Boozoo Chavis, one the most influential and innovative zydeco artists of all time, died May 5, 2001, after suffering a heart attack and stroke in Austin, Texas. Chavis was 70.
One of the founding fathers of the musical genre that marries Creole music with rhythm and blues, his 1954 recording of “Paper In My Shoe” was zydeco’s first “hit.” Since the mid-1980s, when Chavis resumed his musical career, he recorded and performed prolificially with his band, the Majic Sounds. The day he suffered his heart attack he had appeared at a festival.
“His passing is a tremendous loss,” said zydeco accordionist Nathan Williams, who recorded half of an album with Chavis in 1988. “He was one of the greats. Not only was Boozoo an originator but he helped promote zydeco and he helped keep the Creole culture alive. He was one of the big reasons that zydeco is big today.
“He was funny and very generous. When we did that album together [Zydeco Live!] I was just getting started. He could have said, ‘I don’t need to make a record with that guy. He’s not anybody, I’m the one with the name.’ But he didn’t. He gave me a lot of encouragement. When he had bookings he couldn’t handle, he’d tell the clubs, ‘Why not call that young guy over Lafayette—he’s pretty good.’ It’s a sad day for anyone associated with zydeco music.”
Born Wilson Anthony Chavis, near Lake Charles, Louisiana, October 23, 1930, he was the son of a tenant farmer who also staged quarterhorse races and played accordion at house dances.
“I don’t know how I got the name Boozoo,” admitted Chavis, after day of fishing in 1986. “I was too young to ask back then. I was born right here in Dog Hill [an area near Lake Charles where people often dumped unwanted animals]. I grew up listening to French music. I used to listen to Joe Jackson, Potato Sam and Henry Martin play the accordion out in the country at the house dances. That’s how I got interested in playing. 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 the calf for a pony. I traded the pony for a horse and I sold it. I used the money to buy my first accordion and I’ve been playing ever since.”
Chavis was working as a farmer and a quarterhorse jockey when he married Leona Predium in 1952. Two years later, Chavis, who was also playing local house dances, was introduced to Eddie Shuler by Cajun accordionist Sidney Brown. Shuler ran the Folk Star and Goldband labels in Lake Charles and like most pioneer indie label owners, had his eyes and ears open to new talent.
“I’d never heard that type of music before,” admitted Shuler, who also recorded early examples of Louisiana rhythm and blues, Cajun, swamp pop and rockabilly music. “This was before Clifton Chenier. “Sidney brought Boozoo by and he had this song—“Paper In My Shoe.”
Chavis normally played unaccompanied, keeping time by stamping his cowboy boot on a Coke box. Shuler insisted Chavis record with a band in order to sound commercial. Initially he recruited Brown’s band for the studio date but they balked, claiming they couldn’t play Chavis’ kind of music. Shuler then enlisted Classie Ballou and the Tempo Toppers, then the hottest R&B band in the Lake Charles area.
“I spent my last $250 on hiring Classie Ballou’s band but after three days in the studio I was no closer to a finished product than when I started,” said Shuler. “They had no idea what Boozoo was trying to do. Finally I figured if I bought a bottle for Boozoo and the band it might loosen everybody up. After they finished the whiskey they started sounding pretty good. Then I bought some more and they really started to cook. I had the tape rolling and all of a sudden I heard a crash in 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 playbacks, Shuler hesitated issuing anything from the session deeming the music too raw and primitive. Several months later, Shuler decided he should at least try to recoup some of his investment and released “Paper In My Shoe” on a 78 rpm single. A Creole song that dates back nearly two centuries, “Paper In My Shoe” became a surprise regional hit. On the strength of its sales in the New Orleans area, the master was leased by the Hollywood-based Imperial label, which sold over 100,000 singles on the title. Chavis began playing local dates with Ballou, but Shuler had trouble getting the accordionist back in the studio.
“Imperial called me and said they wanted another release on Boozoo,” said Shuler. “I didn’t have anything so I went out to see him out in the country. Boozoo said he wasn’t making any more records because he hadn’t been paid. I hadn’t gotten any money from Imperial so I couldn’t pay him. Finally they sent $700 and I gave it to him but he still didn’t want to record. He came back to me when the fellow that booked him said he wouldn’t hire him anymore unless he had a new record out. We cut ‘41 Days’ and ‘Bye Bye Catin.’ It was a great record but Imperial wasn’t interested so we lost our momentum [it did appear on Folk Star]. After that Boozoo went back to the horses.”
Chavis made one other record for Shuler in 1960, the bizarre “Hamburgers and Popcorn,” but by then Chavis confined his playing to his house in Dog Hill. In 1984, Chavis and his wife were on their way to a bush track with some horses when they heard on the radio an advertisement for a dance featuring Boozoo Chavis. Realizing that his reputation was such that someone could make money impersonating him, with his family’s encouragement, Chavis embarked on a comeback. Rockin’ Sidney invited him to stop by his home studio where he cut “Dog Hill.” Released on Sidney’s ZBC label, the single was big regional hit. Chavis formed the Majic Sounds, which included three of his sons, and he soon became a fixture on the Louisiana/East Texas zydeco circuit. Before the end of the decade, he’d recorded four albums for the Ville Platte, Louisiana, Maison de Soul label and then signed with the Rounder label, which guaranteed Chavis national distribution.
Witnessing a performance by Chavis was indeed a treat. Dressed in a plastic apron with his signature cowboy hat perched on his head, the always animated Chavis (no sitting down for Boozoo even at the age of 70) squeezed amazing melodies out of his tiny diatonic accordion while the Majic Sounds provided the hypnotic rock steady rhythm that kept the dance floors filled. When he played the Creole dances, he often played three hours straight without a break, pausing between songs only long enough to mop his brow, take a drag on a cigarette and sip on a can of beer (“One Bud for one stud,” he liked to brag). Most nights he was accompanied by his wife who sold CDs, tapes, bumper stickers, t-shirts, aprons and even men’s underwear (“Take ’em off, throw ’em in the corner”) bearing his image from a table near the bandstand.
In 1993, the crown and 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 “Boozoo That’s Who.” He was later paid tribute by Chris Ardoin on “I Got it From Boo,” and Donna Angel who recorded “I Want A Man Like Boozoo.” Chavis continued to record and perform beyond the bayou circuit, often staging mock battles with other zydeco artists like Keith Frank, Beau Jocques and Rosie Ledet. Two years ago he lost the last two joints on two fingers on his left hand in an accident but continued to play. In April of 2001, he completed an album for Rounder, tentatively called I’m Still Blinkin’. Chavis was scheduled to perform at the 2001 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival on May 4. The Majic Sounds played an emotional set with Pancho Chavis on the accordion with tears streaming down his cheeks. The next day, Chavis, “The Lake Charles Atomic Bomb,” died with Leona at his bedside.
A well-attended wake for Chavis was held May 11 at the Johnson Funeral Home on Lake Street in Lake Charles. In attendance were several younger zydeco artists paying tribute to the man many considered their mentor and inspiration.
The following morning, a large funeral was held at Our Lady Queen of Heaven, the most modern Catholic church I’ve ever encountered. Chavis’s casket was drapped in a simple white cloth and his body was followed in procession by family members, musicians, friends and record producers. When Chavis’ wife placed her husband’s signature Stetson hat on his casket at the beginning of the funeral mass, there probably wasn’t a dry eye in the spacious church that offered few empty seats.
The homily was given by an elderly priest who called Chavis, “Christ’s warrior of the new century,” comparing him to St. Francis of Assisi, St. Thomas Moore and Chief Joseph. He also commented it was the most people he’d ever seen a funeral in that church. At the conclusion of the mass, Lake Charles Mayor Randy Roach addressed the congregation and proclaimed that May 11, 2000 was Boozoo Chavis Day in the city and presented his widow with a plaque saying so. The funeral procession was headed to Highland Memorial Gardens but was delayed when the limousine carrying the family had a dead battery.
The Chavis’ were forced to catch rides with others headed to the cemetery, leaving many who attended the emotion event wondering, “Who will be the next King of Zydeco?”
Chavis is survived by his wife of 49 years, sons Anthony Charles, Wilson, Jr. (“Poncho”) and Rellis Victor; daughters Lou Anna Guidry, Margaret (“Do Right”) John, and Licia Chavis; 23 grandchildren; and ten great-grandchildren.