Johnny Sonnier refers to Cajun music as his blessing. Originals and covers that Sonnier put his own stamp on decades ago are some of the most requested on Cajun radio in southwest Louisiana.
For 27 years, Sonnier was a dancehall king, often playing seven nights a week. His work put him in the Cajun French Music Association’s Hall of Fame in 2017.
Sonnier credits a knack for knowing what Cajun music fans like. “I was blessed with being able to distinguish how to put songs together and what I thought would make hits,” said Sonnier, 59, who lives near Lafayette, Louisiana. “So far, it’s been good.
“It’s mostly songs that tell a story or something that I’ve lived. I never thought I would have gone this far when I first started. A lot of it has to do with the musicians I was blessed to play with.”
Sonnier had more blessings last August when he swept the Le Cajun Awards, Grammy-style honors that the CFMA issues annually. A Tribute to Aldus Roger & More, an album Sonnier recorded with longtime BeauSoleil accordionist Jimmy Breaux, claimed Best Male Vocalist (Sonnier), Best Accordionist (Breaux), Best Fiddler (Joshua Richard), Band of the Year, Best Traditional CD of the Year and Best First CD (Sonnier and Breaux).
The only Le Cajuns not won by Sonnier were Female Vocalist of the Year (Amelia Biere) and the Song of the Year, “Reve a Lui (Dream of Him),” by Blake Miller and the Old-Fashioned Aces. Sonnier could not win the top song honor since the tribute CD was all covers from legendary accordionist Aldus Roger.
Roger and the Lafayette Playboys entertained with a smooth, orchestrated style that broke new ground for Cajun music in the 1950s and ’60s. Roger became a TV star, hosting his own show on KLFY-TV 10 in Lafayette.
At the age of 14, Sonnier played drums in Roger’s band. “Aldus was Jimmy’s hero,” said Sonnier, a native of Opelousas, Louisiana. “Jimmy learned a lot from him. We were just talking one night and we came across the idea of a CD. We said ‘Let’s do it.’ So we did it.”
The awards continue Sonnier’s reputation for creating satisfying sounds for Cajun music fans. Hits, like “Send a Message to My Heart,” “Paul Daigle on the Jukebox,” “In the Barn” and a French cover of Keith Whitley’s “’Til a Tear Becomes a Rose” with Helen Boudreaux are considered classics.
Sonnier turned “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” Charlie Daniels’ million seller from 1979, into “The Devil Went Down to New Iberia.” His frenetic accordion on the tune pointed the way toward “zydecajun,” a rock, R&B and zydeco style that turned Wayne Toups into a superstar.
Sonnier’s a capella start to the Cajun standard “Chere Alice” has been the most requested song on “Louisiana Proud” radio station KBON 101.1 FM for more than two decades. Sonnier recorded the song 40 years ago, at the age of 19, as filler during the recording session for his “Devil” single. The single is filler again on the Roger tribute CD. Producer Floyd Soileau of Swallow Records insisted Sonnier re-release the song. “Nobody had ever done it a capella style,” said Sonnier. “[Jo-El] Sonnier had cut it with a fiddle starting on it. Being crazy like I was back then, I decided to do it like that and it made a hit.
“Sometimes you come across a song that people are familiar with, but you put your own style on it. They end up liking it better than the original.”
After 44 years in music, Sonnier is ready to churn out more originals. But a work-related injury has thrown him off course. Sonnier fell off a trailer, leaving him with damage to his rotator cuff, elbow and nerves in his hands. Months of therapy have switched him from accordion to steel guitar on the bandstand.
His recovery continues. But he’s not blocking the blessing of his hit-making talent. “It’s been a good ride. I don’t plan on stopping—yet. I’d like to play more festivals. There’s hardly any Cajun dancehalls around anymore—they died off. In southwest Louisiana, you have a festival every weekend.
“At my age, it feels good to slow down. I’m down to playing once or twice a month. Back in my day, I was playing five or six nights a week—for years. It takes its toll on you. That night life is a killer.
“We used to play four-hour jobs. I don’t know who invented that. But now, we got down to three hours. Some places still want four, but that last hour just kills me. I had enough with three because I play nonstop.”