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Everyone has a list of those unsung musicians who strike a special chord. Names unknown to the public at large whose contributions go almost completely unrecognized or are overshadowed by others in their immediate orbit. Near the top of my own list sits Cleveland Chenier. Like the lots handed Nat Adderley and Tommy Turrentine, Cleveland almost always found himself eclipsed by brother Clifton, the King of Zydeco. This despite his being an integral agent in many of his sibling’s numerous bands.
This recent release in Arhoolie’s mid-price series is unlikely to rectify the ongoing slight, but rest assured Cleveland’s customary standard of rhythmic excellence on the rubboard is maintained on the twelve collected cuts. The hypnotic scrapes of his thimble hooks on the corrugated surface of his signature metal vest thread through his brother’s more prominent accordion swirls and together they conjure the sound that has come to define a genre.
These particular tunes are culled from a cache of LPs originally circulated on the Prophesy and Home Cooking labels. Financed by Roy C. Ames in Houston, Texas in the spring 1969, they have a gregarious live feel that were the Chenier brothers regular stock in trade. Rounding out the band in this incarnation are somewhat plodding traps of Robert St. Julian, the frets of Cleveland Keyes and the probable bass of one Joe Morris (no, not that Joe Morris). Oddly enough, all of the material along with additional seven cuts was previously available on CD under the same title, but this earlier incarnation apparently has been deleted.
The usual clutch of blues standards blends with a handful more obscure selections to create what was most likely akin to a typical set by the group circa the late '60s. Chenier was a master of varying mood and ambience with his vocal delivery. From the languorous drawl that characterizes “Ain’t No Need of Cryin’” and “Brown Skinned Woman” to the up-tempo hollers of “Me and My Chauffer Blues” (a not so subtle reworking of “Good Morning Little School Girl”) and “Rosemary,” the band plays as if it's working a regular Saturday night crowd. Favorites to my ears include the sparse instrumental rundown of “Done Got Over,” with Cleveland’s finger thimbles front and center in a cool stereo pan, and low down slow blues of “My Little Angel” that contains some of Clifton’s most cerulean trills and most soulful singing.
Arhoolie has something in common with ECM in that they seem intensely loyal to their roster of artists. Case in point: nearly all Clifton’s entire recorded catalog rests in label honcho Chris Strachwitz’s capable and custodial hands. There’s so much available that releases like this one are both a surprise and a boon. Any fan of Zydeco who has not encountered the earlier expanded disc (and perhaps more importantly those unfamiliar with the idiom) will likely find this a worthwhile experience.
As a kid, my mom told me I'd like jazz. I thought she was nuts. Then I went to hear Cannonball Adderley (with Nat Adderley, George Duke, Walter Booker, Roy McCurdy and Airto) and everything changed. Yeah, mom knows best.