Accordionist CJ Chenier is the son of the late king of Zydeco, Clifton Chenier, who mixed R&B and soul into Louisiana Creole music. CJ was raised in Texas away from his French-speaking relatives. He played in jazz and funk bands, finally joining Clifton’s band and playing accordion a few years before the king passed in 1987. Like his father, CJ continues to push the boundaries of Creole music.
CJ Chenier: I grew up mostly with my mom, you know, my mom and my dad weren’t really together. Growing up in Fort Arthur, Texas in the projects, you know, was- the projects thing, you know you fight everyday with your friends that you play with. I just happened to be one that was really interested in music because my dad was a musician. So in the 4th grade I kind of grabbed hold of a saxophone and fell in love with that instrument. That’s what led me to staying out of trouble and having things to do other than fighting. Getting involved in music helped me out a lot.
Nick Spitzer: Growing up urban in East Texas, did you ever think that the Creole music and the old culture of Louisiana was passé, I mean did you have to go through a psychic transition to say hey I can dig with this music, or I can get with this music?
CC: Everybody teased me because you know to them the music sounded corny or something like that. People used to say, “Your daddy play that old chanky-chank music, your daddy play that old la la music.” But I always liked my daddy’s music even though in the beginning I didn’t know what I was listening to. It must be something that passed through my daddy’s blood because I didn’t grow up with this kind of stuff.
It was like when I finally started playing with him, I went through a transformation because I had never seen a crowd have such a good time as I saw when I started playing zydeco. So I started noticing, I was like man, these people know how to have a good time, they’re not all sitting down with their drinks at the table just looking at you, they’re out here actually kicking off shoes and throwing stuff and on the tables and sliding and skipping and hopping and jumping.
NS: So you’re playing sax in your dad’s band, you make the transition I guess in the late ‘80s into doing that with him, at what point does it come to pass that you actually end up playing the accordion for the band, and how does that happen between you and your father?
CC: He gave me the accordion right, so I started practicing a little bit you know here and there, and when my dad got sick, we had a cousin that used to come from Galveston to play accordion because my dad couldn’t play a whole show, and he got in a fatal accident one night, coming to the gig, his name was John Bellaire, and that’s the night my dad told me, he said, “Well, you’re gonna have to open the show for me tonight. Tonight at Tipitina’s in front of this massive crowd,” and I got on stage with the accordion, man, scared to death. I didn’t know what to do but I got through it, you know, so that’s how that happened.
NS: When somebody has a famous father like Clifton Chenier, who was the king of zydeco to so many people, whether they’re Creoles, Cajuns, can that be hard on you? You know it makes you wonder, what will you be? How will you live?
CC: Nothing like that entered my mind, you know I mean people brought it forward to me more than I thought about it. Zydeco came around because of my dad Clifton Chenier and I want people to know that. He told me to always be the best I could be at my style. He didn’t tell me to imitate him. As long as I’m around and I can keep his name going, I will.
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