Boozoo Chavis, 1930 – 2001
BY TED DROZDOWSKI
In 1960, Boozoo Chavis, a pioneer of the accordion-driven Louisiana dance music called zydeco, took a 25-year break from performing. Perhaps that’s why he played so often and so vigorously after his 1985 comeback. On many nights, with his face streaming sweat and his push-button accordion strapped to his barrel chest, Chavis seemed to be making up for lost time. He continued his fast-paced life, raising racehorses on his farm and giving concerts throughout the world, until April 24, when he collapsed from a heart attack and stroke after a concert in Austin, Texas. He lingered in the hospital until May 5, when he died at age 70.
Chavis, who was scheduled to play at Johnny D’s in Somerville on June 1, still lived in the town of his birth, Lake Charles, Louisiana. He was among the very last of this rural Creole music’s surviving inventors. Chavis and the late Clifton Chenier were responsible for taking zydeco out of the weekend house dances and church socials and bringing it into the recording studio. In 1954 Chavis cut the genre’s first hit, “Paper in My Shoe,” which sold more than 100,000 copies. The song, about being too poor to afford socks, was inspired by living conditions among the French-speaking African-Americans of Louisiana’s sugar-cane country. Chavis recorded more singles in the ’50s and toured the working-class clubs and dance halls between New Orleans and the oil fields of Houston, Texas. But he believed he’d been cheated by his record company and withdrew from the music business in 1960.
Chavis and his wife, Leona Predium, spent the next quarter-century raising a family and training racehorses on a farm called Dog Hill, and running the animals in unsanctioned races on rural Louisiana’s informal dirt-track circuit. Leona, their sons Charles, Poncho, and Rellis, and their daughters Do-Right, Louann, and Licia survive the diatonic-button-accordion master.
Since his return to performing, Chavis had made a number of albums for Cambridge-based Rounder Records and other labels. He also toured internationally. His success spurred interest in the music among a new, younger generation of players, including Keith Frank and the late Beau Jocque — who regularly joined Chavis in trumped-up bandstand “battles” for zydeco’s crown in various Louisiana towns until his own death in September 1999. In his trademark cowboy boots and hat, the crusty-but-charming Chavis was a heroic figure each year at New Orleans’ annual Jazz & Heritage Festival, reprising “Paper in My Shoe” and howling numbers with titles like “You’re Gonna Look like a Monkey When You Get Old,” while pushing lively melodies from the bellows of his instrument.
Last Friday, May 4, as Chavis lay in the hospital, his sons carried on the tradition of Boozoo’s Jazz Fest performances. They took his place on the racetrack-turned-music-fair’s Fais Do Do stage to deliver a set of their father’s music. Poncho sang and played remarkably like Boozoo, according to Boston-based journalist and musician Tristram Lozaw, who was in attendance. Thus the legacy of Chavis’s music — and his family — is certain to endure.
Issue Date: May 10 - 17, 2001