DECEMBER 26, 1922
Vermillion Parish, Louisiana
JULY 17, 1951
When Cajun fiddler Harry Choates died in an Austin, Texas jail cell at the age of 28, haunted by alcoholic demons, the country music world took little notice. But to the Acadians of South Louisiana and East Texas, Choates was a bona fide hero. His 1946 rendition of “Jole Blon,” the song that would come to be called the “Cajun National Anthem,” had not only been the first French song to crack the Billboard national charts but its ascent above the Number Five position is an achievement unsurpassed to this day.
Harry Choates’ appetite for music was second only to his taste for liquor, women and practical jokes. But his jovial songs and gay outward appearance masked an inner darkness and turmoil that would be echoed by every country music outlaw for years to come. Perhaps for this reason Choates is one of those enigmatic musicians about whom the legends just seem to swirl: He never owned a fiddle in his life. He sold the rights to his biggest song for 50 dollars and a bottle of whiskey. He refused to record unless the studio was sufficiently filled with people to create the atmosphere of a night club in full swing. None of these stories are in the least bit true, and the fact that they’ve been solidified into collective memory through sheer repetition is most fascinating when one considers that—as is so often the case—the truth of Choates’ life is far more interesting than the fiction.
Raised in a Cajun household at a time when many young Acadians didn’t learn English until they reached adulthood, those who knew Harry have often stated that he spoke very little French, if any at all. When it came to singing it convincingly, however, he was a natural, and in the wake of “Jole Blon’s” success, most of the music he recorded was in the French style. For this reason, Choates is remembered primarily as a Cajun musician, when in fact, the music that he featured on dance jobs was almost exclusively western swing. While his aptitude for writing and performing in this style is more than evident on songs like “Cat’n Around” and “Five Time Loser,” other staples such as his legendary version of Woody Herman’s “Woodchopper’s Ball” never made it to shellac. Nevertheless, one listen to almost any song in the Choates discography will tell you that he was not your traditional Cajun musician, as he often injected a jazzy, beat-heavy style into everything that he played. Finally, while the musicians who knew and played with him all testify to his otherworldly fiddling abilities, they also unequivocally state that his true musical genius lay in the realm of the electric jazz guitar.
Much of the Choates mystique can be attributed to the fact that, incredibly, the first serious study on him wasn’t written until 50 years after his death, when Bear Family Records released Devil In The Bayou, a comprehensive collection of Choates’ Gold Star recordings. “It’s just the typical kind of folklore that builds up around people when nobody actually does any real research,” says music historian Andrew Brown, author of the 112-page booklet that accompanies the two-CD set. Brown spent a good four years interviewing over 20 musicians who helped bring Harry’s life into some sort of focus.
“I devoted so much time to this guy because he had just been so neglected,” says Brown, noting that western swing researcher Kevin Coffey also helped set the record straight with an article published in The Journal Of Country Music. “That’s the good thing about Choates; his life was so chaotic but he worked with a lot of musicians and worked over a large area which facilitated finding enough people that knew him. Just about anybody in Louisiana and Texas knew him, worked with him, saw him play or had some sort of connection, some recollection.” Recognizing that there are still many questions about Harry’s life that have been left unanswered—his entire childhood for one—Brown writes of his discoveries, “What we are left with are the fragmentary impressions and anecdotes of those who knew Choates in adulthood. Drifting in and out of focus, (he) somehow manages to be simultaneously elusive and ever-present in these stories—a phantom refusing to sit still for a finished portrait.”
DEVIL IN THE BAYOU
In birth, as in life and death, Choates seems destined to remain a mysterious figure. Though he often gave his birthplace as New Iberia, and it’s been widely reported that he was born in Rayne, he was actually born southwest of Abbeville in rural Vermillion Parish on the day after Christmas in 1922. Facts about his early life are lost to the sands of time, though it’s likely that he spent his early childhood in Rayne and New Iberia before his family moved to the booming oil town of Port Arthur, Texas in 1929. Beyond his birth certificate, the first concrete evidence of Choates’ existence came in the form of his first recorded appearance with Happy Fats’ Rayne-Bo Ramblers in 1940. Harry was now 17, and he emerged from childhood with two fully developed talents, the yin and yang that would define the highest and lowest moments of the rest of his life: the ability to drink most dedicated boozehounds under the table and the musical genius to blow just about anybody off of the bandstand.
Both of these elements—often one and the same—made Choates a man whose reputation preceded him, something that Brown was constantly reminded of during his research. “There are a lot of musicians I talked to whose only remembrance of Harry is just this notorious alcoholic drunken bum guy,” he says. “A lot of people don’t remember anything else but him just getting rip roaring drunk off his ass.”
While the origins of Harry’s drinking habit, like the origins of his musicianship, are unknown, his lust for the night life was well in evidence by the time he began playing with the Rayne-Bo Ramblers, as banjoist Pee Wee Broussard related to Kevin Coffey in speaking of Choates and another band member: “They liked to drink, liked to smoke, and money just burned a hole in their pockets. We’d play a dance and get back to Rayne, and they’d go find a slot machine. Before we finished eating our breakfast, which was usually three in the morning, they were already broke and trying to borrow money from somebody else.”
Though Choates was only a member of the Ramblers for three months—from December 1939 to March 1940—a two-hour recording session in a Dallas hotel room on Valentine’s Day morning yielded ten sides that were issued on the Bluebird label. The selections—which ranged from various original numbers like “O.S.T. Gal” and “The Old Ice Man” to traditional Cajun songs such as “Gran’ Praire” and “Lake Charles Shuffle,” revealed an astounding, already fully intact fiddle style clearly influenced as much by Texans such as Cliff Bruner and Bob Wills as by French musicians like Leo Soileau. (It’s interesting to note that Choates was obviously not the only one taken by converging musical styles, as the more gut-bucket Rayne-Bo Ramblers recordings from just a few years earlier bare little resemblance to the swing-infused 1940 session).
The triptych was completed by Harry’s vocal debut, “Les Tete Fille Lafayette,” a song so swinging that when he bursts into the French vocal it’s a shock to the listener that it isn’t sung in English; and steel guitarist Ray Clark’s great “I’ve Grown So Lonely For You,” one of only two total instances that Choates’ lead guitar ability would be featured on record. More than anything else, Harry’s stint with the Ramblers combined all of the rural, bluesy overtones, advanced jazzy improvisations and sprightly musicianship that would come to define his unique style.
HONKY TONKIN’ DAYS
Aside from a short period in the service during 1944, Choates spent most of the war years playing with Leo Soileau’s Rhythm Boys, doubling on guitar and second fiddle. It was here that he began to master most of the French songs that would later figure into so much of his recorded repertoire, though once again, the Rhythm Boys’ set list relied heavily on the jazz and western swing of the day. Married for the first time in 1940, Harry quickly filed for divorce when he met his second wife Helen Daenen Cundiff, whom he married in Lake Charles on July 11, 1945.
It was around this time that Houston radio repairman Bill Quinn christened his new Gold Star label and released the first record credited to Choates’ name, a coupling of “Basile Waltz” on the A side along with a souped-up rendition of the traditional “Jolie Blonde” (which he mis-titled “Jole Blon”) on the flip. Originally recorded in 1928 by Cleoma and Amadie Breaux, and during the ’30s by the Hackberry Ramblers and Leo Soileau, Choates’ version was markedly different. Like his earlier recordings with the Rayne-Bo Ramblers, it seemed to marry all of the musical forms that he’d been absorbing.
When a Houston disc jockey ignored the A side and “Jole Blon” became a regional hit, Quinn realized that his one-stop pressing plant couldn’t begin to meet the demand for the orders that were pouring in and he promptly made a deal with the Bihari Brothers’ newly established Los Angeles-based Modern label. With wide distribution and promotion, the song became a national hit, introducing the hillbilly record buying public to a hitherto hardly known about phenomenon: the Cajun French tradition.
Illustrating the mass appeal of “Jole Blon” were the endless cover versions, answer songs and related tunes that followed in its wake. The first—and one of the biggest—was Texas pianist Moon Mullican’s “New Pretty Blonde (New Jole Blon)” which outsold Choates’ version everywhere except South Louisiana. Mullican was soon covered and trumped by Red Foley, whose rendition spent two weeks in the Number One position. In April of 1947 Mullican, Foley and Roy Acuff were all sitting pretty with their respective treatments in three of the top five positions of the Billboard National Folk Chart. The spin-offs continued well into the next six years, although it seemed that the closer the artists stuck to the original, the less success they had with it.
Hoping to follow up his hit, Harry’s next few sessions revived other French songs of similar ancientry, such as “Allons a Lafayette” and “Hackberry Hop.” His band at this time included the Manuel brothers whom Harry had played with in Leo Soileau’s group (guitarist/ fiddler Abe and tenor banjoist Joe), Joe’s wife, pianist Johnnie Ruth Manuel, and drummer Curzy “Pork Chop” Roy.
In February, Harry made the first of many defections from Quinn when he cut six songs for the Cajun Classics label, including a melancholy ballad written and sung by Johnnie entitled “Yes, I Love You;” one of only two recordings to feature his awesome guitar work. Within a week Choates would be back at Gold Star. Like Quinn’s other star artist, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Harry could have cared less about contracts or who he recorded for, just that he was paid for the session, and he would soon wax sides for other labels including Macy’s, O.T. and Allied.
After it was discovered that Harry and Johnnie were having an affair the band broke up, as did Joe and Johnnie’s marriage. The affair ended Harry’s marriage temporarily as well. Johnnie stayed with the group for another year, cutting another one of her original numbers, “Missing You,” which she sung with a moody sentiment that cut to the core. Choates didn’t worry too much about switching band members, as the Golden Triangle—the area of Texas just across the Sabine River from Louisiana where he spent most of his time was jumping with musicians. “This area was a hotbed of good musicians,” recalls tenor banjoist and Port Arthur resident Ivy Gaspard, who toured with Choates. “You had as many good musicians here as you had anywhere.” Gaspard also notes that “Jole Blon” revolutionized the way many Gulf Coast residents felt about French music. “My first gig was with a French band, Daniel Dugas. Some of the dancers who would come to our dances were amazed; they’d never heard French music played the way I played it on tenor guitar but (really) I was playing western swing. I didn’t care to play French, ’cause the musicians weren’t that good. They’ve got some good French musicians now but Harry’s the one who put the idea in their heads how to play that kind of music. Before that, French music, I hated to play it ’cause it was just the same thing over and over and over. But I didn’t mind playing French music with Harry ‘cause he had that beat.”
Choates’ blending of styles reached its apex with “Louisiana Boogie” shortly after 16-year-old steel guitarist Carrol Broussard began playing with him. Broussard remembers the song being born on the bandstand at the Rendezvous club in Lake Charles. “A guy came up and he was talking French and I know how to talk French. Harry very seldom spoke French—believe it or not, I never talked in French to Harry. This guy wanted to know if we could play a French boogie. And Harry says ‘Well, I don’t know any words to that.’ So I told Harry, well look, just make some up as you go along. So he come up and started with the song, so we recorded that.”
By the turn of the decade, multi instrumentalist Link Davis, whose larger-than-life personality and musical irreverence rivaled that of Harry, had joined the ranks. “Link joined the band in Opelousas,” recalls Broussard: “He was kind of a ‘Good Rockin’ Tonight’ type of music guy; that’s the kind of music he wanted to play. Before Elvis Presley. He played country too and he played some French, but what he really liked was blues. He wore these zoot suit pants with suspenders up to his chest; he was a cat.”
The band’s sole recording—credited to Davis who took the lead vocal on both sides—is one of those records whose sheer existence shatters myths and theories right and left: a version of Roy Brown’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight” (titled “Have You Heard The News”) recorded by a white band years before Elvis entered Sam Phillips’ Memphis Recording Service. Its flipside, “Joe Turner,” was a traditional blues song that stretched back to the beginning of the century. Broussard details the last minute swapping of solos that confused a tipsy Choates. “If you listen to it, when I take my ride Harry thinks it’s the piano player on there. And he calls him, ‘Art’—that’s Art Deorio on piano. Then a little while later you can hear Link tellin’ Harry that it’s me, so then he calls my name.”
“We worked the area from Opelousas to around Lake Charles for about six months,” continues Broussard, “and then Link wanted to go off to Corpus Christi. Harry went off to somewhere in Texas, Austin I believe, and the rest of the band stayed there at the Moonlight Inn in Opelousas. And after a while I went and met Link in Corpus.
“A lot of people think that he drank a lot and that he was mean but he wasn’t,” says Broussard of Choates. “He’d drink, raise Cain I guess like anybody else does, but it didn’t affect his playing, just his personality. Nowadays I don’t think things are quite the same as they were back in those days, it was pretty rough; a lot of drinkin’ going on.” It was a life that Broussard remembers Harry trying to steer him away from. “He tried to help me. At one time I remember he picked me up—me and another guy—he picked us up at a bar to go to a job and he thought I was drinkin’ and he got all over me. I wasn’t and it really made me mad. I was gonna quit!”
Unfortunately, Choates didn’t have the same concern for himself, a factor that eventually led to the end of his life.
FIVE TIME LOSER
After years of temporary separations, his wife filed for divorce in early 1951 in Jefferson County, Texas. When Harry missed his first alimony payments and failed to show up for two court dates to settle the matter, he was arrested in Austin, where he’d been gigging for about a month, on June 14. The Jefferson County authorities showed up three days later to transport him to their jurisdiction for prosecution but it was too late. Deprived of alcohol, Choates’ weakening health and an extremely violent case of the DTs had claimed his life only 30 minutes earlier. Three of Choates’ band mates, including steel guitarist Jimmy Grabowske, had just been to visit him that afternoon. Grabowske recalled the terrifying experience to Andrew Brown: “He was incoherent, in a blind stupor. His eyes were glassy. He didn’t even see us. He was banging his head on the bars and walls. We knew that something terrible was wrong. He looked like he was dying.” After alerting a guard as to Choates’ condition, the trio returned to radio station KTBC where they’d just finished a broadcast, in hopes of getting some help. “When we arrived at the station, we were told that he’d died. Evidently he died within minutes after we left his cell.”
Rumors that he’d been beaten in jail were only exacerbated by the fact that the cause of death was initially reported as being unknown. The real mystery is why he wasn’t given medical attention at the first sign of his worsening condition. Like so many factors in Choates’ life, it’s a question that will probably never be answered.
Tragically, the missing pieces of the Choates’ mystique even spill over into the only concrete snapshots that we have of his life: his music. In his years of research, Brown has discovered logs of various recording sessions that appear irretrievably lost, including a Macy’s Records master entitled “Guitar,” a Gold Star session with song titles such as “Liquor and Women,” even an eerily self-fulfilling prophecy that went unrecorded called “Going To The Bottom.”
His musical variation wasn’t dissimilar to his nomadic lifestyle. “He was a true bohemian, a gypsy type” notes Brown, “And musically, he was all over the place. Harry was really more of a western swing guy who lucked out into having this hit with a traditional Cajun song and I think that kind of bent him in that direction. Had that never been recorded, or had that not been a hit for him, I think he would be remembered as a western swing fiddle player/ guitar player.”
“Nobody’s done more for French music than Harry Choates,” says Carrol Broussard, who began playing with his father’s Cajun band as a young boy, pre-“Jole Blon.” “He’s the one that started it, back in 1946 when he recorded ‘Jole Blon.’ There are a lot of other guys responsible for it becoming popular but he’s the one who started it. Before he recorded that they had some recordings but they didn’t do anything like Harry’s did.”
Devil In The Bayou
Fiddle King of Cajun Swing
Cajun Honky Tonk: The Khoury Recordings