Remembering Clifton Chenier
Clifton Chenier (1925-1987
Today's NY Times has a great story about the last remaining washboard manufacturer in the US, the Columbia Washboard Company in Ohio. But, alas, the story has only one phrase implying the use of the washboard as musical instrument. That phrase:
She reacquainted old clients with this old reliable, began a Web site and established an annual musical washboard festival in Logan, a small city that needed the economic boost. Under the new management, the company’s sales spiked to 70,000 washboards in 2000.Did the Times miss a major, cultural part of the story?
Have we forgotten Washboard Slim? Have we forgotten the frottoir?
The washboard and frottoir are used as a percussion instrument, employing the ribbed metal surface of the cleaning device as a rhythm instrument.wiki
As traditionally used in jazz, cajun, skiffle, jug band, and old time music, the washboard remained in its wooden frame and is played primarily by tapping, but also scraping the washboard with thimbles. Often the washboard has additional traps, such as a wood block, a cowbell, and even small cymbals.
Conversely, the frottoir dispenses with the frame and consists simply of the metal ribbing hung around the neck. It is played, also with thimbles, but with much more strumming than tapping. The frottoir, also called a Cajun rub-board or Zydeco rub-board, is a mid 20th century invention designed specifically for Zydeco music. It was designed in 1946 by Clifton "King of Zydeco" Chenier, and fashioned by Willie Landry, a friend and metalworker at the Texaco refinery in Port Arthur, Texas. Clifton's brother Cleveland Chenier famously played this newly designed rubboard using bottle openers. Likewise, Willie's son, Tee Don Landry, continues the traditional hand manufacturing of rubboards in his small shop outside of Lafayette, LA.
Alas, have we forgotten Clifton Chenier?
Chenier's career began in 1954, when he signed with Elko Records and released Clifton's Blues, a regional success. His first hit record was soon followed by "Ay 'Tite Fille (Hey, Little Girl)" (a cover of Professor Longhair's song), which received some mainstream success. With the Zydeco Ramblers, Chenier toured extensively and soon signed to Chicago, Illinois' Chess Records, followed by Arhoolie.wiki
Chenier reached a wide audience when he appeared on the premier full season of the PBS music television program Austin City Limits in 1976, and returned for a follow-up episode in 1979 with his Red Hot Louisiana Band.
His popularity peaked in the 1980s, when he won a Grammy Award for his 1982 album, I'm Here, the first ever Grammy for his new label, Alligator Records. Chenier was the second Creole to win a Grammy (after Queen Ida).
Chenier is also credited with redesigning the wood and crimped tin washboard into the frottoir, an instrument that would easily hang from the shoulders. Cleveland Chenier, Clifton's older brother, also played in the Red Hot Louisiana Band and would find equal popularity for his ability to manipulate the distinctive sound of the washboard by rubbing several bottle openers (held in each hand) along its ridges.
Chenier and his band traveled throughout the world during their prime. In his later years, Chenier was beset by health problems. One of his feet had to be amputated because of diabetes, and he frequently required dialysis.
Chenier died of diabetes-related kidney disease in December 1987 in Lafayette. He was buried in All Souls Cemetery in Loreauville, Iberia Parish, Louisiana.
I remember hearing Clifton and Cleveland Chenier both on records and live. I loved this music. Still do. This is music that should not be forgotten.