Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Boozoo Chavis: R.I.P.

(As published in the Times of Acadiana, May 15, 2001)

When Boozoo Chavis died last week at the age of seventy, zydeco lost more than a living legend and a musical original. It also lost its most colorful and lovably irascible character.

There was no secret to his appeal: the man was a riot. He could turn a pro forma interview into an evening with Rodney Dangerfield. Not that Dangerfield would ever choose to make comedic hay out of Chavis’s favorite subjects--himself, zydeco, and horse racing, in that order--but if he were to, he’d do it with the same devil-may-care candor. “I’ve been married forty-seven years to the same woman,” Chavis once told me, explaining the duration of his success. “And when I play that dance tonight, I come back with money. I didn’t sneak and give twenty or thirty dollars to this woman here. I didn’t pay no forty dollar for no motel room.”

Chavis didn’t like being thought of as funny. He thought people were laughing at him, not with him. The real-life situations out of which his humor grew were often painful. Most of them had to do with his being ripped off: not receiving royalties for recordings or credit for songs that others had “stolen” from him, suffering the financial repercussions of having to play second fiddle to younger zydeco stars who “don’t know nothin’,” finding that a record company had put a photo of him with his mouth open on his CD cover when he’d specifically asked them not to.

I had the pleasure of interviewing him twice, the first time in January 1997, by phone. No sooner had his wife picked up the receiver than he told her to tell me he couldn’t talk because he’d just gotten out of the shower and had shampoo in his eyes. “I just got out of the shower and I got shampoo in my eyes!” he repeated when she put him on anyway. No one--not his publicist, his manager, or my editor--had told me that, aside from making zydeco history with “Paper in My Shoe” in 1955, Chavis was best known for his hatred of interviews.

Two years later I was assigned another Boozoo story. This time he agreed to host me at his Lake Charles home, even giving me the directions himself. There was only one stipulation, of which he did not apprise me until I’d arrived: he would not talk into a tape recorder. Only after I’d spent twenty minutes assuring him that I wouldn’t reproduce anything libelous would he go on the record.

One exchange in particular stands out. Why, I asked, had he returned to performing in the mid-’80’s after a thirty-year layoff?

He paused, then said, “I just wanted to show the world what I could do.”

No one who ever saw or heard what he could do would ever think he was joking. R.I.P.

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