When Van Broussard played the annual Swamp Pop Music Festival in 2007, the event drew its biggest attendance ever. Broussard returns to the festival this weekend for the first time since then, appearing with his Bayou Boogie Band and recording-star sister, Grace.
An entertainer whose local appearances attract hundreds of people whenever he performs, Broussard is closing this year’s Swamp Pop Music Festival, just as he did in 2007. After all, they call him the king of swamp pop.
Yet the soft-spoken, camera-shy Broussard is the last person who’d call himself the king of swamp pop. A 74-year-old singer-guitarist from Prairieville who’s played dance music for generations of south Louisianians, he doesn’t even call his music swamp pop.
“I don’t know how I got labeled that swamp pop,” he said last week. “Because what I play is the old Fats Domino songs, James Brown, James ?Sugar Boy’ Crawford, Big Bo Melvin and the Nighthawks, Little Bob and the Lollipops. I guess people had never heard these black artists do that music and they think that’s my songs. They think that’s Van Broussard music but, actually, it’s the old rhythm-and-blues stuff.”
Broussard was a blues guitar-playing teen when Fats Domino’s first hit, “The Fat Man,” launched the New Orleans singer-pianist’s career in 1950. A fan of Domino, Smiley Lewis, Little Richard and other black stars from and associated with New Orleans, Broussard immediately caught on to Elvis Presley, a young white singer from Memphis.
Broussard got his chance to sing Presley’s first hit during a 1954 gig with a Dixieland-style band at the Moonlight Inn in French Settlement.
“Some girls came up, wanna know if we knew any Elvis Presley songs,” he remembered. “I was the only one who knew them. So I did, ?That’s All Right.’ Boy, they went crazy. I said, ?Shoot, I’m going to have to start singing.’ I had just played guitar up till then. I started singing and, man, it just took off.”
Broussard’s grandfather, fiddler Sydney Babin, and his fellow house-band musicians at the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport, backed Presley at the dawn of his career.
“They all laughed at him,” Broussard said of the Hayride musicians’ reaction to Elvis.. “?What kind of stuff is he doing?’”
Broussard, on the other hand, identified with Presley, a white singer who loved black blues and gospel music.
Having learned to play guitar from Pete Franklin, a black blues guitarist and neighbor in Prairieville, blues is Broussard’s music foundation. At 10 years old, he’d ride his horse over to Franklin’s place, carrying his guitar on his back.
“I’d go sit on the porch with him,” he said. “I had a little Stella guitar and we’d play together. I’d watch, see what he was doing. That’s how I learned to play. He didn’t know the name of the chords. I still don’t know the name of half the chords I do. Everything is by ear.”
Broussard preferred Franklin’s repertoire, including “Milk Cow Blues” and “St. Louis Blues,” to the country music his grandfather and uncles played.
“I tried to play the country stuff with my grandpa and them,” he said. “I just couldn’t play it. But I’d listened to WLAC in Nashville, Tenn. I’d say, ?Boy, I like that sound.’”
The 50,000-watt WLAC broadcast blues, rhythm-and-blues and gospel by the likes of Jimmy Reed, Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters, Lowell Fulson and Lightning Hopkins. Even as the deep South remained entrenched in the Jim Crow era, the black artists’ music touched Broussard.
After forming his first band in 1954, Broussard quickly hit upon his crowd-pleasing approach to music, one he’s stayed true to for 57 years.
“We got a heavy back beat and a heavy bass and a lot of brass,” he said. “You can definitely define my sound as that.”
Despite his front man status, Broussard is the antithesis of a showman.
“I don’t put on a show,” he said. “I play the music they can dance by. If I play something and they don’t dance to it, I don’t play it again.”
He also makes a point of singing clearly and not stretching notes into the tangled melismas that so many contemporary singers indulge in.
“I try to sing everything the way it was written,” he explained. “I don’t add a bunch of this stuff like some of these new artists do. In fact, I hate to hear these people when they do the National Anthem.”
Broussard also knows that the many heartfelt songs he sings, mean much to his fans.
“Sometimes I kind of mess up the words and they’ll tell me, ?You missed a line there.’ So they don’t just come to dance. Even though people dance, a lot of people do listen.”
Broussard’s audiences can expect to hear certain songs at his shows, especially Cookie and the Cupcakes’ “Mathilda,” Jewell and the Rubies’ “Kidnapper” and his own regional hits “Lord I Need Somebody Bad Tonight” and “Feed the Flame.”
The singer’s own favorite song is the Etta James classic, “My Dearest Darling,” composed by New Orleans’ Eddie Bo and Paul Gayten. His shows also feature songs by Larry Williams, Little Richard, James Brown and lots of Fats Domino.
“That was all music that I was listening to when I was coming up.”
Despite his 57 years on the bandstand, retirement is not on Broussard’s play list. As he told a reporter many years ago, he’ll play till no one listens.
“It’s been a long time ago that I told them, ?When the people quit coming, I’m going to quit playing.’ It was kind of like a joke but, man, they keep on coming.”