by Jason Mellard / Center for Texas Music History at Texas State
On June 25, 1925, zydeco pioneer Clifton Chenier was born in Opelousas, Louisiana. Most people associate zydeco with that state, and for good reason, but Texas plays a large part in the genre’s, and Chenier’s, history. Zydeco’s roots are in earlier Louisiana accordion music like la la, but in a story parallel to the blues, the 1940s brought the music from the country to the city, and from an acoustic vernacular to modern amplification.
In 1947, Chenier himself moved from Louisiana to Port Arthur, Texas, to work the Gulf Coast refineries. He started playing accordion in nightclubs around that time and first recorded in 1954. In the 1960s, Chenier moved to Houston’s Fifth Ward, then known as Frenchtown for the number of Creole Louisiana households. His music adapted to the new urban environment, borrowing from contemporary rhythm and blues and local influences like Lightnin’ Hopkins. A new Texas-Louisiana genre was born.
In 1966, Chenier’s appearance at the Berkeley Blues Festival opened up a national audience for the genre. Zydeco’s profile rose with Chenier’s success, becoming one of Louisiana’s most recognizable sounds even as Chenier cooked up his musical gumbo in Houston clubs. Chenier was the first artist to play Austin’s blues club Antone’s, appeared on Austin City Limits, toured with Etta James, won a Grammy, and in 1984 performed at the White House. Having conquered the nation with his Gulf Coast sound, Chenier died three years later in 1987.