Cajun music lost its most beloved and colorful character, Doris Leon “D.L.” Menard, on Thursday, July 27, 2017, after he succumbed to multiple ailments. The legend was 85.
At his funeral, held at Lafayette’s Family Life Church, Professor Emeritus of Francophone Studies and Folklore at University of Louisiana, Lafayette, Barry Ancelet described the larger-than-life character as “a dignified and elegant ambassador of our culture. He was always dignified, respectful and respectable.” Ancelet also remarked that Menard’s sense of humor was consistently “razor sharp and lightening quick.”
During his illustrious career, Menard performed in 42 states and 38 countries, bringing joy and magic to whoever saw him. “You got to entertain the people,” Menard always preached, and that was a credo he never failed to live up to.
Dubbed “the Cajun Hank Williams,” Menard was most famous for his ubiquitous composition “La Port en arriere,” translated in English as “The Back Door,” that sold 500,000 copies in 1962. Since then, Flat Town Music Company honcho Floyd Soileau estimates that it has sold over a million copies. It’s one of the most recorded songs in the repertoire, not only in French but sometimes in English and other languages. Longtime friend and bandleader of the Cajun band Jambalaya, Terry Huval, recalls even seeing a version of it recorded in Swedish.
Modeled after Hank Williams’ “Honky Tonk Blues,” “The Back Door” tells the tale of a guy, coming home from a night of honky-tonking and drinking, sneaking through the back door as to not incur the wrath of his father. The song has a moralistic bent to it—a few verses later the guy ends up in the pokey, this time entering the jail through the back door as well.
“It’s a song many accordion players learn as their first song,” Huval says about the song’s widespread popularity. “It’s a fairly simple melody and as a result, it’s something kids can pick up quickly and then move on from there.”
In 2014, Rolling Stone included “The Back Door” on its 100 Greatest Country Songs of All Time, ranking it at number 72.
In 1994, Menard received the prestigious National Heritage Award. First Lady Hillary Clinton presented the awards that year. Ancelet writes in an email: “At one point, when they were posing for pictures after the awards, D.L. said to her, ‘Well, Hillary, this was great. Let’s do it again next year.’”
Huval has been a friend and a bandmate of Menard’s for a quarter of a century, first as a hired gun and then as packaged shows billed as Jambalaya and DL Menard. Besides enjoying Menard’s rollicking company, Huval learned a few life lessons from him, one of which was rooted when Menard met Williams. “He got to meet Hank when he was 19 and visited with him for about 10–12 minutes and asked him lots of questions,” Huval says. “He was so impressed that Hank was willing to talk to a 19-year-old nobody and answer questions about music and the philosophy of regional music, how interactive the audience is and how to sing a song.”
It was an experience Menard carried throughout his career, always taking time to interact with young musicians. “He motivated so many young musicians because he would just give them the time of day,” Huval explains. “He would just sit there and talk to them and tell them how to think about their craft.”
Huval also produced two albums for Menard, 1995’s Cajun Memories and 2010’s aptly named Happy Go Lucky, the second notching Menard his second Grammy nomination. His first Grammy came in 1993 with Le Trio Cadien with Eddie LeJeune and Ken Smith.
Huval remembers the Grammy ceremonies well. Menard was decked out in his dark country suit with musical notes emblazoned on the sleeves. “He was just a hit out there,” Huval recalls. “The other people that were nominated for Grammys would see him and get their picture taken with him.”
Even towards the end of his life, Menard was never far away from his next one-liner in his mission to “entertain the people,” even if bound in a wheel chair. At a recent festival, Menard couldn’t wait to get to the microphone. “So he gets to the microphone as soon as he could and says ‘Hey ladies and gentlemen, I want to let y’all know that I’m in a wheelchair because they cut off my big toe but they did nothing with my throat.’”
Though Menard will be eternally remembered for “The Back Door,” he also leaves behind a body of serious, poignant work. During his funeral, which can be viewed at the Family Life Church’s Facebook page, Ancelet quoted heartfelt, eloquently expressed lyrics from many of his songs.
Huval describes Menard’s ability to write songs as a natural gift. “I recorded two CDs with him and I speak French. I’ve written songs myself. I’ve never had to suggest any changes to any of DL’s songs. Every one of them was just plain and complete as it could be. For a fellow who had very little education, he had a real gift for being able to communicate in his music.”