The third recipient of OffBeat’s annual Lifetime Achievement Award, given to a member of Louisiana’s music business community, is Lake Charles’ Eddie Shuler. A recording pioneer in the fields of Cajun, zydeco, swamp pop, rock ‘n’ roll, and blues, Shuler’s label, Goldband, is the oldest active independent record label in the United States.
The first regional music entrepreneur and label owner in the state, Shuler is responsible for recording some of Louisiana’s finest music. In the Cajun field, Joel Sonnier, Joe Bonsol, Sidney Brown and Iry LeJeune recorded for Shuler. Zydeco artists that worked with Shuler include Marcel Dugas, Wilfred LaTour, Willis Prudhomme and Boozoo Chavis. In addition, Shuler cut some splendid blues sides on Clarence Garlow, Juke Boy Bonner, Guitar Junior and Hop Wilson. He also accessed the rock ‘n’ roll markets via recordings by Gene Terry, Johnny Jano, Al Ferrier and Larry Hart. Along the way, Shuler cut what was perhaps the first swamp pop record, “Cindy Lou,” by Cookie & the Boogie Ramblers, turned a raucous Cajun single into a national hit, and interestingly, was the first person to record Dolly Parton, who was 13-years-old when her “Puppy Love” was released on Goldband.
Born at Wrightboro, Texas in 1913 of German and Irish parentage, Shuler came to Louisiana during World War II to work in a defense plant. “I came to Lake Charles as a drag line operator in 1942,” recalled Shuler. “One day I was driving to work with a fellow that played in the Hackberry Ramblers [a Cajun string band led by Lunderin Darbone] and asked them if they’d be interested in recording some of the songs that I had written [and recorded] on an acetate disc.”
Everyone in the group was interested in the material except for the vocalist. Consequently, the singer quit and Shuler was approached about the vacancy. He accepted hesitantly because he couldn’t speak French. “I could sing the words, but I didn’t know what they meant.” This occasionally became a problem when enthusiastic dancers wanted to converse with Shuler between songs.
The Turning Point
Shuler eventually left the Hackberry Ramblers and formed the Reveliers, a group that in 1945 would wax the first Goldband disc: “One Broken Love/Is There Room In Your Heart.” A couple of years later, Shuler quit the drag line and got a job working as a disc jockey at KPLC. At the radio station, Shuler met a nearly blind Cajun accordionist, Iry LeJeune, who wanted to audition for his show. It was the turning point of Shuler’s life. “Iry came to me one day and said he wanted to make some records and wanted me to make them,” said Shuler. “I told him I didn’t know anything about making French records, but in the end I agreed because there was nobody here making those type of records.”
In 1949, Shuler recorded LeJeune performing “Laccasine Special” and “Calcasieu Waltz.” Issued on Folk Star, the 78 did modestly well so Shuler had LeJune cut another disc, “Te Che Special/Te Mone.” Suddenly, Shuler was a Cajun music entrepreneur and label owner, hustling 78s to record stores and jukebox outlets along the Gulf Coast from the trunk of his car. “LeJeune’s records were the sustaining power for Goldband in those days,” confirmed Shuler. “All his records were Number One. That allowed me branch out and record other artists.”
Phil Menard and Sidney Brown would soon record for Shuler, the latter providing best sellers in Acadiana with “Rolling Pin Special” and “La Valse de Meche.” In 1952, Shuler recorded the Hackberry Ramblers’s “Pallet On The Floor,” hoping to lease it to a larger company. When he had no takers, Shuler put the song out himself and enjoyed his biggest hit to date. The income from “Pallet On the Floor” allowed him to build a “hole-in-the-wall” studio in a building next to the TV repair shop Shuler had opened the previous year. Among the studio’s many idiosyncrasies was a clock that ran backwards. Shuler installed the timepiece because he felt that musicians would keep playing and playing if they were unaware of the time they’d already spent in the studio!
A Half-Pint of Whiskey
In 1954, Sidney Brown introduced Shuler to an animated Creole quarter horse jockey who played a style of music he had never heard before. “Sidney brought Boozoo [Chavis] by the studio,” said Shuler. “He played zydeco. I’d never heard of that type of music before. This was before Clifton Chenier. I thought he’d be interesting to record.” After several fruitless days in the studio, Shuler suppled Chavis with a half-pint of whiskey and was finally able to wax the memorable “Paper In My Shoe.” The first identifiable zydeco best seller, the song sold anywhere from 37,000 to 100,000 discs (depending on who you ask) after it was leased to Imperial.
As Shuler built an impressive roster of Cajun, folk and zydeco artists, he also began dabbling in the blues field. “There just wasn’t anyplace for those people to record,” said Shuler. “I just sat there and they came to me. The first thing we did was ‘Big Leg Mama’ by James Freeman. That did well and I liked what he had going on. Then we had a big hit with Jimmy Wilson’s ‘Please Accept My Love.’ After that, along came Clarence Garlow, Big Chenier, Sticks Herman, Hop Wilson and Big Walter.”
When rock ‘n’ roll became popular in 1955, not surprisingly Shuler got on the bandwagon. Another case of being in the right place at the right time, artists like the Cookie & the Boogie Ramblers, Ray Vict, Guitar Junior, Rockin’ Sidney, Gene Terry, Al Ferrier, Larry Hart and Johnny Jano came from the surrounding area to record for Goldband. With Shuler behind the board, these artists developed an identifiable commercial sound that had South Louisiana stamped all over it.
“Sea of Love”
In 1959, Shuler’s local, albeit friendly, competitor George Khoury brought Phil Phillips to the Goldband Studio for an audition. Realizing they’d discovered a diamond in the rough, Khoury and Shuler worked with Phillips, eventually coming up with the timeless “Sea of Love.” The single quickly proved to be too big for a small label, so Mercury stepped in and leased it. The rest is history as Shuler, Khoury and Phillips wound up with a million-seller.
Never one to forget what got him started, Shuler continued to record Cajun music, often with favorable results. In 1962, Goldband became the first label to ever put a Cajun record on Billboard’s charts when Cleveland Crochet scored with the socking “Sugar Bee.” As the 1960s progressed, Shuler discovered Joel Sonnier (billed as the “Cajun Valentino”), made a political statement with Jay Chevalier’s “Castro Rock” (“The only dance in town”), and out Tony Joe Whited Tony Joe White with Danny James’ hypnotic “Boogie In the Mud.”
Along with starting a successful mail order music business, Shuler continued to record Louisiana talent in the 1970s and 1980s. Of course by then, record collectors from around the world were beginning to clamor for vintage Goldband material. Reissues began appearing on both sides of the ocean, confirming that Goldband Records was in fact a “gold mine” of great Louisiana music. Such is the extent of Shuler’s holdings that today it often frustrates him.
“Sometimes I’ll find a Guitar Junior or a Clarence Garlow tape and wonder where the hell it came from.” Still active in the music business, along with maintaining a web site, Shuler occasionally repackages past successes, and has a popular contemporary zydeco artist, Willis Prudhomme, under contract. In Louisiana, Floyd Soileau, who learned a lot from Shuler, distributes Goldband, while in England, the Ace label keeps Shuler’s legacy in the public eye.