“I wanted to be the main taco,” Dwayne Dopsie says with a laugh, of his very early desire to not only play the accordion but also lead his own band like his father, the late Alton “Rockin’ Dopsie” Rubin. “I always loved how people gave him so much attention—watching him playing, watching his fingers. So I wanted to follow in his footsteps.”
Whenever Dwayne, 40, takes center stage leading his band, the Zydeco Hellraisers, he continues to display the same kind of tenacity and drive he exhibited as a youngster in his pursuit of his childhood dream of becoming a force in zydeco music. Today, he’s a powerhouse accordion player and emotionally strong vocalist who just doesn’t ever let up, pushing and pulling at his three-row button accordion, the same style of instrument his father used to play to maximum effect.
Dwayne’s always-exuberant attack on the accordion is heard on the very first cut, “Andree Jones,” off his red-hot new album, Bon Ton. It’s one of 12 of his original songs, and acts as an introduction to Dwayne’s stylistic approach that is rooted in the old school style of zydeco perfected by his father and Clifton Chenier, the King of Zydeco, yet his solos speak of today. The lyrics, which describe the main character—“He tells a lie every day of the week”—are hilarious, in keeping with the comedic elements that have often been staples of zydeco music.
A personable performer, Dwayne delivers this tune as well as his “Give Me Want I Want,” on which he tells his girl, “Don’t give me your crawfish if it ain’t got no pepper,” with a certain honest charm and a wink.
“I think it comes with the music in general,” Dwayne explains of incorporating humor and warmth into zydeco. “The music is like family music. It’s just like being home and getting along and joking around with your family—your brothers, your mom, your sisters or whatever. It’s making you feel like you’re home.”
“If you tell a good story and make whoever is listening to the song feel that they’re part of it—or they are looking at a movie—you get a better response,” continues Dwayne, who has been writing both music and lyrics since he was a young boy. “I can’t read music and I can’t write music notes, but if you let me hear it, I can play it. I write songs out of what I hear it in my head.”
Dwayne grew up in Lafayette, as the youngest of eight children in a home filled with music. “My father sometimes would take his accordion out and clean and play it,” he remembers. “When I’d see him grab his case, I’d stop what I was doing and sit down on the floor Indian style and watch. I was mesmerized. I think of those memories a lot. Even [while] eating dinner and listening to his stories, some of the things that he’d say would sound like a song. It was always a good time.”
“I was much younger than everybody else,” says Dwayne, explaining that, in his early years, there were just two of his brothers at home, rubboard player David, now known as Rockin’ Dopsie Jr., and accordionist Anthony. The rest of his siblings, including drummer Alton, nicknamed Tiger, had already left.
At age six, Dwayne was playing rubboard, and made several appearances with his father’s band, Rockin’ Dopsie and the Zydeco Twisters. By the time he was seven, he’d already taken up the accordion.
“My father had an accordion that he let Anthony and me play,” says Dwayne, who upon arriving home from school would jump right on it. “We had a big camcorder and a tripod and I’d record myself for five hours playing and go back and watch it. That’s what got my motivation.” He remembers thinking to himself that he wasn’t playing it right and that he needed to do better.
“After my father passed away [in 1993], when I was 14, that kind of ignited me like a fire—I need to get this going! I was never into school, and after he passed, I dropped out of school in the ninth grade. I just figured this [zydeco] was my calling.”
Though his father was gone, his words of wisdom stuck with his youngest son: “If you’re going to do it, do it right. Don’t do it halfway.” “I think about his words on a regular basis. That’s why, from my shows to my CDs and even at home, I don’t cut corners.”
As the youngest child in the Rubin family, Dwayne was home with his parents a lot and heard them speaking Creole French, and so he learned to both speak and understand the language. “In school they’d teach French but I’d go, ‘Hmm, that’s not what I heard at home’ because it was Paris French.”
Being fluent in Creole French, Dwayne helps keep the language of his ancestors alive by incorporating it in his music. On the two-step number “Hey La Ba,” off the new release, he starts out singing in Creole French and later he translates (we assume) the lyrics into English. He mixes it up similarly on the waltz-time “Everybody Talking,” from his 2017 Grammy-nominated album Top of the Mountain, where he also sings “Ma ti femme” entirely in Creole French.
Dwayne’s only beef is that there are now so few people that he can talk to in the language that he loves. “When I go home and visit my mom, we’ll speak French,” he says, adding that he also has conversations with some of the older people in his hometown who are shocked that he remains fluent in the language. “My brothers understand more than they speak [it],” he adds.
What really got Dwayne’s career kick-started was when, in 1999, he won the “America’s Hottest Accordionist” national competition, presented by American Accordion Association. “I was never shy to take a jump,” says Dwayne of entering the contest that included traditional and classical musicians. “I was the only oddball there that could play the blues.”
That same year, Dwayne formed his own band and initially named it Dwayne Dopsie and the Rollers. While performing at Bourbon Street’s La Strada club, a man came up to the bandstand and said, “Man, you guys are really raising hell—you’re hell raisers!” “I thought, ‘ding’ that’s it.’” From then on, the group has very appropriately been called Dwayne Dopsie and the Zydeco Hellraisers.
Just an aside… Dwayne’s father, Alton Rubin, embraced the name Dopsie years ago, a moniker carried on by his musical sons. Dwayne tells the story that a guy from Chicago, who was known as Dopsie, would come to Lafayette and he was hailed as a great dancer, especially doing the jitterbug. Alton started imitating him and folks began calling him Lil Dopsie. That evolved into Good Rockin’ Dopsie, which eventually led to the shortened version, Rockin’ Dospie. His first band, called Rockin’ Dopsie & the Zydeco Twisters, is now led by his son, David “Rockin Dopsie Jr.” on rubboard and vocals.
Bourbon Street clubs were central to Dwayne’s career and development as an artist, and also played an important role in establishing connections with audiences and business people from around the country and the world. Zydeco was a rarity on the famous street, and for many visitors it was the first time experiencing the style. Dwayne’s powerful and energized shows certainly made for a dynamic introduction to zydeco music. He and his Hellraisers played on Bourbon until Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, when he headed to Baton Rouge and the band did some touring. After getting messages urging him to come back to the French Quarter, he returned to play at the Old Opera House. That Bourbon Street venue became too small for the large crowds the band drew, so the party moved just down the block to the larger Krazy Korner club. The Hellraisers’ last show on “the street” was in 2014. Dwayne felt ready to move on.
“I had enough contacts and notoriety from people from out-of-town,” remembers Dwayne, “so we got on the road and we started doing more and more festivals and concerts.” The band now also has the opportunity to play a variety of club dates in New Orleans at spots like d.b.a., the Ace and, of course, at the French Quarter Festival and the Jazz & Heritage Festival.
Last year at the Cajun-Zydeco Festival held in Armstrong Park, Dwayne and the Hellraisers were joined by his brothers, David, Anthony and Alton. The show appeared to be as much fun for the guys on stage as it was for the excited audience. The siblings, backed by the Hellraisers, all shared a stage again last March to pay tribute to their father. It was a first of its kind event, celebrating Alton “Rockin’ Dopsie” Rubin in the family’s hometown of Lafayette.
At 40, Dwayne is at the top of his game as a musician and is now celebrating the Hellraisers’ 20th anniversary and the release of his tenth album. It might be surprising to some that he credits his years gigging on Bourbon Street for preparing him for his rise.
“Bourbon really was my teacher,” says Dwayne, who would play five—sometimes six—nights a week from 8 p.m. until 3:30 a.m. “It helped me develop my skills, and it helped me learn how to entertain a crowd. I learned so many songs in those days, it’s unbelievable. I have to thank Bourbon and the French Quarter a lot for my success. If there wasn’t no Krazy Korner, or no Old Opera House or La Strada, I wouldn’t exist. Bourbon was my gym. It really put me into shape.”
When Dwayne, a very muscular man with eye-popping biceps, refers to Bourbon Street clubs as his “gym,” he means it more literally than one would think. Despite his strapping physique, Dwayne does not and never did work out—no bench presses, lifts, treadmills, pushups, nothing. He credits playing the accordion, the pressure to open it and push it closed(particularly during those long, strenuous nights on Bourbon) for the size of his arms.
“It’s a heavy instrument,” says Dwayne, estimating it weighs about 20 pounds. “That’s what developed me to have stamina and endurance. It will pump you up.”
Needless to say, the always-in-action Dwayne Dopsie was and is a vision to watch perform. He doesn’t mess around or take anything for granted. He’s full on as an accordionist, vocalist, and showman. Visually, he’s also always been uniquely stylish.
“I always wanted to look different,” he admits. “I looked at performers and entertainers from years ago, and everybody had a flamboyant look: Elvis, Little Richard, and Clifton Chenier with his headband.”
Presently, Dwayne sports a very clean and precisely designed hairstyle that he describes as his “Native American look.” At one time, a similar coiffeur included a ponytail.
“I do it myself,” Dwayne explains. “I haven’t had my hair cut by a barber since I was probably 15. So it’s been a long time. I like my hair to look a certain way and I never did like people messin’ with my hair.”
Many folks will surely remember when Dwayne went through a period of time when he wore slightly bizarre blue contact lenses. When he appeared on both “CBS This Morning” and NBC’s “Good Morning America” after winning the accordion contest, millions of people saw Dwayne sporting the blue contacts. It’s likely that most television viewers and those in the audience at his live shows figured Dwayne was simply just trying to draw attention to himself. Surprisingly, his intent held a much deeper and significant meaning.
“I started wearing contacts when I was 19—after my father passed way,” Dwayne explains. “I was very hurt for a long time. When I moved to New Orleans from Lafayette, I met a man in the French Quarter and he said, ‘People can look into your eyes and they see your soul and I can tell that you’re hurting.’ And I thought, ‘I don’t want anybody to look in my soul, and I don’t want anybody seeing that my playing is like anger—even though I love it.’ So I covered up my eyes to deter them away from that. After I got past a lot of things, I stopped wearing them in 2005. I decided it was time to let it go. It had become gimmick and people couldn’t remember my name or the band’s name, I just became the guy with the blue eyes.”
In keeping with the zydeco tradition of his father and Clifton Chenier, Dwayne is noted for having a strong rubboard player out front with him. On the new album, the man working hard on the rhythms is Paul Lafleur.
“I’ve been fortunate to have two good rubboard players, because I’m very out there,” Dwayne offers, adding that spontaneity between the accordion and the rubboard comes from paying attention. “It’s hard to be next to somebody who is shy. I need somebody that’s going to be out there enough to push with us. What I require is for them to just do their job and make sure people are entertained.”
Naturally, Dwayne reflects back on some of the legendary rubboard players he admired from the past including his father’s main man Chester Zeno, who he describes as “the only one-handed rubboard player.” “He was better than some people with two hands.” Dwayne’s brother David, “Rockin’ Dopsie Jr.,” played rubboard with their father for many years and today continues to get a crowd going, not only with his full-on technique, but also his dance moves and slammin’ splits. Of rubboard master Cleveland Chenier, the brother of the King of Zydeco Clifton Chenier, Dwayne says, “His style was impeccable.”
Dwayne’s father’s influence, which remains a part of most everything he does, shines brightly not only when he’s playing straight-up zydeco, but when he incorporates the blues, as he does on two lovely cuts from the album, the standard 12-bar of “I’m Your Man,” and the old-school style of the moving “Such a Good Man,” which includes a soulful sax solo.
“Every chance I got, I always had a sax—it gives the music extra spice,” says Dwayne, who advised his saxophonists to listen to the great John Hart, the longtime sax man with Clifton Chenier. “He used to come to my father’s house and play with my father. He’d sit down and tell me stories.”
Vocally and instrumentally, Dwayne shows his sweet side on the swaying “Such a Good Man,” a highlight of the album for those who enjoy zydeco at its most gentle. “Zydeco is blues,” Dwayne definitively states. “Zydeco is a little bit like old rock ’n’ roll, like Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis—it’s blues-based.
“My father loved blues,” Dwayne recalls. “He listened to a lot of Clifton’s music, and he was friends with and listened to B.B. King. He loved that old feel. I would say my playing is like his, because of the blues lines in the music. I loved listening to him play, and he always incorporated blues licks and blues hits in his songs, and also in his singing. What’s different about his playing and my playing is that I’m a little more aggressive.”
“A little more aggressive” is certainly an understatement coming from one of the fiercest zydeco musicians, accordionists, and performers to ever hit a stage. “The button is always on,” admits Dwayne who, since his youth, has been relentless in his pursuit of the music that was lovingly handed down to him from his father, the brilliant Rockin’ Dopsie.
When you first see the man, Dwayne Dopsie’s commanding presence might at first make him appear furiously hip—and he is. Yet underlying his often breakneck flurry of notes, and a philosophy that he and the band should play “like there’s a pit bull chasing us,” he keeps zydeco’s tradition, the love of his life, close to his heart.
Saturday, April 13, 5:30p