C.J. Chenier, Louisiana Blues and Zydeco AccordionistPosted: July 22, 2016
John Mayall had no goal other than “to make a normal blues album” , which is what the veteran artist and bandleader has done over the course of his 51-year recording career. And if you start adding it up, after 50 years, it’s obviously quite a career.” Mayall recorded “A Special Life,” his first release in five years for Forty Below Records, during a three-day session with his band during November at Entourage Studios in North Hollywood. It features four originals — one written by band members Greg Rzab and Rocky Athas — plus covers of songs by Jimmy Rogers, Albert King, Sonny Landreth and others. Mayall’s band is also bolstered by accordionist C.J. Chenier on several tracks, including a version of his father Clifton Chenier’s “Why Did You Go Last Night” that kicks off the album. “That was one of the songs I’ve always had a fondness for,” Mayall says. “In fact, we used to play it when Jack Bruce was in the band, so it goes that far back, and it’s far less Zydeco than straightahead blues. I thought it was a perfect time to approach C.J.; his father wrote and sang the song originally, and he was available, so I just contacted him. I hadn’t met him before, but he flew in for the day and we nailed it. It was a really great experience.”
C.J. Chenier grew up in the 1960s, in the housing projects of his native Port Arthur, Texas, where he was aware of, but not exposed to his father’s music as a young child.
Upon first listening to his father’s music, Chenier thought all the songs sounded the same. But he eventually began to appreciate and master his style, as he later joined and then took over his father’s band and career. He has since played such venues as the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, San Diego’s Street Scene and Milwaukee’s Summerfest. Paul Simon first heard Chenier in 1990, and featured him on the The Rhythm of the Saints album, and that year’s ‘Born At The Right Time’ tour. In 1992 Chenier played accordion on “Cajun Song”, a track on the Gin Blossoms‘ album, New Miserable Experience. 1992 saw Chenier featured with the Red Hot Louisiana Band on the PBS music television program Austin City Limits. By October 1994 Chenier was signed by Alligator. His debut release there was Too Much Fun, named the next year as best zydeco album of 1995 by Living Blues magazine. In 1995, Chenier gained his widest audience to date with television appearances on the Jon Stewart Show and CNN. His 1996 appearance at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival was featured in a segment by the VH1cable music television network, as well as by Entertainment Weekly. Chenier and the band also appeared that year at the Austin, Texas, 1996 SxSW Music Conference, a special event for Alligator Records’ 25th anniversary. Chenier won the 1997 Living Blues’ Critics’ Poll Award and also an AFIM Indie Award for best zydeco album, for his next release, The Big Squeeze. In 2001, Chenier played in front of 60,000 fans at the Chicago Blues Festival.