Friends, family and fans gather at Buckwheat Zydeco’s funeral in Lafayette to honor their hero.
“There lies a national treasure,” Nathan Williams says softly.
Williams gestures to the front of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Church. Historically, this parish has served African-American Catholics of Lafayette, Louisiana. Today, the pews are filled with a wide spectrum of mourners, attired in an equally wide array of fashions. But Williams, bandleader of the Zydeco Cha Chas, is looking over their heads toward an open casket surrounded by flowers, including a large bouquet in the shape of an accordion.
“I was nine when I first saw him,” Williams continues. “Before he was Buckwheat Zydeco.” That was when Stanley Dural Jr. and a 15-piece soul revue called Buckwheat and the Hitchhikers played a neighborhood party in St. Martinville and gave young Nathan some of his first ideas about being a musician. Williams also remembered the last time he saw his friend and mentor. Dural had broken a rib and couldn’t play accordion. Williams and Dural sat at Dural’s house all day long, talking about old times. “I just remember how I didn’t want to leave,” Williams says.
As Williams talks, his brother, Sid Williams, owner of Lafayette’s El Sid O’s nightclub, leans over and says a few words to Nathan Williams’ son, Nathan Williams Jr. Like his father, the younger Williams has become a popular musician—another career influenced by the friendship, guidance and good example of Buckwheat Zydeco.
Nathan Jr. stands up next to his father to gently let him know it is time to take a seat. Nathan Williams looks again toward the front of Immaculate Heart of Mary. He seems reluctant to begin the funeral—as reluctant as everyone else here who has come to say farewell.
Stanley “Buckwheat Zydeco” Dural Jr. died early in the morning on Saturday, September 24. Dural, a lifelong smoker, had suffered from lung cancer. He was 68.
It was a muted end for a gifted and charismatic musician who had taken zydeco further than any before him. Bolstered by a 30-year partnership with his friend and manager, Ted Fox, Dural performed on talk shows and at presidential inaugurals, shared stages with Paul Simon and Eric Clapton, won both a Grammy and an Emmy, and broke zydeco onto its first major label when he signed with Island Records in 1987. He helped close out the Olympics in 1996, performing “Jambalaya” for more than three billion people, and in 2014 started his own YouTube channel, “Buckwheat’s World,” an engaging mix of performance footage and glimpses of Buckwheat’s colorful offstage life.
The music that Buckwheat Zydeco has left behind will endure. It is a signature mix of traditional Creole tunes, soul, R&B, reggae and much more; original songs and innovative covers of everything from the Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden” to Bob Dylan’s “On a Night Like This,” highlighted by flashing accordion solos and a tight, thundering band.
Dural grew up one of 13 children in a family of farmers in Lafayette. Like everyone around him, he knew hard work at a young age. He picked cotton and used sewing thread to catch crawfish. But something was different about him, and it wasn’t just the nickname “Buckwheat” that the child reluctantly accepted from his friends. Young Buckwheat announced himself as a musical prodigy. His father relentlessly tried to persuade him to play accordion. But Buckwheat moved toward R&B, playing keyboards for Sammy and the Untouchables as well as Paul “Lil’ Buck” Sinegal’s band, Lil Buck and the Top Cats. He started Buckwheat and the Hitchhikers in 1971.
By this point, he had changed his hair style to match one of his musical heroes, James Brown. “He was telling us, ‘This is who you are, don’t be ashamed of it,’” he once explained. “When he made the song, ‘Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud,’ that meant a lot to me.”
The turn to zydeco came thanks to Clifton Chenier, who on one memorable day pulled his Cadillac off the Interstate and drove up to Buckwheat’s house to offer him a spot in his band. Buckwheat was skeptical. For longer than he cared to remember, he had been hearing his father tell him to play like Chenier. But one night on the bandstand in Chenier’s Red Hot Louisiana Band was enough to convince him. Here was zydeco that was hard-charging and multi-layered, and Buckwheat sensed there was a place in it for him. After two and a half years with Chenier, he formed his own band and never stopped.
As he honed a rich, funk-heavy zydeco sound, Buckwheat drew inspiration from both Brown and Chenier to become an impassioned crusader for his culture. If a festival publicist or an errant music reporter billed him as a Cajun band, they were soon set straight. Buckwheat also served as mentor for more than one upcoming generation of zydeco players, from Nathan Williams to Li’l Brian Terry, who has Buckwheat’s accordion tattooed on his right arm. At Rounder Records with producer Scott Billington, then on Island and on his own label Tomorrow Recordings (named for his daughter), Buckwheat re-shaped zydeco into vital new forms. Once expanded, the music would not return to its original dimensions.
Yet at the same time that Buckwheat Zydeco was touring the world to introduce new audiences to zydeco, his home ties remained strong. This can be seen in the episodes of “Buckwheat’s World,” as well as in a highlight of Robert Mugge’s recent documentary Zydeco Crossroads, during a few moments of warm conversation between Buckwheat and Sid Williams. Williams talks about the day that Chenier showed up for Buckwheat, driving a green Cadillac and wearing a hat tilted to one side. Buckwheat and Williams share a laugh, and they recall the glory days of El Sid O’s, when lines of dancers stretched down the block:
Williams: It went a long time.
Buckwheat: Still going.
Williams: Yeah, but it’s not good like it used to be.
Buckwheat: Well, that’s O.K.
Williams: You know the saying, nothing good lasts forever.
Buckwheat: What we know back in Louisiana, you got to take the bitter with the sweet.
Williams: I’m like a Timex, when I take a licking and keep on ticking.
Buckwheat: There you go, there you go!
Williams: The buzzard fly high but he got to come down and drink.
Zydeco and the Catholic church have long enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship. It was at church dances that zydeco travelled from Louisiana to Texas and California, making money for parishes while keeping songs and dances alive for Creoles who’d moved out of the state seeking better jobs.
Now, this relationship is about to deepen even more, when Father Robert Seay steps up to deliver the homily at Buckwheat Zydeco’s funeral.
The priest speaks of moving to Louisiana and learning about a kind of music that “gets into your bones and into your spirit.” He talks of meeting Dural and how it was like meeting the President of the United States. “We come today in sadness but I hope that we can leave with joy in our feet,” he says. Then, as the sound of applause begins to echo in the church, he nearly shouts, “Because Jesus loves zydeco!”
Seated near the center aisle, Terrance Simien breaks into a wide smile. So do other musicians around him. The applause grows louder when the celebrant asks all the musicians in the church to stand. C.J. Chenier stands. Steve Riley stands. The Williams family stands. So do Sonny Landreth, Roddie Romero and Rockin’ Dopsie, Jr. More than half of the people assembled in this large church are now on their feet. There is more applause.
Next, Ted Fox walks to the lectern to speak. He brings well wishes from Paul Simon, who recalled joining with Buckwheat the previous year to honor Willie Nelson, and Paul Shaffer, who remembered the 1996 Olympics, and how proud he was that he could “casually pull out my phone book and call the master, Buckwheat, who handily carried the segment with his typical genius aplomb.” Fox speaks of Dural’s great musical and professional accomplishments, then adds a few words about a quieter discovery:
“As a New Yorker, I tended to just hit the ground running and get right to the point when I’d call him: ‘Buddy, Chris Blackwell wants to sign us to a five-record deal at Island!’ Buck: ‘Hey, Teddy-O, how’s the weather there? Yeah? Been raining for two days here. Can’t get out in my pasture at all. What you making for dinner tonight?’
“Oh, right, I got it. First the personal, then business. He was, as usual, absolutely right. Thanks for the lesson, buddy. You taught me, and you taught the world, that courtliness, decency, manners means a lot—it matters.”
There are nods throughout the church. An organist breaks into a truncated version of “Beast of Burden”—certainly another first for a Catholic funeral—and there is one more round of applause when friends, family and former bandmates wheel the casket down the church’s center aisle.
It would be the final ovation of the day. Outside, musicians gather in small circles to swap stories. Life is a tour, Buckwheat Zydeco once said, and it’s all about how you decide to get there. On this afternoon in Lafayette, there is agreement that this tour had been a majestic one indeed.
Michael Tisserand is the author of the forthcoming Krazy: George Herriman, A Life in Black and White (HarperCollins). His first book, The Kingdom of Zydeco, will be re-issued next month by Skyhorse Publishing, featuring a new preface by Buckwheat Zydeco.