Buckwheat Zydeco–An appreciation

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(Alligator Records)

If all anyone knows of zydeco is Buckwheat Zydeco, well, it’s both the perfect place to start and. Stanley “Buckwheat” Dural Jr., who died Sept. 24 at 68, exemplified the zydeco genre of South Louisiana, such that his very stage name embodied it.

“It’s been said many times–I’ve heard it said many times—but it’s true: For multitudes of people Buckwheat Zydeco was the introduction to zydeco music,” says popular radio and TV personality Todd Ortego, who programs zydeco—the propulsive mix of French Cajun music with Creole music and African-American Creole music traditions of R&B, blues, jazz, and gospel–along with Cajun and swamp pop music, on KBON-FM in Eunice, La. Indeed, Dural, who played organ in zydeco king Clifton Chenier’s Red Hot Louisiana Band before launching Buckwheat Zydeco in 1979, was the first zydeco artist to sign with a major label (Island Records, in 1987).

Buckwheat Zydeco also performed in the Summer Olympics closing ceremonies in Atlanta in 1996, won an Emmy in 2002 for the music in the TV movie Pistol Pete: The Life and Times of Pete Maravich, took the 2010 Best Zydeco or Cajun Music Album Grammy award for Lay Your Burden Down, and performed with the varied likes of Eric Clapton, U2, Robert Plant and the Boston Pops. Dural and the band also played both Bill Clinton presidential inaugurations.

“If zydeco music had a rock star, it was Buckwheat Zydeco,” says Herman Fuselier, music and eentertainment reporter for The Daily Advertiser in Lafayette. “Buckwheat wasn’t the first zydeco artist to tour nationally and internationally, but no one else comes close to the massive and consistent success he enjoyed.”

Dural’s music “was literally heard by millions for more than 30 years,” continues Fuselier, “a rare feat for not only zydeco and many roots musicians. When he played the closing ceremonies of the Olympics in Atlanta in 1996, the TV audience was three billion people. But he also had numerous appearances on David Letterman, toured and collaborated with Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson and other big names, won an Emmy and a Grammy, and the list goes on and on.”

In a statement, Recording Academy president/CEO Neil Portnow said: “Buckwheat Zydeco embodied a genre and represented a community with his signature playing style that brought distinctly Creole zydeco music to fans across the globe. Buckwheat played both for and with legends, performing at both Clinton inaugurations, touring with Eric Clapton, and collaborating with a seemingly endless list of artists over his 40-plus year career. He won an Emmy for his work in TV and a Grammy in the genre he helped define. The world lost a music heavyweight.”

Concludes Fuselier, “He showed how popular a zydeco musician could be and did it on his own terms. He was always adamant that fans, promoters and everyone else knew that he wasn’t playing Cajun music, but zydeco, the black Creole accordion music that he grew up with in Lafayette, La. He shared his roots with everyone and made millions of people happy along the way.”

Concert Highlights–Bobby Rydell featuring City Rhythm Orchestra at Damrosch Park, 7/6/2016

Bobby Rydell at Lincoln Center Midsummer Nights Swing, July 6, 2016
Bobby Rydell at Lincoln Center Midsummer Nights Swing, July 6, 2016 (photo: Russ Titelman)

Not sure who was more excited to meet Bobby Rydell backstage at Lincoln Center’s Midsummer Night Swing series at Damrosch Park on July 6, me or Russ Titelman.

A few years older than me, Russ was no less starstruck in the presence of early 1960s teen idol Rydell after a great, mostly pop standards set with Philadelphia’s City Rhythm Orchestra, songs including several Sinatra staples and a Bobby Darin tribute, the only Rydell hits being “Wild One” and “Volare.”

“It goes back to my childhood!” Russ marveled, except that Rydell’s set had contemporary relevance for him as well, as he also sang “Teach Me Tonight,” the 1950s Sammy Cahn-Gene De Paul standard that Russ just recorded with Holly Cole.

After the show–and our meeting with Rydell–Russ, who’s famously produced the likes of Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood, recalled the impetus for the Cole cut, within both Sinatra and Darin contexts. Turns out he was a guest of Quincy Jones at the 1984 sessions in New York at A&R studio for Sinatra’s L.A. is My Lady album, which Jones was producing. Michael Jackson was there, so was late Broadway musical luminary Michael Bennett (A Chorus Line), and among the stellar musicians in the band was George Benson.

“Mr. S sang ‘Teach Me Tonight’ and ‘Mack the Knife,’” Russ recalled. “On a break I suggested to George that we do ‘Beyond the Sea’–one of my very favorite songs and the B-side of Darin’s ‘Mack the Knife.’ He said he already had an arrangement. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ and he answered that Frank Foster, who had written the ‘Mack the Knife’ arrangement for Sinatra, had written him a big band arrangement of ‘Beyond the Sea.’ When I heard that, I said, ‘We’re doing it!’ Mr. Foster said it was one of his favorites of all his arrangements!”

Russ still considers the version of “Beyond the Sea” that he produced for Benson’s 1984 album 20/20 the best ever.

Rydell, meanwhile, sang both “Beyond the Sea” and “Mack the Knife” outdoors at Lincoln Center, not to mention Sinatra’s “The Lady is a Tramp” and “I’ve Got the World on a String.” He was equally at ease singing Darrin and Sinatra.

The persistence of John Mayall

The first time I saw John Mayall had to be at Bunky’s in Madison, Wisconsin, in the late 1970s, and I’m pretty sure Harvey Mandel was with him. I don’t remember the last time but it had been a while, so long, I’m afraid, that I came dangerously close to embarrassing myself when I walked into City Winery Monday night (Mar. 21) and almost asked the old man at the merch table if Mayall might be hanging out after the show–said old man, of course, being Mayall himself, getting in a few pre-show CD sales.

Compounding the near embarrassment was the fact that even at 82, John Mayall looks pretty much the same as he did at Bunky’s, hair shorter and whiter perhaps, but that’s about it. He definitely sounds as good, even without Mandel; here he had a couple other excellent Chicago players in bassist Greg Rzab and drummer Jay Davenport, and ace Texas guitarist Rocky Athas. He also retained his unusual set-up of two keyboards–Hammond organ on his right, Roland electric piano on his left-lined next to each other horizontally in the middle of the stage as he stood behind them facing the audience, alternating between them when not playing guitar or harmonica, or in some cases harp with one hand, keyboard with the other.

Remarkably, too, Mayall still plays as good as he sounds on all instruments–spry on keys, crisp on guitar and harps. It made perfect sense that he played “Dancing Shoes,” from his 1999 album Padlock on the Blues (love that title!) that featured John Lee Hooker. Hooker, old bluesers remember, played with Canned Heat, and Mayall also performed his ode to that great blues-rock band, “The Bear,” from his 1968 album Blues from Laurel Canyon. He went even deeper into his catalog with the slow Chicago blues-styled “Have You Heard,” from his 1966 album Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton–Clapton, if you don’t know, being merely one of a myriad of future legends besides Mandel who came up through Mayall blues bands.

From 1967’s Crusade (which featured the likes of future Rolling Stone guitarist Mick Taylor and future Fleetwood Mac founding members Mick Fleetwood, Peter Green and John McVie) came the train song “Streamline,” and from 1970’s USA Union came the ecology-minded “Nature’s Disappearing,” which came out, incidentally, the same time that Chicago’s Siegel-Schwall blues-rock band took a similar tack on “Do You Remember.”

Mayall introduced “Big Town Playboy” as a cut from “one of those new albums” (2014’s A Special Life, to fill in the blank), and from his latest album Find a Way to Care–from late last year–were “Ain’t No Guarantees” and the Lonnie Brooks cover “I Want all My Money Back,” for which he switched from Hammond to Roland during the instrumental break.

But he was equally impressive in switching from the Chicago blues harmonica style to rhythmic country/folk blues chording–what he termed “chicka-chicka” during the lead-in to “Room to Move” on his 1969 album The Turning Point. And he in fact ended the set with “Room to Move”–now a true harmonica classic–after noting how people call it out every night, but that he doesn’t always do it, and that he wouldn’t do it the next night (the second of two at City Winery) since it would be an entirely different set.

“There are some oldies in the house tonight! I saw you come in the door!” he had said at one point, referring to those in the crowd who went all the way back with him–and no doubt me in particular. As I took one last look at him as he signed CDs at the merch table after the show I thought of my conversation with Jennifer Warnes from a few nights earlier.

“My generation of artists has been hit pretty hard,” she said. “For those of us who survive, there’s an urgency to keep on going. Look around at all our peers who have passed like Joe Cocker [her duet partner on the 1982 hit ‘Up Where We Belong’]. The antidote to the horribleness, if you know how to be a beautiful, decent, good and capable professional, is for God’s sakes, do it–and do it on a pedestal so that young people can see you! Write a sentence, paint a beautiful painting, cook a beautiful meal–it must be done. The most revolutionary thing you can do is persist in doing things well.”

I’m not sure there were a lot of youngsters at City Winery, but John Mayall’s band members are certainly younger, and I’ve actually got a ways to go before I catch up with him. I just hope I persist as well as he clearly has.