The music community lost beloved swamp pop singer Van Broussard earlier this week.
Hailed by fans and musician peers alike as southeast Louisiana’s greatest swamp pop artist, Broussard died early Tuesday morning at his home in Prairieville. He was 83.
For more than six decades, Broussard’s local performances drew devoted fans to wherever he performed. Known as the king of swamp pop, the camera-shy local celebrity would never bestow such a lofty title upon himself.
Broussard performed rarely in recent years, singing mostly for special gatherings such as his sister and fellow recording artist Grace Broussard’s birthday celebration last year.
“He had been feeling bad the last couple of days,” his daughter Vanessa Broussard Vincent said Tuesday. “But he wanted to be at home, so we didn’t push anything on him. We think it was a heart attack, because he has an extensive history of heart disease.”
Jimmy Rogers, the Broussard superfan who founded CSP Records, released more than a dozen of the singer’s albums following a 1977 handshake deal. Rogers marveled at the loyalty the singer’s fans showed.
“Most of the time, people didn’t go to a club to hear the artists playing there,” Rogers said. “But Van’s crowd was truly Van’s crowd. They worshipped him. Sometimes, I thought they must have bought two of each of our releases, because we sold so many.”
Broussard grew up in Prairieville when it was still a rural community. He learned to play guitar from Pete Franklin, a neighbor who played blues. At 10, Broussard rode his horse to Franklin’s place, his guitar on his back. He preferred Franklin’s blues to the country music his grandfather and uncles played.
“I’d go sit on the porch with him,” Broussard said in a 2011 interview. “We’d play together and I’d watch, see what he was doing. That’s how I learned to play.”
Broussard later became a fan of rhythm-and-blues artists Fats Domino, Smiley Lewis, Little Richard and other national and regional stars who recorded hits at Cosimo Matassa’s studio in New Orleans.
“I don’t know how I got labeled that swamp pop,” he said. “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 Van Broussard music.”
Forming his first band in 1954, Broussard developed the crowd-pleasing, danceable sets that kept his audiences loyal through generations of fans.
“We got a heavy back beat and a heavy bass and a lot of brass,” he explained. “I don’t put on a show. 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.”
Broussard sang in a graceful baritone, keeping his delivery of heartfelt lyrics warm and simple.
“I try to sing everything the way it was written,” he said. “Even though people dance, a lot of people do listen.”
Despite opportunities to go national, Broussard stayed close to home.
“I had several opportunities to sign the big contract,” he said in 2004. “But I didn’t want to be tied down to going here and going there. I wanted to be able to go home whenever I got through playing.”
In the early 1960s, Broussard recorded for Matassa’s Rex Records and Baton Rouge music entrepreneur S.J. Montalbano’s Montel label. Rogers persuaded him to return to the studio in 1977. Their CSP single, “Lord, I Need Somebody Bad,” sold 500,000 copies, earning a gold record award.
Continuing to perform into the 2010s, Broussard vowed to play until no one wanted to hear him.
That never happened.
“It’s been a long time ago that I told them, ‘When the people quit coming, I’m going to quit playing,’ ” he said. “It was kind of like a joke but, man, they keep on coming."