Doris “D.L.” Menard, the Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter who composed the Cajun music classic “The Back Door,” died Thursday at his home in Scott. He was 85.
“The Back Door,” released in 1962 by Swallow Records in Ville Platte, is among the most popular Cajun recordings in the genre’s history. The original recording is credited to Badeaux and the Louisiana Aces, the band Menard joined in his teens. Recordings of the song, known as “La Porte d'en Arrière” in French, by Menard and others have sold more than 1 million copies.
Rolling Stone lists “The Back Door” at No. 72 in the list of “Greatest Country Songs of All Time.” Based on Hank Williams’ “Honky Tonk Blues,” “The Back Door” tells the story of a young Cajun man’s misadventures, including a late night of dancing, an afternoon of drinking and a trouble-making visit to town that lands him in jail.
A native of Erath, Menard received his first Grammy nomination for “Le Trio Cadien,” his 1992 album with Eddie LeJeune and Ken Smith. He received a second Grammy nomination for his 2010 solo album, “Happy Go Lucky.” In 1994, the National Endowment for the Arts named Menard one of 11 National Heritage Fellows. Menard attended the ceremony in Washington, D.C. where Hillary Clinton presented the awards.
Following a 1973 performance at the National Folk Festival in Vienna, Virginia., Menard came to be known as the Cajun Hank Williams. In 1951, he met the country music legend at the Teche Club dancehall in New Iberia.
“I was but 5 feet away from him while he was singing that sad song (‘Howling At the Moon’),” Menard told The Advocate in 1996. “I had both of my arms leaning on the railing of the very small bandstand. You'd swear you could see the tears in that man’s eyes.”
When Williams and his band took a break, the star of the show sat alone at a table while the band went to eat. Williams offered some advice to Menard during the 10-minute conversation they had. Singers should always sing from the heart, Williams said, and imagine that what is happening in a song’s lyrics is happening to them.
Menard applied Williams’ lesson to “The Back Door.” Speaking Friday, Michael Doucet, leader of the Grammy-winning Cajun band BeauSoleil, said “The Back Door” was the perfect song at the perfect time in Cajun culture.
“D.L. caught that moment,” Doucet said. “It’s based on a Hank Williams song, so there’s nothing difficult about it. But the song tells a great story, sort of the true story that a lot of people experienced.”
Menard toured extensively, performing in more than 30 countries and most U.S. states. His travels included U.S. Department of State-sponsored tours of Asia and South and Central America.
Menard was also a regular at festivals throughout the world, including the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. He performed at Jazz Fest this year and gave an interview on the festival’s Music Heritage Stage.
“D.L. had this amazingly ebullient personality,” said Music Heritage Stage producer Ben Sandmel. “He had that booming voice and big smile. He’d always tease people and say, ‘Oh, I’m glad you got to meet me!’ Any conversation with him would brighten your day.”
“He was charming and funny,” said Barry Jean Ancelet, professor emeritus of folklore and French at University of Louisiana, Lafayette. “People had a blast with him around. He was a fierce, loyal friend, too.”
Menard's 70th birthday party at a church reception hall in Erath was a huge event, Doucet recalled. “There were 500 people there and, of course, D.L. talks to everyone, because he knows everyone.”
Doucet and others also noted Menard’s kindness.
“I’ve been on many tours with D.L.,” Doucet said. “He was always first up in the morning, always helping people. His house was always open.”
As jovial and unaffected as Menard appeared, Sandmel added, he was serious about his music and the chairs that he handcrafted at his furniture workshop in Erath.
“People thought of him as a guy who was laughing all the time, but he was professional and dedicated to his work,” Sandmel said. “He was a perfectionist.”
Terry Huval and the Cajun band Jambalaya worked as Menard’s band for the past 20 years.
“D.L. was such a legend and so revered by so many people,” Huval said. “He had a very spontaneous personality and was a thoughtful fellow who wrote wonderful songs.”
Menard's family will receive visitors from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday at Family Life Church, 2223 Dulles Drive, Lafayette. Visitation will resume at 8 a.m. Monday at Family Life Church and continue until funeral services at 3 p.m. Burial will be at Our Lady of Lourdes Cemetery in Erath.