Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Boozoo Chavis: For Mature Audiences Only

(This piece was the cover story of the 1999 Jazz Fest issue of Offbeat magazine. Of all the interviews I conducted with Cajun and zydeco musicians, the one from which this article grew was my favorite by far.)


The directions to his house that Boozoo Chavis gives journalists who call to schedule interviews with him can be confusing. Sometimes he says "turn right" when he means "turn left" and "turn left" when he means "turn right." Inevitably, if the journalist is lucky, one of Chavis's sons will be near the phone, overhear the confusion, and straighten out the mess.

Given Chavis's unusually strong distrust of interviewers, one can't help wondering if he provides wrong directions on purpose. "When they say 'interviews,' it's like you're hitting me in the head with a stick," he says. "But after I'm doin' it, it's O.K."

Chavis, sixty-eight, has made many such remarks over the years. Today he's making them from the kitchen table of his Lake Charles home over the sounds of an afternoon TV show playing unwatched in an adjacent room. Later tonight Chavis may or may not watch the Grammy Awards in that room. One reason he might watch is that he considers the Grammy one of the few truly meaningful awards in the music business.

One reason he might not watch is that his last album, Hey Do Right! (Antone's), came out over two years ago and therefore can't possibly be among the titles nominated in the only category in which a zydeco album can win: "Best Traditional Blues." Still fighting, fifteen years after beginning his comeback, for the recognition he deserves as one of zydeco's true living legends, he almost certainly won't derive enough pleasure from the sight of other musicians getting theirs to make an evening of it.

"'I'm comin' to interview you!'" he laughs, imitating the many journalists he's talked with over the years. "They ask you some of the damnedest questions you ever see. And when I tell them, 'Don't put that in there,' they put exactly that. If you say the wrong thing about an individual and it's on the tape, when them people see you, you don't know how to face them, and they don't know how to face you."

More than once, Chavis has vowed to stop giving interviews altogether. So far, however, his management and the record companies for whom he records have been able to find ways to get the gruff-voiced zydeco star to keep on talking.

On this sunny February afternoon, he'd prefer to stick to subjects that won't get him into trouble--subjects, in other words, that won't make him mad. Fair enough, you might think, but given the fact that with Boozoo Chavis almost every topic raises his hackles, the prospects for a meaningful visit all of a sudden look bleak.

When asked how long he spent at Dockside Studios in Maurice, LA, recording his brand-new album, the excellent Who Stole My Monkey? (Rounder), he says "one day" and launches into a colorful assault on those who approach the recording of albums like the building of Rome. No sooner has he begun, though, then he espies the tape recorder and asks, "You got that thing on?"

Yes. Is that all right?

"No. I'll quit right there."

For the next fifteen minutes, the tape recorder shut off, he gets quite a bit off his chest. He believes, for instance, that interviewers like to quote him complaining--"telling the truth," as he calls it--because they think his rural Creole English sounds funny. He also believes that Rounder has decided to use photographs of him with his mouth open on the front and back cover of Who Stole My Monkey? because he looks funny that way. In short, he's afraid of not being taken seriously, of being taken for a clown and nothing more.

Wilson "Boozoo" Chavis is much more than a clown. In addition to being one of the two most influential modern zydeco musicians (Clifton Chenier, of course, is the other), he's a successful race-horse trainer, husband, father, and grandfather. He's also a walking encyclopedia of Depression-era American pop music. He's happy to reveal, for instance (after having been assured that the tape recorder will be shut off any time he starts to grouse) that he based his hit from Hey Do Right!, "You're Gonna Look like a Monkey," on a song with a similar title that was popular when he was a boy.

"That's an old song, yeah. Somebody else cut it with a guitar way yonder in Louis Jordan and T-Bone Walker's time, way back there. People forgot about that song, but I remembered it because I used to play it way before the '80's. I don't know who cut it, white or black, but they cut it somewhere around in the blues time.** And it wasn't no zydeco. No. Nobody around here had sang and cut that. I'm the only one.

"Remember a long time ago they had that record about the old gray mule, the old gray mare or something?" The subject of old songs has wrought a surprising transformation of mood. All of a sudden, Boozoo Chavis the Zydeco Misanthrope is gone, replaced by Boozoo Chavis the Boy at Heart.

"Way back there we was picking cotton," he reminisces. "That's where that monkey come from, way up in those times. This was back in the '40's, about this monkey. Sometimes you'd hear a song on the radio--you'd hear some good songs--and you'd say, 'Man, I could play this. I can change this song to something.' I'd catch songs on the radio when we was pickin' cotton, when I was about eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen years old. Yeah. This where the music come from.

"There was an old song that I used to think about cutting," he continues. A moment later he's singing "Oh, Susanna," unaccompanied and with considerable feeling: '''I'm going to Alabama with a banjo on my knee / Oh, Susie Anna, Susie Anna, don't you cry for me.' I was a little boy, nine or ten years old, singing that song all the time, and I was thinking about cuttin' that, but I said, 'No, I'm gonna be copyin' off of somebody.' I could cut that song. I know it just like it was today. Remember Louis Jordan?"

Chavis sings a verse of "Caldonia." "I could cut that. I've been knowing that song since I was a kid."

As Chavis sings, "'Choo-choo ch-boogie / take me right back to the track, Jack'" ("T-Bone Walker was playin' and all that"), one gets the impression that he could go on singing like this for days, that were he to sing all the songs he knows, all the blank tape in the world might not hold them. "'Open the door, Richard! / Richard, why don't you open that door?'" he sings. "'Hey, Mr. Landlord! Knock upon the door! / When the policeman comes around / tell him the joint is closed / and let the good times roll.'

"See," he says, "that's all them old songs. I can play all that." Pointing at his head, he adds, "That's all in here."

Not all of the songs that Chavis remembers from his childhood were staples of the Hit Parade. In fact, songs such as "Monkey and the Baboon," "Uncle Bud," and "Deacon Jones" are downright raunchy. Even in today's permissive climate, a radio station that played unexpurgated versions of the songs could lose its license.

Nevertheless, all three appear on Who Stole My Monkey? And although Chavis has cleaned up "Monkey and the Baboon" and performed it as the Sonny Boy Williamson standard "Bottle Up and Go," he's left both "Uncle Bud" and "Deacon Jones" untouched, performing them in all their X-rated glory. "Note," reads the fine print on the back of the album, "tracks fifteen and sixteen are not suitable for airplay." "Parental Advisory," reads a label on the front, "Explicit Content."

Chavis, who until today was unaware of the by now commonplace parental-advisory label ("If they ain't got that on there, the parents wouldn't know that it's rated X?"), thinks the warning is a good idea. "It's good to put that on there because the kids might get a-hold to it. 'Mama, I was listenin' to Mr. Boozoo's record.' 'What? You was listenin' to that?'"

According to Chavis, the songs, which sound like nothing so much as Redd Foxx gone zydeco, have their origins in real life. "My grandpa was named Uncle Bud. That's where this come from." He laughs. "His son was Dudley Pete. 'In 1819, twenty years ago / Uncle Bud beat the shit out of Cotton-eyed Joe'--you see? We'd be talkin' and in the field, in the room, anywhere, and we'd come up with all that kind of stuff."

Parents have little or nothing to fear from the remaining thirteen songs on Who Stole My Monkey? (which, by the way, Chavis says was supposed to be You Stole My Monkey). With the exception of the mildly risqué "Dance All Night" (the verses exhort listeners to take off their shoes, wigs, and drawers, respectively), the program consists of the sort of good-natured, rough-around-the-edges zydeco for which Chavis has become famous. And with the exception of "Marksville Slide" and "Sock It to Me," which feature the vocals of his son and rubboard player Charles, he sings lead on every song.

Chavis and his band, the Magic Sounds, recorded the new album last September, just three days after Chavis had been released from the hospital where he'd spent two weeks undergoing treatment for pneumonia and heart failure. Two days after they'd completed the album, they showed up for their annual gig at the Southwest Louisiana Zydeco Festival in Plaisance. "I was weak," Chavis remembers. "I had to play sitting down."

In addition to warning him not to perform too vigorously, his doctors also told him to eliminate salt and cigarettes. "I followed that for about a week," he chuckles. "Man, I couldn't eat that food without no salt!" Eventually, however, he knuckled under, gradually curtailing both his sodium and caloric intake.

Giving up cigarettes he has found more difficult. "I had quit before I went in the hospital. Then I went back to stealing one every once in a while. Then last week I said, 'O.K., I'm gonna quit.' So since last Friday I never smoked. Today's Wednesday. It don't bother me. I could've been quit a long time ago.

"Still," he smiles, casting an eye in the direction of his bedroom, "I got some cigarettes in that drawer. Kools, in a two-pack. And I got a lighter in that drawer too!"

Perhaps nothing captures the essence of Boozoo Chavis--the man and the musician--more fully than the fact that, after losing the top joints of two of the fingers on his left hand four years ago in a freak accident, he has continued performing and squeezing his accordion as if nothing serious had happened. "They don't hurt no more," he says matter-of-factly. "They get cold when the weather's cold, but they don't hurt."

"That was something else," he says of the experience. "One piece was hanging. Oh, I couldn't hardly stand it! But I stood it like a man."

Both the injury and the amputations occurred in Lake Charles on a Thursday. The next day Chavis was performing in Washington, D.C. "I had them fingers wrapped up because they was bleeding. But I kept going. I never stopped. And all them people just said, 'Boy, you're tough.'"

The tape ends. Chavis has been answering questions for an hour now, an hour in which seldom was heard a discouraging word. As soon as the tape recorder shuts off, however, he takes advantage of the freedom that comes with being off-the-record to criticize a lot of people whose identities are better left unknown--and to recite an a cappella version of another one of his X-rated ditties, "Boozoo's Blue Balls Rap."

Surely, his Grammy for "Best Parental-Advisory-Stickered Rap Performance by an Accordion-Playing Sexagenarian" can't be far off.


**Chavis is probably thinking of "You're Bound to Look like a Monkey (When You Grow Old)," the only currently circulating version of which is Hank Penny's 1951 Western-swing version.


  1. Thanks for posting this. I love his groove. And I'm trying to keep it alive in my own music, in it's unexpurgated glory!

  2. yeah
    mr boo
    one of a kind
    i met him
    he was a character!!