Boozoo Chavis is making hay.
It’s an uncharacteristically cold December Tuesday on Dog Hill, the region in outlying Lake Charles where city dwellers have traditionally gone to dump their unwanted pets. Chavis has driven his pick-up to his neighbor’s ranch to buy horse feed.
In dance halls from Lafayette to Houston, Boozoo Chavis is arguably the most popular working zydeco musician today.
“When Boozoo plays, all the tables are marked,” says Opelousas’ Slim’s Y-Ki-Ki owner Arnold Gradney. “Wherever he’s at, the people is there.” Chavis’ “Paper In My Shoe” is a classic zydeco anthem, comparable to Clifton Chenier’s “Zydeco Sont Pas Sale.” And Chavis’ rural, Creole style is currently being imitated by a host of young zydeco bands.
But imitating the idiosyncratic Boozoo Chavis isn’t easy. When Chavis talks, the words clip through his mouth like the quarter horses, bred to sprint a quarter mile at a time, that he’s trained all his life. And when he plays a zydeco dance, Chavis can burst through his songs just as quickly. “I can play 15-20 songs in 15 minutes,” he says. “Shit. Sometime I’ll be playing them so fast, one after another, I got to stop. I’ll just turn around and get me a cigarette and light it, to kill time. Get me a beer.”
But on Dog Hill, Chavis has no time to kill-his life is his day job.
Today he woke up at dawn, fed his menagerie of animals, cleared leaves, planted winter grass and saw to the’ shoeing of two racehorses. He offered a visitor a lunch of rabbit and squirrel stew, but admitted that he hadn’t stopped to eat since last night. Now he’s pulling on work gloves and pumping his short, 62-year-old legs up a mountain of hay.
“Just start rolling! Don’t worry about counting!” Chavis jokes to the rancher, a friend since childhood. After some casual dickering about the price of the bales, Chavis learns of some calves for sale.
“Oh yeah? When’s that?” asks Chavis, figuring quickly. “At $350 a calf. I’m playing four dances for Christmas. I play on the weekend, so I can give you a check on Friday and you’ll hold the calves for Monday. Right?
“Make it three calves,” he adds. “All different colors.”
“You play a couple nights, Booz’, and give me a call.”
“My wife and my boys are trying to break me of this,” says Chavis, referring to impulse buying. But Boozoo Chavis looks at livestock the way Chuck Berry does Cadillacs — as investments. To date, the Chavis farm boasts two pigs, six cows, seven dogs, seven horses and scores of chickens, guineas, ducks and geese. “Booz’, you have more shit on your one acre than the Houston Zoo,” chuckles his neighbor.
These animals eventually find their way into Chavis’ songs and, from there, roam into the larger zydeco repertoire. “Dog Hill,” “Johnnie Billie Goat” and “Zydeco Hee Haw” have all become louisiana standards, complete with vocals of brays and barks. It was, after all, his skill with animals that landed Chavis his first accordion, when he was still a teenager running horses. “I rode a race and I won,” he remembers, “and I bought me a calf — a heifer. So after a while I sold that heifer and I took the money and bought me an accordion. And I started then. I was bad then.”
Wilson Anthony Chavis (“Boozeo” was a childhood nickname) was born in lake Charles in 1930, not far from his current home. His father played accordion, and his great-uncle was local musician Sidney Babineaux, but Chavis’ first lessons were in economics. His parents were tenant farmers, recalls Chavis, “living on premises.”
“You’ had to scuffle for what you wanted. Your mama and daddy would work in the field and try to make ends meet. You’d farm on half — you’d farm for a share — and any crop you’d give the boss man… that boss man would take 500, you had 300.”
But Chavis remembers that his mother was especially enterprising, and by taking on cleaning jobs and selling barbecue at “bush tracks” (informal horse races), she was able to purchase three acres of land. The family moved “across the highway” when Boozoo was about 14.
“Boozoo was bad,” laughs his wife, Leona Chavis. “He used to ride his horse to school and when he passed the girls, he lassoed us with that rope.” Boozoo and Leona were also the best dancers in the area, so a teacher asked them to perform a popular step called “the truck” for a school program. “He told me I had sweaty hands,” says Leona. “And then all my family was making jokes. They said, ‘You’re going to marry that Boozoo,’ and I said, ‘Oh no I’m not.”
Boozoo and Leona Chavis recently celebrated their forty-first wedding anniversary.
Chavis remembers growing up on zydeco music, as well as hearing singing cowboys Gene Autry and Roy Rogers at the lake Charles rodeo. He turned to the accordion — which he had been playing for several years — as a side job. “I used to work with Elridge Davis — he lived on a rice farm,” says Chavis.
“On 12 o’clock we’d sit down and play together. Then he’d come to my house over here and on the weekends and evenings we’d play house dances.”
When Chavis’ mother opened a dance club, Chavis would play regularly, as well as sit in with Creole fiddler Morris Chenier. Occasionally, Chavis would also jam with Chenier’s two young nephews, Clifton and Cleveland. In 1954, one year before Clifton Chenier was to cut his Specialty Records hit, “Ay-Tete-Fee,” Chavis visited Eddie Shuler’s Goldband studio in lake Charles and recorded “Paper In My Shoe”-the first commercialIy-released zydeco song.
Like Chenier’s later “Zydeco Sont Pas Sale,” which refers to being too poor to season beans with salt-meat, Chavis’ “Paper In My Shoe” alchemically transforms the strain of poverty into the refrains of a proud, joyous dance song. “If you got some socks,” explains Chavis, “you’d keep them for the weekend, to go to church. But going to school, you’d be ashamed to go without no socks …some of the children would laugh at you. But in them days, it was just rough for everybody.”
Although those primitive, early recordings may sound harsh to modern ears (Rounder Records has reissued them as The Lake Charles Atomic Bomb), “Paper In My Shoe” sold over 100,000 copies — a Louisiana smash hit. But Chavis grew suspicious of the music industry, believing that he — like his parents before him — wasn’t being paid fairly for his work.
He followed up his early success by dropping out of commercial zydeco altogether, and would spend the next twenty years training horses. During that time he continued to perform at parties and some clubs, as well as play his accordion “under the tree.” As far as recording, however, Boozoo Chavis would become classified by that most back-handed of compliments: “a one-hit wonder.”
“Don’t you worry about Boozoo/’Cause you know he ain’t no fool,” wrote Chavis for one song on his 1991 major label debut on Elektra Records. “I used to be a fool,” explains Chavis. “Way over yonder. I was a fool then. But I ain’t no fool now.”
Boozoo Chavis likes his nickname. In fact, during last year’s elections, he heard President Bush call the Democrats “a couple Bozos” and — being a big Clinton supporter — Chavis likened it to a personal reference and was complimented. But the name can also give people the wrong idea about Chavis — this short, humorous accordion player with a Stetson hat, an Oliver Hardy moustache and a plastic apron (to protect the accordion from his sweat) is no clown. He’s a gifted, spontaneous performer, a prolific songwriter and a notoriously opinionated (he says “crotchety”) individual. And when Boozoo Chavis stormed back into zydeco, he hit the dancehalls with a bigger punch than Hurricane Audrey.
Leona Chavis will accept some of the credit for her husband’s comeback. During the Cajun and zydeco revival in the early ’80s, Boozoo and Leona were driving home from a Lafayette racetrack when they were shocked to find zydeco on the radio. “Boozoo, you got to get into that,” Leona remembers saying. “You’ll make some money. And a few days later, Boozoo said, ‘Leona, I’m going to do what you said.”’
Lafayette disc jockey J.J. Caillier championed Chavis to local producer Floyd Soileau, who released Zydeco Home Brew on Maison de Soul. While none of Chavis’ records have topped “Paper In My Shoe” — the Elektra album has just gone over 25,000 copies — they continue to sell consistently. The best indicators of Chavis’ new success, however, are the musicians who cover his songs.
“There are a lot of Boozoo prototypes coming out,” says Paul Scott, of the Southwest Louisiana Zydeco Music Festival. “They may be smoother than Boozoo, but they try to get his hard accordion, that rough, raw style, and his sore-throat type of singing. And with that single-note and triple-note accordion, he’s doing a lot to bring a return to basic zydeco.”
“I’ve helped Zydeco Force,” says Chavis of a hot new group on the circuit. “And Beau Jocque — they’re putting him famous too. They look at my fingers and I tell them when to pull and when to push. I don’t get mad if they play my music. But I get mad if they mess it up.”
While Chavis won’t tinker with his style, he listens to a wide variety of music, including Hank Williams and Aretha Franklin. He likes innovations in zydeco — horns, soul and rhythm and blues influences — as long as they don’t “offset the song.”
“You got to know what to put with that zydeco. And you got to know what not to put,” he says.
“I could sit right here and play by myself. I don’t need no drum. I don’t need no guitar — them boys used to hit on the walls with Coke bottles, or just had the rubboard you wash clothes with. But I could play by myself right here. And get wringing wet… all I need is an accordion. And it don’t have to be plugged — I could make a houseful dance like that. By myself.”
It’s no surprise that when bass player Classie Ballou, Jr. told Chavis he wanted to do a disco version of “Harlem Shuffle” during his zydeco dances, he met resistance.
“Man, I didn’t like that song,” was Chavis’ reply-until he saw its effect on women dancers. “I like it now. When those women back up, I say, ‘Leona! Look at that woman — I can’t do that!’ And then them ol’ boys get in there — I say, ‘Why don’t he sit down!’
“Now, everybody’s doing ‘Harlem Shuffle.’ But they don’t do it right. Classie does it the best.”
Chavis’ own songs are often autobiographical slices of Dog Hill life. “Dog Hill” itself, “where the pretty women at,” is a kind of a “zydeco “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” “They used to have a bunch of pretty women out here, you know?” recalls Chavis. “Now they all got married. They’re not here. They’re in different places.
“There’s so many dogs around Dog Hill, so Charles [one of Chavis’ three sons, he plays rubboard] and them decided to bark like one.
They’re famous, too. Now everyone’s trying to bark.”
Recently penned songs include a story about a trip to New York, where (manager) “Jack Reich got sick,” and another scolds a relative-by name-for playing too much bingo. “People come up to me now and say, ‘Write a song about me, Boozoo!'” says Chavis.
But when he does deliver the honor, it’s usually without warning. “One day he came home and said, ‘Leona, I cut a record about you!'” remembers his wife. “I said, ‘What did it say?’ ‘Leona had a party/Everyone got drunk.’ ‘Oh Lord!’
“Now people come up to me and call me ‘Leona-had-a-party.'”
Along with Charles and Ballou, Rellis Chavis plays drums for his father, Poncho Chavis assists on vocals, Nathaniel Fontenot plays rhythm guit.ar and Guitar Thomas plays lead. The band’s biggest task is not to interfere with its leader’s idiosyncrasies.
“They say, what night y’all practice,” says Chavis. “We don’t practice at all. I don’t know if I’m in G or C when I play-it’s good, whatever I put out there. It’s just got that beat.”
When not cooking for Dog Hill dance parties or trail rides (horse rides culminating in a zydeco dance), Leona Chavis helps manage a cottage industry of Boozoo-bilia, including t-shirts featuring both husband and wife, bumper stickers (“Boozoo-That.’s Who”) and the most popular item — men’s and women’s white underwear, with a centrally-located picture of Boozoo and a line from an old song: “Take ‘Em Off! Throw ‘Em in the Corner!”
“Just something to freak the people out,” says Boozoo Chavis.
Chavis also gets a big reaction to such songs as “Uncle Bud” and “Deacon John.”
Years before 2 Live Crew, Boozoo cut alternate, some would say raunchy, versions of these songs; the ones rated “XXX” are only available (sometimes) on 45s. At outdoor festivals, he obliges family audiences With the “nice” versions. But at night shows in places like Tipitina’s, he says, people interrupt him, shouting “Play it the bad way!”
“One time a woman came up to me in Houston. She said, ‘You’re a nasty little man.’ But she already knew all those words — it wasn’t nothing new.”
Boozoo’s reputation for speaking his mind is well-established. “He says what he likes about you, and he says what he doesn’t like about you,” says Wilben Guillory, director of the Zydeco Festival. Touring in New York and California (Chavis appeared on “The Dennis Miller Show” in Los Angeles) has made him more aware of racism at home, he says.
“(White) women in New York — everywhere I go — they come up to the stage, jumping on my neck, but those people don’t say nothing. Here, they’re still prejudiced.
“I’m 62 and the music is good and the people love it, but I should have been out (on the East Coast) 30 years ago. If I’d have been out there, man, I’d have a mansion.
“When people come out and interview me, they ask me things — I’ll tell them. I’ll tell them just like it is. I’ll tell you who’s prejudiced and who ain’t. I’m 62, and I know what I went through. Shit. I don’t bite my tongue.
“When I go on tour, the people say, ‘You must be Boozoo, nice to have you out here and blah-blah-blah.’ Sometimes they say, ‘You never thought you’d be out here,’ and I say, ‘No, I sure didn’t,’ you know? ‘Did you ever think you was going to be as famous as you is now?’ Sometimes I says, ‘No-because in them days I be as famous as I is now, but the people just hadn’t recognized it.’
“I tell it to the people on the mike,” he continues. “I say, ‘Everybody’s trying to play Clifton’s music, but there wasn’t but one. And there’s no one going to play that piano accordion like Clifton. And there ain’t but one Boozoo. They ain’t got two, they got one. Boozoo. One. Before me there was none, after me there ain’t going to be no more like him. There’s going to be some more, but not like Boozoo.”
On cold mornings, Boozoo Chavis still folds a copy of the Lake Charles newspaper between his socks and his cowboy boots. No longer because he has to-but because he’s used to it, and it feels right, and it works.
“Shit,” he says. “I got paper in my boot now.”
Then he goes out and spends the day in the barn, and returns to the house when it gets dark. Weekends, he loads up his three accordions, chooses a Stetson and takes his band to Houston, Opelousas or Lafayette. There he plays in a style of zydeco not too dissimilar from what he grew up hearing, and from what he once recorded in a tiny studio in Lake Charles some 40 years ago.
Because he’s used to it, and it feels right, and it works.
And, like he sang in “Paper In My Shoe,” he still don’t care what your mama don’t allow.