Born: October 23, 1930 Lake Charles, Louisiana
Died: May 5, 2001 Austin, Texas
Boozoo Chavis cut the first zydeco single in 1954 under the direction of Eddie Shuler. Then he disappeared from the music scene, devoting his time to raising quarter horses.
Like a once thought to be extinct prehistoric fish pulled up from the depths of the ocean, Boozoo Chavis’ reappearance on the zydeco scene in the early 1980s was in music circles considered miraculous. One of the founders of the genre, Chavis disappeared from the public eye for nearly three decades. Nevertheless, his initial brief stint as a recording artist inspired a new generation of zydeco artists. Chavis’ return to the music scene only underlined that he was—next to Clifton Chenier—the most influential and innovative zydeco artist of all time. At the time of his unexpected death on May 5, 2001, he was still one of the genre’s most popular artists.
Born Wilson Anthony Chavis near Lake Charles, Louisiana on October 23, 1930, he was the son of a poor tenant farmer who raised quarter horses, staged quarter horse races, and played the accordion in his spare time.
“I don’t know how I got the name Boozoo,” said Chavis in 1985. “I was too young to ask back then. I was born here in Dog Hill [once a remote area outside of Lake Charles where people abandoned their unwanted pets]. I grew up listening to French music—Joe Jackson, Potato Sam and Henry Martin. They played accordion out in the country at the house dances. I had a French harp [harmonica] when I was nine, but I wanted an accordion. I didn’t have any money but I had an old cow that I traded for a calf. Then I traded my calf for a pony. I traded the pony for a horse and I sold it. I used the money to buy my first accordion.”
Like his father, Chavis was working as a farmer/horse breeder when he married Leona Predium in 1952. Chavis continue to perform at house parties, fais do-dos, barbecues and picnics, but he harbored no ambitions to play music for a living. Professional Creole/zydeco musicians didn’t exist at the time. In 1954, Cajun accordionist and recording artist Sidney Brown, introduced Chavis to Lake Charles’ Eddie Shuler who ran the Folk Star and Goldband labels. Shuler, who also had an ear for new and exciting sounds, wasn’t sure what Chavis was playing, but he thought it might be worth recording.
“I’d never heard of that type of music before,” admitted Shuler, who also recorded early examples of Cajun, swamp pop, electric blues, rockabilly. “This was before Clifton Chenier. Boozoo was doing a song then, ‘Paper In My Shoe.’”
Chavis usually played unaccompanied, keeping time by stomping on a Coke box. Shuler insisted on backing Chavis with Classie Ballou and the Tempo Toppers, a local R&B band.
“I spent my last $250 on the band,” continued Shuler. “But after three days in the studio I was no closer to a finished product than when I started. The band had no idea what Boozoo was doing. Finally I thought that if I brought a bottle in for Boozoo and the band it might loosen everybody up. After they finished the whiskey they started sounding pretty good. Then I bought another bottle and they really started to cook. I had the tape rolling and all of a sudden I heard a crash inside the studio, but the music kept playing. Boozoo had fallen over with his legs up in the air but was still playing.”
After listening to the playback, Shuler hesitated issuing any of the material because he deemed it too primitive. After the tapes were on the shelf for several months, Shuler decided he should at least try and recoup some of his investment and pressed up several hundred copies of “Paper In My Shoe,” issuing it on Folk Star. “Paper In My Shoe” was based on a Creole song that dates back to the 19th-century. The Folk Star release surprised many, selling well in Creole country and becoming a surprise hit in Houston and New Orleans. The master was leased by the Hollywood-based Imperial label who, according to Shuler, sold over 100,000 copies of “Paper In My Shoe.”
Chavis toured the South with Ballou, cashing in on “Paper.” In Houston, Boozoo sat on stage in complete silence under a spotlight. When asked what he was waiting for, Chavis stated that he was waiting for the lights to be turned off! Shuler tried to get Chavis in the studio to cut a follow-up, but the stubborn accordionist initially refused because he felt the $700 check Imperial sent wasn’t enough. Eventually, Shuler did get Chavis in the studio once the club owners told Chavis he needed a new record or they’d stop booking him. Chavis waxed the frantic “41 Days” and “Bye Bye Catin,” but Imperial wasn’t interested. Shuler put the record out on Folk Star, but the release stalled. After that Chavis went back to raising quarter horses. Chavis cut one last 45 for Shuler, the truly bizarre “Hamburger’s and Popcorn,” around 1960, but he then disappeared under the radar for nearly a quarter-of-a-century.
In 1984, Chavis and his wife were on the way to a brush track with a couple of their horses when they heard on the radio an advertisement for a dance featuring Boozoo Chavis! Of course the man was an imposter, but Chavis realized that if someone could make money impersonating him, why couldn’t he take advantage of his own reputation? With his family’s blessing, Chavis embarked on an unlikely comeback. Rockin’ Sidney, flush from the hit “My Toot Toot,” had started his own label, ZBC, and invited Chavis to record. The single “Dog Hill” was a regional hit, and with three of his sons in a band dubbed the Majic Sounds, Boozoo began to appear on the East Texas/Louisiana zydeco circuit. Before the end of the decade, Chavis had waxed a handful of singles, and four albums, for Ville Platte, Louisiana’s Maison de Soul label. Eventually he switched to the Rounder and Island labels, guaranteeing his music would reach the corners of America and overseas.
Chavis and the Majic Sounds made several tours of the United States, but seeing him on his home turf was truly memorable. Clad in a plastic apron with a cowboy hat perched on his head, the always animated Chavis (no sitting down for Chavis, even at the age of 70) squeezed amazing melodies out of his tiny diatonic accordion while the Majic Sounds provided the hypnotic rock steady groove that kept the dance floor filled. When he played a Creole dance he often played three-hour sets without a break, pausing only long enough between songs to mop his brow, take a drag on a cigarette or sip from a can of beer (“One Bud for one stud,” he liked to say). He was always accompanied by his wife who sold CDs, cassettes, bumper stickers, t-shirts and even men’s underwear (“Take ’em off, throw ’em in the corner”) bearing Chavis’ image from a table next to the bandstand.
In 1993, the crown, and the title “King of Zydeco,” originally held by the late Clifton Chenier, was passed on to Chavis when Rockin’ Dopsie died. By then, he’d also been honored by NRBQ who recorded the clever “Boozoo That’s Who.” He was also paid tribute by Chris Ardoin who recorded “I Got It From Boo” and Donna Angel who cut “I Want a Man Like Boozoo.” Chavis continued to record and perform beyond the crawfish circuit, often staging mock “battles” with other zydeco artists like Keith Frank, Rosie Ledet and Beau Jocques. In 1999, he lost the last joints on two of his fingers in an accident, but continued playing after a recovery of less than a month.
In April of 2001, he completed a CD for Rounder, Down Home On Dog Hill, and immediately went back on the road with the Majic Sounds. Later in the month he collapsed from a heart attack and stroke after an appearance at a festival in Austin, Texas. After a week in the hospital, Boozoo Chavis died peacefully on May 5, 2001, with his wife at his side. Today, Pancho Chavis leads the Majic Sounds and carries the torch passed on by his father.
Down Home On Dog Hill (Rounder)
Johnnie Billy Goat (Rounder)
The Lake Charles Atomic Bomb (Original Goldband Recordings) (Rounder)
Who Stole My Monkey? (Rounder)
Boozoo, That’s Who! (Rounder)
The Kingdom Of Zydeco by Michael Tisserand (Arcade)
Scott Billington on Boozoo
“When Boozoo came back on the scene in 1984, 1985, the zydeco scene was a little tired,” recalls producer Scott Billington. “It was mostly older people that were showing up at the dancehalls. It was like an explosion when Boozoo came back and played at Richard’s Club. I think Jeff Hannusch and I actually went to Richard’s to see Boozoo together. Within six months, the whole scene was re-energized. Young people started coming to the dancehalls and within a couple of years, a handful of very good musicians started emulating Boozoo’s style of zydeco. It was more primitive, it was more raw, it was more rockin’. It really made people get on the floor and dance. I would give Boozoo most of the credit for initiating the boom in zydeco that probably culminated with Beau Jocque in the early 1990s.
“Boozoo was a kick in the recording studio. He didn’t have much patience for the recording process. It was interesting to me that the very last record we made together—Down Home On Dog Hill—it was made only a few months before he passed away with Sonny Landreth and David Greely and Boozoo’s rhythm section, it was the first time I’d seen Boozoo in the studio not wanting to go home. He was just having such a good time, particularly playing with David.
“There was a great quote in OffBeat six or seven years ago. I think it was Arsenio Orteza interviewing Boozoo and he asked Boozoo how long it took him to make a record. And Boozoo said, ‘Oh, I don’t know—45 minutes.’ Arsenio said, ‘But Boozoo—there’s got to be more than 45 minutes worth of music on your new record!’ And Boozoo said, ‘Yeah, man—they couldn’t believe it!’
“Boozoo was not a guy to do multiple takes and there was something really refreshing about that, about a musician who just comes to the studio, does what he does and goes home, without fretting over it. I think a lot of musicians could benefit from that attitude.
“We really just worked with Boozoo intermittently over the years. In 1987, we put out that half of a record—it had Nathan Williams on one side and Boozoo on the other. Terry Adams from NRBQ produced a record for Rounder called Boozoo, That’s Who! Terry had also produced the record that came out on Nonesuch, which was far and away Boozoo’s best selling record nationally.
“That last record I made with Boozoo, he may have been older and a little less adept, but he was such a soulful musician. The thing I came to appreciate about him, in that session, was his sense of time. He would sometimes drop a beat here or there—he never lost the groove for the dancers—but there was something about the way his fingers moved, to play a simple zydeco rhythmic riff, that someone else could’ve played but when Boozoo played it, it sounded better. There was just something about the way he played the accordion and the feeling and the time that he put into those notes that made him very special. You hear people play those same riffs on the same accordion and it just doesn’t sound the same way.”