When zydeco superstar C.J. Chenier stepped onto the main stage at the 2001 Chicago Blues Festival and looked over the crowd of 60,000 eager fans, he had one thing in mind: get them on their feet and make them dance. Almost immediately after launching into their first song, C.J. Chenier and The Red Hot Louisiana Band had people young and old shaking their hips and cheering in unison. With a solo career dating back to 1987 and five previous albums under his belt, C.J. Chenier is widely and wildly regarded as one of the genre’s best singers, musicians and live performers. According to The Boston Globe, “C.J. Chenier attacks the accordion with the tension and drive of James Brown...creating contemporary, turbo-charged dance music.” Living Blues magazine named C.J. Chenier “the best living zydeco singer and accordionist,” and Billboard called him “the heir to the zydeco throne.”
Chenier is now ready to turn the music up a notch with his new Alligator release, STEP IT UP! (AL 4882), undoubtedly his most musically and lyrically ambitious album to date. STEP IT UP! was recorded at Dockside Studios in Maurice, Louisiana, and produced by Chenier and Alligator Records president Bruce Iglauer. This is state-of-the-art zydeco from a masterful musician and performer. Chenier flavors The Red Hot Louisiana Band’s bayou beats with elements of funk, blues and ballads, as well as turning them loose on more traditional zydeco material. The resulting record is loaded with irresistible dance grooves and songs that stick in the memory long after the dancing is over. Chenier contributed eight originals and carefully chose the rest of the material. Regardless of what he’s playing, Chenier infuses every song with strong, soulful vocals and skillful accordion playing. From a cover of his father’s Johnny Can’t Dance to the original and autobiographical Road Dog to the tender The Power Of Love and The Right To Walk Away, STEP IT UP! boasts a modern, rollicking zydeco sound devoid of cliché and loaded with soulful rhythms and deep feeling.
C.J.’s music has always embraced the traditions of his famous father, zydeco legend Clifton Chenier, but he continues to push the music to new levels. “I won’t limit myself,” says C.J., and it’s clear why. Born and raised away from the Louisiana bayou in the housing projects of Port Arthur, Texas, C.J. was aware of his father’s music but also had other tastes. He liked James Brown and Funkadelic, John Coltrane and Miles Davis. He learned saxophone early on and as a teenager played in black Top 40 bands in Port Arthur. He studied music in college and dreamed of making it as a jazz or funk player.
Then, one week before C.J.’s 21st birthday in 1978, Clifton asked him to bring his sax along and join The Red Hot Louisiana Band. “I didn’t know any of the songs they played,” he recalls, “but the guys helped me out and brought me along. And then one day the music hit me, and I knew this was what I wanted to do.” With each passing show, C.J.’s confidence grew, as did his desire to take a larger role in the band. In 1985, as the effects of diabetes began to take their toll on his father, C.J. (at Clifton’s request) picked up the accordion and started opening the shows. “He didn’t push it,” C.J. remembers. “He let me decide for myself. But when he first called me to go out and play with his band, I think it was his idea all along that I would carry on his music.”
After Clifton’s death in 1987, C.J. inherited his dad’s accordion as well as The Red Hot Louisiana Band. But he took his father’s music and built upon it, adding elements of the music he grew up with and infusing traditional zydeco with a contemporary punch. When asked about his accordion playing, C.J. is quick to defer to his father, whom “nobody could ever touch,” as C.J. says. But others have formed their own opinions. According to Blues Revue, “Whether he and his band of red hots burn on rocking contemporary songs or simmer on traditional country waltzes, C.J. Chenier is poised to be zydeco’s new torch bearer.”
After taking over The Red Hot Louisiana Band, C.J. forged ahead, releasing three solo albums (one on Arhoolie and two on Slash) and playing hundreds of gigs. The band attracted the attention of fans, critics and fellow musicians by playing major festivals like the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, San Diego’s Street Scene, and Milwaukee’s Summerfest. Singer/songwriter Paul Simon heard C.J. and handpicked him to play on his Rhythm Of The Saints album, then asked him to join his “Born At The Right Time” tour. A few years later C.J. showed up as a guest on the Gin Blossom’s New Miserable Experience album.
Alligator Records, the label where C.J.’s father had won a Grammy Award for his album, I’M HERE! (it was also the first Grammy for the then-fledgling label) in 1982, signed C.J. in October 1994. C.J.’s Alligator debut, TOO MUCH FUN, became a favorite with fans and critics alike. Living Blues magazine named TOO MUCH FUN Best Zydeco Album of 1995. “Heartfelt, swamp pop at its finest...a second generation of zydeco royalty stands poised to claim the crown for his own,” gushed CD Review. Features ran in major newspapers and magazines everywhere, including The Chicago Tribune, Billboard, Blues Revue and The Los Angeles Times.
1995 appearances on the Jon Stewart Show and CNN brought C.J.’s music to his widest audiences yet. But all this attention didn’t change his philosophy toward his music. “You go to a gig by a jazz band,” he says, “and everybody's sitting down, sipping drinks. You play zydeco and you see shoes flying off. You can’t come to my show and stay unhappy all night long. You’re going to break a smile and stomp your foot before too long. This is happy music, and it makes you dance.”
Nowhere was this more evident than the band’s 1996 appearance at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, where their raucous performance caught the attention of VH1, which featured Chenier in a segment on the event. Entertainment Weekly followed with a piece of their own. And a 1996 showcase at Austin’s SxSW Music Conference (as part of the Alligator Records 25th Anniversary event) swept the overflow crowd of music writers and fans at Antone’s into a massive dancing frenzy.
Chenier followed up with THE BIG SQUEEZE, an album filled with thick dance grooves and rich, melodic singing. Rooted in traditional zydeco, the album added many other elements, including funk, Southern soul, R&B, rock and jazz. C.J.’s soul-packed vocals and masterful accordion playing—as well as his sax and flute skills—made THE BIG SQUEEZE an upbeat, funky good time. “THE BIG SQUEEZE is proof that the son rises,” cheered The Boston Herald. “Guaranteed to make you want to fire up some gumbo and dance the night away,” added Request. To make matters even better, Chenier won the 1997 Living Blues Critics’ Poll Award as well as an Indie Award (from AFIM) for Best Zydeco Album.
Now, with STEP IT UP!, Chenier and The Red Hot Louisiana Band are ready to criss-cross the country and bring their infectious, boisterous music to fans everywhere. “The younger Chenier has put his own distinct mark on the music which remains unparalleled as a party starter,” shouted Billboard. “Rocked-up, infectious energy,” raved The Chicago Tribune. “A guaranteed crowd-pleaser and an authentic, zydeco master.” Indeed, with STEP IT UP!, C.J. Chenier steps it up and infuses his music with a funky and soulful attitude so irresistible, music fans everywhere will be happily dancing well into the new millennium.