Besides Jazz Fest’s annual celebration of indigenous music and culture, one of the special things about it is that it pays homage to those who have influenced and shaped the performers taking the stage. One of those moments will occur this year, when accordionist Jimmy Breaux and steel guitarist Johnny Sonnier and the New Lafayette Playboys salute the legendary Cajun accordionist/band leader Aldus Roger with a tribute show.
In the annals of Cajun music, Roger had a significant presence. Besides being one of the greatest accordionists ever, Roger and the Lafayette Playboys were the first Cajun band with a regular weekly TV show, broadcast from 1955 to 1970. Additionally, they contributed such songs as “KLFY Waltz” (named after the TV station), “Johnny Can’t Dance,” and “The Lafayette Playboy Waltz” to the repertoire.
Roger left his mark on many, including Sonnier and Breaux, who’ve had completely different trajectories in Cajun music. “Up until the time he died, [Roger] still played the same. He never changed his style and that’s what people loved about him,” says Sonnier. “He had the best dance band in the state as far I’m concerned. Every Saturday I would watch him on TV and pick up pointers [on how to play the accordion] from him.”
“He was an excellent accordion player,” Sonnier continues. “That’s why he was called the King [of the French accordion]. He was smooth. He never was a showman.”
As an inquisitive 14-year-old, Sonnier would often go see his idol play live. One night, Roger needed a drummer and hired Sonnier on the spot. That lasted four or five months until Sonnier left the Playboys to front his own band playing accordion.
Breaux only met his idol once, that being during a break at a gig. By then he already knew Roger’s catalogue. “I put him pretty much on top of the list,” says Breaux, whose list included Lawrence Walker, Walter Mouton, and Iry LeJeune. “I just listened to all these styles and learned different licks from each person, and that’s how I developed my style through the years, by experimenting with different things I invented, and combining that all together.”
“To be honest, he played really fast,” Breaux continues. “I couldn’t believe the stuff he would make his fingers do at that tempo. It was hard to follow him on LPs and try to capture those licks but I did the best I could.”
A few years ago Sonnier ran into Breaux at a jam session and asked him to be his accordionist for the band he was about to launch. Due to a work-related accident to his shoulder, Sonnier could no longer play the loud little box for more than a few songs, and consequently switched to steel guitar so he wouldn’t strain his arm. After a few gigs, Sonnier pitched doing an Aldus Roger tribute album to Breaux. “It was a great idea, because I’ve always wanted to do a tribute to Aldus Roger,” recalls Breaux.
With that, they proceeded to cut the album not at a professional studio, but at his bass player Rick Benoit’s outdoor kitchen on a computer. After the mix-down, Sonnier didn’t like the sound, so the next weekend he brought over his two bargain-priced tape machines equipped with thick VCR tape and proceeded to re-record the entire album in analogue. Even though recording on analogue takes longer, especially when it comes to fixing mistakes, Sonnier preferred its warmth. “Digital is too Nashville,” says Sonnier, who took both versions of the album to Swallow Records’ Floyd Soileau, who preferred the analogue version hands down. “Floyd was amazed,” Sonnier recalls. “He said, ‘What studio are y’all using?’ I said, ‘I cut that in an outdoor kitchen [laughs].’ He said, ‘No you didn’t.’ I said, ‘Yes, I did.’
Originally, Sonnier intended to title the album, A Tribute to Aldus Roger and Phillip Alleman, Roger’s steel guitar man and lead vocalist. But Soileau felt the title was too long, and so he shortened it to A Tribute to Aldus Roger & More.
The resultant album is a gritty throwback to how Cajun music sounded in the ’60s and ’70s. Besides drawing from the cannon of Roger, Sonnier reprised his rendition of “Chere Alice,” a Lawrence Walker song he cut at age 17. Sonnier still fields a lot of requests for his signature song, sometimes five or six times a night. “Sometimes I’ll kid with the crowd,” says Sonnier. “I tell them I do have other songs I’ve recorded. ‘Y’all can’t pick one of those? C’mon people, I have five albums out.’”
Ironically, not long after the tribute album was released last year, Breaux’s hectic freelance schedule didn’t coincide with Sonnier’s bookings, so the elder musician was forced to use another accordionist. “But it’s all good,” Breaux says. The Jazz Fest show promises to be an enticing one since it reunites brothers-in-Aldus Jimmy Breaux and Johnny Sonnier once again on the same stage, paying homage to the legend that inspired them along their journey.