Chifton Chenier (1925–1987) is universally recognized as the creator of zydeco music, a blend of French and Cajun two-steps and waltzes with New Orleans R&B, Texas blues, and big-band jazz. This collection of 17 songs is drawn from his extensive catalogue with Arhoolie Records and features a previously unreleased live version of “Zydeco Sont Pas Salé” (The Snap Beans Aren’t Salty) as well as a 15-minute interview conducted by Arhoolie founder Chris Strachwitz. Allmusic.com notes that this collection is a good starting point for anyone interested in the origins of zydeco.
Chenier began his recording career in 1954, when he signed with Elko Records and released Cliston’s Blues, a regional success. In 1955 he signed a contract with Special Records and put together the first national hit with the debut label “Ay-Tete Fi” (Hey, Little Girl) (a cover of Professor Longhair’s song). The national success of this release resulted in many tours with rhythmic players and popular blues such as Ray Charles, Etta James, and Lowell Fulson. He also toured in the early days with Clarence Garlow, referred to as Two Crazy Frenchmen. Chenier signed Chess Records in Chicago, followed by the label Arhoolie.
In April 1966, Chenier appeared at the Berkeley Blues Festival on the University of California campus and was later described by Ralph J. Gleason, a jazz critic from the San Francisco Chronicle, as one of the most shocking musicians I have ever heard in some time, with incredible accordion playing style … blues accordion, that’s right, blues accordion.
Chenier was the first player to play at Antone’s, blues club on Sixth Street in Austin, Texas. Then in 1976, he reached a national audience when he appeared in the inaugural season of the PBS music program Austin City Limits. Three years later in 1979 he returned to the show with his Red Hot Louisiana Band.
Chenier’s popularity peaked in the 1980s, and he was recognized with the Grammy Award in 1983 for his album I’m Here. It was the first Grammy for his new label Alligator Records. Chenier followed Queen Ida as the second Louisiana Creole to win a Grammy.
Chenier is credited with redesigning wood and washing boards to crease into the frottoir vest, an instrument that will easily hang from the shoulder. Cleveland Chenier, Clifton’s brother, also plays in the Red Hot Louisiana Band. He found popularity because of his ability to manipulate the distinctive sound of the frottoir by rubbing several bottle openers (held in each hand) along his back.
During their first time, Chenier and his band traveled all over the world.