Can Cajun French music survive in a new millennium? Floyd Soileau of Ville Platte, who has recorded, produced and distributed the sound for 43 years, approaches the question with hopeful concern. Soileau says Cajun music remains popular, if not flooded with too many releases. But he wonders if the French language will keep pace with the two-stepping rhythms. “Evelyn Goller told me that we need to put on our label ‘Keep Cajun French alive with music’,” said Soileau. “It didn’t ring a bell until I thought about all the years we listened to KVPI with the old French music on 78s and the French news. It was a reminder to us to hang on to this language and be proud.
“But the people from that generation are getting older and a lot of them aren’t going to dances and they don’t have bands that they support. Some young musicians have recorded in French. We have French Immersion, but that only works if the children practice it when they leave school. I don’t know how long there will be a market demand for French records. I wonder if the language can keep the music alive.”
Soileau ponders the future as his past is celebrated with a huge honor. He has been named recipient of the OffBeat Best of the Beat Business Lifetime Achievement Award. For Soileau, the award is another surprise in a business of surprises.
“This business has been so interesting,” said Soileau, “and I’ve been so blessed. You’re always second guessing the market. But every now and then, it’s like waking up on Christmas morning. I just hope they’re not putting me out to the pasture now.”
Soileau’s OffBeat honor comes after another big salute he received last September. Festival de Musique Acadienne (Cajun Music Festival) 2000, part of Festivals Acadiens, was dedicated to Soileau and his contributions to Cajun music. Festivals Acadiens, which attracts over 100,000 fans to Lafayette’s Girard Park and surrounding area every September, is a collection of festivals that celebrate everything Cajun. Soileau said he could not have gotten the awards by himself.
“It’s always nice to get a pat on the back,” said Soileau, “but I wouldn’t have gotten this without the artists who contributed the music. I have to thank them for all their hard work. Also, I have to thank the employees we have here in Ville Platte. All these years, we’ve been able to stay here in Ville Platte and put a few people to work. No man can do it by himself.”
Soileau’s lifetime recognition is deserving as decades ago, when “Cajun” was still considered a bad word, he helped turn his native sounds into the worldwide darling it remains today. What Soileau began as a part-time gig selling records in the corner of a radio station is now Flat Town Music Company, a music publishing, distribution and retail enterprise which does business across the globe.
Through the years, Soileau has turned local talent into legends, national and regional stars and also-rans. He’s also recorded Grammy-winning artists and even produced a million-seller. Admirers praise Soileau for his diversity in a land where conformity rules. “In a business dominated by gigantic music corporations in distant media centers like New York and Los Angeles, it’s pleasant to know that Floyd remains hugely successful producing south Louisiana music just up the road in Ville Platte,” said historian Shane Bernard of New Iberia. “And he’s always been an honest record-man, which, as anyone connected with the music industry can tell you, is something of a rarity!”
“Floyd has continued to operate as an independent record man in an age of massive label-feeding and merger-mania,” said zydeco author Michael Tisserand. “By doing so, he demonstrates that it is possible to record out-of-the-way sounds and make a living doing so. He sets an encouraging example for all who believe that we really don’t want people in this world to all sound like each other.”
Soileau had no honors and recognition when he entered the world November 2, 1938 in Grand Prairie, just outside Ville Platte in Evangeline Parish. He descended from a line of Cajun fiddlers and could not speak English until he was six-years-old.
Once in high school, Floyd worked as a disc jockey and eventually landed a full-time job at the Ville Platte radio station, KVPI. When the KVPI’s sunrise-to-sunset schedule became shorter in the winter months, station manager Chris Duplechain suggested Soileau find a part-time job to make up for the lost hours.
So in 1956, Soileau borrowed $500 from his parents to open Floyd’s Record Shop, a one-room, second-story office on the same floor as KVPI. After spending $50 for a phonograph and $300 for records, Soileau went to work selling the hits he played on the air as a deejay.
Locals were soon standing in line after they heard the deejay in Ville Platte was selling records during his breaks. But when Soileau slapped a Christmas tape on the air during one of his breaks in July, the station manager told Soileau to make a decision–spin records or sell them. Soileau picked the recording and sales route, a decision that opened the doors of fate. His future was set in 1957 when local bar owner Ed Manuel approached Soileau with a homemade recording of French music and a wad of dollar bills.
The materials were sent to Nashville, where Don Pierce at Starday pressed 500 78 r.p.m. records and 300 45s of Soileau’s first record, the “Manuel Bar Waltz” and “Midway Two-Step,” performed by Milton Molitor and Austin Pitre.
Word spread that there was a record company in the most unlikely of places, Ville Platte. Lawrence Walker, Aldus Roger and Adam Hebert, all soon-to-be Cajun music legends, beat a path to Soileau’s door to put their creations on vinyl. After releasing his earlier recordings on the Big Mamou and Vee Pee labels, Soileau decided on “Swallow” for his French records, a spin-off on the pronunciation on his last name. In order to score points with his soon-to-be wife Jinver Ortego, Soileau named a new label for her–Jin.
In 1958, Jin, with its slogan “Always in the Spotlite,” became the hallmark of an emerging sound of the young Cajuns. These baby-boomers blended their parent’s French music with the rock and roll, New Orleans R&B and country music popular on radio stations and jukeboxes. History would call the sound swamp pop. But for Soileau and Jin Records, it created the first of several splashes into national success.
Rod Bernard, a teenaged deejay from the nearby town of Opelousas, was itching to record “This Should Go On Forever,” a tune he learned from local R&B performers King Karl and Guitar Gable. Bernard’s version, with its bold lyrics of the time (“If it’s a sin to really love you, then a sinner I will be”), was recorded during an all-night session at J.D. Miller’s studio in Crowley.
The marathon session began to take a toll on Bernard, who developed a nosebleed and sang the final cut with a towel wrapped around his face. The finished product literally became an overnight success through radio airplay in south Louisiana and southeast Texas.
Soileau was unable to keep up with local demand for copies as the tune spread throughout the region, leading Soileau to work out a national distribution deal with Chess Records. “This Should Go On Forever” was released on Chess’ Argo label of Chicago. By the spring of 1959, the song reached No. 8 in Hit Parade and the Top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100 and Cashbox charts. Bernard went on to appear on American Bandstand and Soileau earned enough money to marry his bride.
Jin followed that smash with more national hits leased to major records companies. The songs included Jivin’ Gene’s “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” (No. 69 in 1959) and Joe Barry’s “I’m A Fool To Care” (No. 24 in 1961), which had a Cajun French version, “Je Suis Bet Pour T’amier,” on the flipside of the original Jin 45.
The Beatles and ensuing British invasion of American music literally knocked swamp pop off the national charts. Yet in 1966, Soileau and Jin managed another hit with Tommy McLain’s “Sweet Dreams.”
Soileau admits he never liked the heavy echo in McLain’s version of “Sweet Dreams,” a Don Gibson original which also became a hit for Patsy Cline and Faron Young. Tapes of McLain’s song stayed on Soileau’s shelf for at least six months before he put the tune on vinyl.
Soileau had little hope for the song until a jukebox operator at a local house of prostitution broke the news. “My first reports of the record’s popularity came from a jukebox operator who informed me that at a certain secluded night spot, the ladies of the house kept the record spinning on the juke box 24 hours a day,” said Soileau. The guy’s comment was “Floyd, you know those ladies know a hit record.”
The ladies of the evening were right as “Sweet Dreams” climaxed at No. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song was released on the MSL label, a partnership Soileau struck with fellow recordmen Huey Meaux and Harold Lipsius. Soileau never returned to the national charts with swamp pop. But he enjoyed regional and local success with releases by Johnnie Allan (“Promised Land” and “Somewhere on Skid Row”), Clint West (“Big Blue Diamonds” and “Mr. Jeweler”) and Rufus Jagneaux (“Opelousas Sostan”).
In recent years, Soileau has issued “Essential Collection” CDs from artists on his swamp pop roster. Jin has issued new music from swamp crooner Don Rich of Pierre Part in Assumption Parish. While Soileau competed nationally with Jin Records, his Swallow label set the pace at home for Cajun music. The Swallow library now includes more than 300 singles and 180 albums.
The Swallow talent list reads like a Who’s Who of Cajun music–Belton Richard, Nathan Abshire, Lawrence Walker, Aldus Roger, Austin Pitre, Adam Hebert, Vin Bruce, Hadley Castille, Jambalaya, Paul Daigle and Cajun Gold and more. Some of Soileau’s Cajun artists and songs literally became legends by accident.
Badeaux and the Louisiana Aces, which included guitarist and songwriter D.L. Menard, did not plan to record “La Porte dans Arriere (The Back Door)” until Soileau heard the band play the song during a recording session break. The tune was put on disc in 1962 and 38 years later, it’s considered by many to have knocked off “Jolie Blonde” as Cajun music’s anthem.
The late fiddler Dewey Balfa, a National Heritage Award winner, is idolized by today’s Cajun artists. But back in the 1960s, Soileau refused to record him. “I had told Dewey no three times,” said Soileau. “He wanted to do just acoustic music from way back. I thought people wanted the steel guitar and the new sound. People kept coming in and asking for ‘La Valse de Bambocheur,’ the Drunkard’s Sorrow Waltz. Dewey had recorded it with George Khoury years before. We decided to do an album and it had a wonderful sound. I’m glad Dewey talked me into it.”
The resulting “yellow album,” as it became known, was The Balfa Brothers Play Traditional Cajun Music, a celebrated return to roots music. The LP helped thrust music often ridiculed as “chanky chank” into the national spotlight of folk festivals and concerts. The LP remains a collector’s item today.
In his book South to Louisiana, John Broven called the recording, “an exquisite album that showed the Balfas at their very best, their entrancing lonesome sound reflecting the magnificent sorrow of the Cajun people and their noble survival.”
Soileau enjoyed similar landmark success in 1967 with Belton Richard’s Modern Sounds in Cajun Music, Vols. 1 and 2. The albums yielded the classic “Un Autre Soir D’ennui (Another Lonely Night)” and other hits. The LPs also established Richard’s smooth, country-crooning style that is still being imitated three decades later. Richard also afforded Soileau the opportunity to make his only appearance on a record.
In Richard’s all-Cajun French cover of Ray Stevens’ hit “The Streak,” Soileau provided humorous, eyewitness accounts of a streaker to a newscaster. Secretaries from his record shop sang background vocals.
In 1973, zydeco king Clifton Chenier told Soileau, “You had better get with zydeco.” Fortunately, Soileau listened. Soileau used his Maison de Soul label to record the post-Grammy tunes of Chenier and the 1980s comeback hits of Boozoo Chavis, who had made zydeco’s first commercial record in 1954 on Goldband Records.
Lafayette record store owner and disc jockey J.J. Caillier produced Chavis’ first album, Louisiana Zydeco Music on Maison de Soul. That LP and ensuing releases gave birth to “Dog Hill,” “Motor Dude Special,” “Leona Had a Party” and other wildly popular hits that firmly set Chavis as zydeco’s revival leader.
Triple-X-rated versions of “Deacon Jones” and “Uncle Bud” were done on Soileau’s Kom-A-Day label and became underground favorites.
Chavis caught the ears of the region’s young Creoles musicians, who imitated Chavis’ sound and threw in their own elements of rock and rap. The noveau zydeco was born and remains alive and well today.
Rockin’ Dopsie, John Delafose, Zydeco Force, Rosie Ledet, Chris Ardoin, Keith Frank, bluesman Tabby Thomas and New Orleans soul queen Irma Thomas have also been on the Maison de Soul roster. But it was Rockin’ Sidney Simien who provided Soileau with his biggest-selling song ever. Sidney’s “Don’t Mess with My Toot Toot” won a Grammy in 1985 and became an international smash with multiple versions recorded in several languages.
Soileau had enjoyed small success with Simien in 1962 with local hits, “No Good Woman” and “You Ain’t Nothing But Fine.” But in 1984, Simien brought Soileau a tape of “My Toot Toot,” a novelty tune he had recorded at his home studio in Lake Charles.
Simien and Soileau regarded the song, which included Simien playing all instruments, as little more than filler. It was buried on the B-side of Simien’s Maison de Soul album, My Zydeco Shoes Got the Zydeco Blues. “‘Zydeco Shoes’ was the big record Sidney had out,” said Soileau. “But E. Rodney Jones started playing ‘Toot Toot’ on his show at WXOK in Baton Rouge. All of a sudden, we had a zydeco song selling east of the Mississippi River. This was 15 years ago before zydeco had even caught on in New Orleans.
“But the original cut was just very weak. But it was still happening. I had Sidney take it back and told him to put some meat on the bone. He livened it up, gave it more bottom and we put it back out. No one knew the difference, but that original version is a collector’s item today.” The revised version, with its added drum rolls and hand claps, soon became the most requested song on country and Top 40 stations throughout the state. Most of these stations had never played a zydeco song.
Soileau continued to push the song to country stations and after selling 40,000 copies, he signed a deal with Epic Records. “Toot Toot” turned into a Top 20 country hit nationwide. Enthralled fans attached double-meaning to the playful song, defining “Toot Toot” as everything from its original Cajun term of endearment to new slang for sex, cocaine, parts of the body and more.
Simien became a country star with appearances on the Grand Ole Opry, “Hee Haw” and The Nashville Network. Singers Jean Knight and Denise LaSalle recorded R&B versions of the song. LaSalle’s version made the charts in England. Fats Domino and Doug Kershaw recorded a video of the song. John Fogerty, former leader of Creedence Clearwater Revival, made a video of the song for a Showtime special. A recorded version featured Simien on accordion, but was never released.
Simien’s song even took off in Central and South America. Tex-Mex accordionist Steve Jordan called his 1985 album on RCA My Toot Toot. Cumbia group La Sonora Dinamita had million-sellers with two versions of the song, “Tu Cucu” and “No provoques mi pichichi.” In 1995, the Flensburger Pilsener beer company paid six figures to license the song for use in its radio and TV commercials.
Even in 2001, 15 years since it was first recorded, “Toot Toot” refuses to die. Soileau reports he is in licensing negotiations with an undisclosed fast food chain that wants to use the song’s melody for commercials in its Spanish language promos. “This was, by far, our biggest record internationally,” said Soileau. “Over two dozen versions of this song has been recorded and it just keeps going. Everybody should have a least one ‘Toot Toot’ in their lifetime. Sidney brought me to Hollywood for the Grammys and to Memphis. That’s where the Handy Blues Foundation named it Song of the Year.
“A lot of wonderful things happened because of that song. It taught me a valuable lesson about the value of song copyrights. Plus, I always listen to songs because you never know who is going to come up with something that people can’t live without unless they own a copy of it.”
Soileau and Flat Town now own copyrights to 3,000 songs. Floyd’s Record Shop continues to sell CDs, books, musical instruments, electronics, T-shirts and more through its retail and mail-order/Internet business.
In the 1970s, the record shop became internationally-famous for something besides music. After his wife and a friend raved about an electric rice cooker by the Japanese company Hitachi, Soileau called a distributor in Dallas for an order and possible distributorship. Soileau signed on and advertised the product on the popular program “Meet Your Neighbor,” which aired every weekday at noon on KLFY-TV in Lafayette. Once viewers saw Bill Besson, the show’s host, make perfect rice, Soileau was flooded with orders. Soileau shipped thousands of rice cookers throughout the area. The president of Hitachi traveled from Japan to Louisiana to see what was going on. These automatic rice cookers remain a common item in south Louisiana kitchens.
Soileau is eyeing semi-retirement as his son Chris has taken an active role in the company. He would like to record one more monster hit like “Toot Toot,” but his days may be numbered. As music has traveled from vinyl to tape to CDs during his four-decade journey, Soileau sees independent producers like himself going the way of the 8-track tape. “There used to be a lot of Floyd Soileaus all over the United States. They were all working local talent. But the music industry shot itself in the foot when it quit making 45s. That was an excellent way to test the waters. You could take a local hit, work it up the state, then multi-state and maybe you would get a shot at a national release.
“Now so much of music is a guy sitting behind a computer, looking at figures. They’re missing the heart and soul of it.”