Lafayette native Todd Mouton came to the realization 20 years ago that there had never been a book written about the “King of Zydeco,” Clifton Chenier, and it was a problem he wanted to rectify.
This fall, his book will finally be published.
For Mouton, executive director of Louisiana Folk Roots, the long road to publication of “Way Down in Louisiana: Clifton Chenier, Cajun, Zydeco and Swamp Pop Music” was sometimes a tough labor of love, but a necessary one. Chenier has been credited by many with being the originator of zydeco music. He won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award posthumously in 2014, among other awards.
“To me, Clifton Chenier is absolutely one of the world’s most important musicians,” Mouton said. “No one’s ever devoted a book to Clifton. He only did three interviews in his life, and he had a 33-year career. It’s almost like he escaped notice on some level.”
The hardback book will feature biographical information on the south Louisiana musician, but half of the book contains interviews with musicians who knew Chenier and whose music influenced their styles.
The book, to be published by the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press in October, is more anecdotal than a comprehensive history, Mouton said.
“We’re calling it a musical biography of Clifton Chenier, and it’s wrapped in portraits of artists who were influenced by him who are very well-known in their own right,” Mouton said. “It adds a dimensionality to it.”
Musicians and bands spotlighted in the book include Beausoleil avec Michael Doucet, Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, Zachary Richard, Sonny Landreth, Roddie Romero and Bonsoir, Catin, to name a few.
Chenier was born in St. Landry Parish and began recording music in 1954, later appearing at festivals where he began being noticed.
After an appearance at the Berkeley Blues Festival Jazz in 1966, jazz critic Ralph J. Gleason, of the San Francisco Chronicle, called Chenier “one of the most surprising musicians I have heard in some time.”
His career expanded in the 1970s with the Red Hot Louisiana Band, peaking in the 1980s when he won a Grammy for his album “I’m Here.”
Chenier traveled the world with his bands before dying at age 62 of diabetes-related kidney disease in December 1987. He is buried in the All Souls Cemetery in Loreauville. The Clifton Chenier Club of Loreauville hosts a birthday celebration in honor of Chenier every June, with this year’s event set for June 20.
“Clifton Chenier would have been 90 on June 25 if he had lived,” Mouton said.
In his short lifetime, Chenier recorded a lot of music, all of which is documented in Mouton’s book.
“He didn’t leave a historical trail about himself but left a lot of music,” Mouton said.
One of the many albums he made was “Louisiana Blues and Zydeco” in 1965 in Houston, a recording of 18 songs that Mouton believes was the definitive moment for zydeco as a musical form.
“One of the biggest questions is: Did he invent zydeco?” Mouton posed. “If he did invent it, when and where did that happen? In my opinion, that happened in 1965 in Houston.
“It’s not about who used the word first but who put it on wax,” he added. “And Clifton Chenier did. The question is when does a hybrid become a new variety, that special moment of combustion. I think the black and white musicians were forever changed after that.”
Because Mouton wanted the hardback book to be filled with photos and memorabilia, an expensive production process for the university’s nonprofit press, he instigated a Kickstarter campaign to raise the extra funds. As of press time, Mouton had met his goal of $15,000, but the campaign still has vintage poster reproductions and rare original vinyl recordings for those who wish to donate. The campaign ends at midnight Tuesday.
“We wanted to make this book as deluxe as we could,” Mouton said.