphis, but once the single began to close in on 75,000 units, and the LP on 20,000, Soileau realized he had to make a move. “How could a small company in Ville Platte break a record in New York or Chicago?” said Soileau asked. “We took the record as far as we could.”

Epic then entered the picture and leased Sidney’s version. They broke the record in the country market, eventually moving 300,000 EPs and singles. Having personally witnessed Toot Toot Mania first hand in Acadiana during the summer of 1984, I must say I can only compare it to when Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” came out, or when the Beatles arrived in America. The song was everywhere in South Louisiana. It was on every jukebox, every sound system, and every radio station‹country, soul and rock. People walked the streets in Toot Toot t-shirts, whistled the song and drove pickup trucks adorned with Toot Toot bumper stickers.

At the time, Sidney headlined a sold-out show at New Orleans’ Municipal Auditorium with Joe Simon, Bobby Bland, Little Milton and Tyrone Davis. Unfortunately, Sidney made the fatal mistake of opening with his ace. “My Toot Toot” got plenty of applause, but having listened to what they’d paid $10 for, 5,000 people immediately headed for the exits. By the time Sidney finished his second song, the building practically was empty. Throughout all the fuss, Sidney remained humble and unassuming. “Everybody asks me what a ‘Toot Toot’ is,” said Sidney at the time. “It’s whatever you want it to be. I just remember the expression from growing up in the country and hearing it in an old Cajun song, ‘Ma Cherie Toute Toute.”’ Some nights, I have to play the song half-a-dozen times. This whole thing is a pleasant surprise though. I’ve been out here 25 years and nothing like this has ever happened to me.”

Life did change for Sidney. He won a Grammy award, appeared on Nashville Now, Hee Haw, and was a celebrity judge on You Can Be Star. He also was on the receiving end on a tremendous amount of writer’s and performance royalties. An astute business man, Sidney invested wisely. He started another label, ZBC, on which his subsequent releases appeared, updated his studio to commercial standards, bought Lake Charles’ KOAK radio station, and purchased a huge nightclub where he occasionally performed.

Sidney’s post-“Toot Toot” recordings were unfortunately largely uneventful, outside of the brilliant “There’s A Baytie In Your Room.” Perhaps unaware that he was a creator of innovative and spontaneous music, too often Sidney took his cues from popular national artists, and his releases became overly technical and slick. Nevertheless, when I chatted with him at the 1997 French Quarter Festival, he declared he was going to return to recording the simple zydeco music that had made him famous around the world. Unfortunately, Sidney’s promise would never be fulfilled. After a lengthy struggle, Rockin’ Sidney succumbed to throat cancer on February 25, 1998.

Selected CDs

My Toot Toot
(Ace Import)
Includes the original version of “My Toot Toot,” as well as early Jin swamp-pop classics “They Call Me Rockin’,” “It Really Is A Hurtin’ Thing” and “No Good Woman.”

My Toot Toot / My Zydeco Shoes
(Maison de Soul)
Includes a re-make of the original “My Toot Toot.”

Holiday Celebration
(Maison de Soul)
Deck the halls with zydeco, featuring such seasonal fare as “Party This Christmas,” “The Christmas Waltz” and “It’s Christmas, Let The Good Times Roll.”

Selected Book

The Kingdom of Zydeco
by Michael Tisserand
(Arcade)