BluesArtStudio - 01/2005

Reluctant No More

by Larry Benicewicz

It’s hard to imagine but it has been thirteen years since I last wrote an article about ROY CARRIER, zydeco exponent extraordinaire and the pride of the thriving rural “metropolis” of Lawtell, LA (population 198). At that time I titled the profile “Sir Roy the Reluctant” because this naturally shy and circumspect man was loathe to leave the friendly confines of his home state (well maybe sometimes to east Texas) and go boldly forth on the touring trail to demonstrate his prodigious musical skills to the rest of the world. In fact, he remained such a parochial figure (both literally and figuratively), playing mainly for parish dances like the nearby Holy Ghost Church Hall in Opelousas, that Lee Lavergne, his producer/recording engineer during that era, actually thought that he had first discovered him (and then recommended that I see for myself this diamond in the rough), although he had been an entertainment fixture in those parts for decades.

            Well, as they say, times have changed. Since then, I prevailed upon him (actually wore him down) and even arranged his first northeast corridor junket in 1993, including stops at the Full Moon Saloon in Baltimore and Mark Gretschel’s long defunct Tornado Alley in Wheaton, MD. At that juncture of his career, he was “country,” naïve and unsophisticated, and couldn’t believe that he would be allowed to stay in a white man’s house (mine). He confessed that he had never seen a basement before (they don’t exist in South Louisiana) and after peering down into my dark dungeon of a cellar, he wondered out loud if the band was limited to using the “downstairs” toilet there as if segregation still existed. I made a joke about “slave quarters,” and he laughed nervously. But he quickly adapted to an urban existence and for a while, my domicile became Lawtell north, his headquarters, and I grew to expect Louisiana cuisine - gumbo, shrimp etouffe, pigs’ feet, and sundry rice n’ gravy dishes - on the menu when I got home from teaching school. And just as often Roy would surprise me by taking it upon himself to make a home improvement or two (mostly successful).    

            Now, having gained confidence and seasoning as a touring veteran, Roy not only regularly pays a call to the Mid-Atlantic at the TK Club in Philadelphia, Glen Echo’s Spanish Ballroom near Washington, D.C., or the Cat’s Eye Pub in Baltimore but also he can be found most anywhere be it East or West Coast. Indeed, he’s become a road warrior nonpareil.

            During his many visits here in Baltimore, I used to mildly chastise this barrel-chested accordionist for not taking his talent abroad. On one occasion soon after his arrival, he told me breathlessly that he finally had gone “overseas.” And I asked him where. “Honduras,” he said. I told Roy that anywhere you could drive was definitely not “overseas.” And he felt that he had let me down. But at least, and only a few years after our acquaintance, he was really broadening his musical horizons, even daring a foray into Canada, wherein he thought he was cheated after cashing in his north of the border dollars (he still doesn’t comprehend exchange rates). To his credit, Roy probably remains the only artist of his generation - not Rockin’ Dopsie, not John Delafose, not Boozoo Chavis, and not Beau Jocque - to have actually “crossed the pond” and performed in Holland (in 1999 at a jamboree in Raamsdonkveer) and most recently in France at the eleventh annual installment of Les Nuits Cajun et Zydeco festival in Saulieu from the 5 -8 of August, 2004. Because of his ever-expanding itinerary, he also has been offered many more opportunities to record which further served to spread his reputation far and wide.

            Yes, Roy’s come a long way in a short time and has earned every one of his accolades. After toiling in relative obscurity for most of his life, he’s been universally accorded a legendary status and his weather-beaten, sprawling, tinderbox of a roadhouse, the Offshore Lounge in Lawtell, has become a shrine (like that of nearby Slim’s Y KiKi and Richard’s) beckoning devout zydeco pilgrims from all parts of the globe not only on Thursday nights when various bands are presented for a nominal admission fee of two dollars but also the weekend after Christmas when Roy gathers together the clan Carrier, including sons Troy and Chubby (who now both lead their own outfits), nephew Dwight, and assorted cousins and nephews of this extended family, and throws a massive three-day zydeco shindig, complete with all the trimmings - food, drink, music, trail rides, you name it.

            Through his constant peregrinations, Roy certainly has contributed greatly to the popularity of zydeco outside of South Louisiana and when local Ben Pagac, entomologist by day and dance instructor by night, needed a classic representative of this indigenous music in order to teach the proper two-step to the uninitiated, he chose Roy as the subject of a now popular video.  

            Over the years, I have been privileged to have formed a relationship with Roy Carrier based on mutual respect and trust. There were never any paper contracts between us. Scrupulously honest, if Roy makes a commitment of any sort, he keeps his word. And I don’t ever have to worry if he will be late for a gig or if the equipment is not in top-notch working order. He still may not be the most cosmopolitan of zydeco musicians, but he, along with contemporary Thomas “Big Hat” Fields of neighboring Church Point, may be the most professional. For, if ever there were an artist of this genre to embody the term “old school,” it would be Roy.

            It was not ever easy coaxing an interview with Roy, as he hardly ever volunteered information about his long life in music. From time to time, though, during his many trips, I would catch him in an expansive mood, and he would divulge a few more facts, more like dispensing clues, about his past, but only upon direct questioning. Perhaps he was embarrassed about reflecting upon his humble beginnings or lack of a formal education. But for whatever the reason his reticence, as far as Roy is concerned, it was always much easier pinning down events rather than dates. And even now the exact chronology is open to some conjecture. But gradually a mosaic of a biography did emerge. 

            Joseph Roy Carrier, the son of a sharecropper and one of eight siblings, was born February 11, 1947 between Church Point and Opelousas, LA. Although the family was dirt poor, it was rich in musical tradition. Roy’s father, Warren, was an accordionist of note in the region, who supposedly bought his squeezebox from a patriarch of Cajun music, Nathan Abshire. At the drop of a hat, he would throw holiday house parties which would often entail his young son moving the furniture outdoors in order to create space for dancing and the food table, upon which would be situated a giant pot of community gumbo. But the older generations of Carriers (original spelling Carriere) were also engaged in French La La music (a precursor of modern zydeco), including cousins Joseph “Bebe” on fiddle, Eraste “Dolan” on accordion, and Calvin, his son, on violin. Warren “recruited” the six-year-old Roy to play rubboard (frottoir) in his own ensemble during these household events. It was an instrument that he never cared for, but he had no choice. But his mother, perhaps recognizing his musical aptitude, soon after bought him a guitar which struck a chord in him, especially since it had a Sears & Roebuck Roy Rogers trademark. Nevertheless, Roy’s first love proved always to be the accordion and from the very beginning it was that of his cousin, Clifton Chenier, the highly influential, blues-based “parrain (godfather)” of zydeco music that he first heard over radio station KVPI based in Ville Platte, LA. Chenier, who died in 1987, would eventually become a mentor and confidant of the young Roy.   

            Eventually Roy became fairly proficient on the guitar and improved on the accordion, which he practiced surreptitiously while his father was away. In his early teens in about 1960 or so, Roy organized his first band, the Night Rockers (a name he employs to this day) with brother Murphy on drums, uncle John (his father’s brother) on rubboard, Dave Edmond on bass, and leader and hot accordion player in the vicinity, Chris Johnson. Although (being underage) they were still denied access to most public road houses and juke joints, the Night Rockers were able to keep busy by accepting any and all parish hall dances. After a couple of years, Chris dropped out and Roy assumed command of the band. But a farming accident deprived him of the index finger on his right hand, and precluded the possibility of him taking up the accordion for several more years. For a spell, he reluctantly reverted to the guitar. But he couldn’t leave the accordion alone too long, even if it meant approaching it in an unorthodox style in order to produce the desired note. By the mid-60s, Roy was back in business fronting this same aggregate again with Lawrence Chavis assuming his former guitar chores.

            1972 was a critical year in the 25-year-old Roy’s development. Inspired by Clifton Chenier, he made an important connection by paying a call to Lee Lavergne in Church Point, who had just opened a music store, the Sound Center, and, emulating his idol, he bought a piano accordion, of which, possibly because of his handicap, he never really grasped the fundamentals. Ironically, Roy’s instrument of choice shortly thereafter would be a triple note, which, though more limited in range, was still capable of blues progressions, whereas Chenier’s similar dalliance with the triple note never bore fruit.

            In that same year, Roy gave up rice farming for good, taking advantage of the oil boom to hit South Louisiana by becoming a driller, tool pusher, and all around roughneck on a platform/rig in the Gulf of Mexico. It was a schedule of seven days “on” and seven days “off,” and Roy made the most of his opportunities to either practice or perform during these long intervals of free time. By 1981, having put enough money on the side, he was ready to open his own establishment, the Offshore Lounge (in the hamlet of Lawtell, five miles west of Opelousas on old Interstate 190), in which he and other native musicians could hone their skills during impromptu jam sessions, a tradition that has carried over to the present.

            Undoubtedly, it was such a meeting which introduced Roy to another fellow musician, bassist Robby “Mann” Robinson, whom Roy enlisted to play in his own band and who would later go on to form Zydeco Force, mostly with members of the Broussard family, also of Lawtell.

            Robby was already a veteran in the recording facilities by the time he joined forces with Roy’s group. In 1984, he recorded a single for Lee Lavergne’s Lanor label (by then Lee had installed a studio in the rear of his store) in the band Cruise and another, “Street Life,” in a soul groove. However, his third release in 1986, “There’s A Man down There (Lanor 598),” signaled a new departure - zydeco. Prompted by the regional success of this latter single, Lee welcomed him back for an encore in April of 1987. Although Robby himself could play a passable accordion, he brought Roy along to the seance to liven things up. Thus Roy backed Robby’s second zydeco studio engagement at Lanor which resulted in “My Dancing Shoes (606).” In short, Lee was so impressed with Roy in this supporting role that he also recorded at the same taping a solo number of Roy’s - “I Found My Woman (Doing the Zydeco).” As an experiment, Lee decided to test the waters by putting Roy’s tune on the flip side of Robby’s - a common practice in the 50s and 60s when two-sided hits were the rule, rather than the exception, but absolutely unheard of in the 80s, that is, except in South Louisiana.  

            As the last refuge of vinyl, the local jukeboxes “broke” both sides of Lee Lavergne’s brainstorm. As a matter of fact, Roy’s track even fared better sales-wise than Robby’s cut. Lee knew that Roy had finally arrived when he spotted his name on the marquee of Richard’s (also on 190 west of Opelousas), the premier zydeco club in Acadiana. This triumph was followed by his two-sided local winner of early 1990, a reworking of Clifton Chenier’s “I’m Coming Home to Stay,” bw “What You Gonna Do [With a Man Like That] (629),” about as hot a dance number as can be imagined. Although at the time, Roy had recorded only three songs for Lanor, a London-based (UK) concern, Cooking Vinyl, which specialized in roots, avant-garde, and exotic musical productions (Michelle Shocked, the Mekons, Flaco Jimenez, Cowboy Junkies, etc.) determined that they were distinguished enough to be included in their anthology of the best of Lanor, Zydeco Blues and Boogie.

            From the early to mid-90s, Roy would go on to record no less than four cassette albums for Lanor, all which were steady sellers. His first, in 1990, Rocking with Roy (1019), featured his son, Troy, on drums and the much celebrated Clarence “Ghetto Man” Riley on rubboard (frottoir). His second came in 1992, Roy’s Back in Town (1032), and in 1993  She’s Naked (1036). I remember this latter project vividly, as Roy came north promoting it by emblazoning it on the rear of his homemade trailer, a slogan which invited the curious stares of many a passer-by. His last Lee Lavergne-produced album came in 1995, You Better Watch Out (1044), whose rollicking title track contains the vocal chorus, “Roy’s in town.” 

            And other entrepreneurs both here and abroad were quick to recognize this budding zydeco genius by leasing a wealth of material from Lee Lavergne, including Stan Lewis, proprietor of Jewel/Paula/Ronn records of Shreveport, LA, who, capitalizing on the national line dance craze, released a CD, Zydeco Strokin’ (1044), in 1992, and from it a single, “Maria(Paula 463),” which, being in colored vinyl, is now a collector’s item.  Peter Thompson of Reading, England, who there heads Zane records issued two CDs during this time frame - Soulful Side of Zydeco (ZNCD 1003, ‘91), a split with another zydeco ace in the neighborhood, Joe Walker, and Roy Carrier At His Best (ZNCD 1010, ‘95), a fourteen track compilation. Lee Lavergne would go on to reissue the Soulful Side of Zydeco (LN 1003) for domestic consumption and evidently is the only Roy Carrier venture on Lanor to appear in the CD format. 

            About 1995 Roy had a falling out with longtime producer Lee Lavergne, but unbeknown to him, there was someone available in Roy’s bread and butter territory, Washington, D.C., ready, willing, and able to take up the recording slack - Wayne Kahn. And the seeds of Roy’s association with Wayne Kahn, who would soon inaugurate the label, Right on Rhythm, actually were sown a couple of years earlier when Wayne attended the annual Baltimore Blues Society Labor Day weekend bash, Eat the Rich picnic, held on the now-late Alonzo Bennett’s spacious homestead in Pasadena, MD. Wayne came specifically to see Roy, the headliner of the 1993 affair, and was disappointed that Roy had run out of his distinctive (and highly sought after) “She’s Naked” T-shirts. But after taking his money and his address, Roy made good on his promise to later mail it to him. And it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. A few short years later, a deal between the two was cemented in New Orleans.

            Wayne would be the first to admit that during that period he, as a recording engineer, was flying by the seat of his pants, attempting to understand all the nuances of his field recorder. But gradually with experience, his confidence grew to the point that he was ready to attempt Roy’s first undertaking with his fledgling logo in 1996, Nasty Girls (ROR002), a live album culled from a series of Roy’s appearances at Mark Gretschel’s new Twist & Shout club in Bethesda, MD, the Cat’s Eye Pub and the New Haven Lounge, both in Baltimore. Roy’s next release for Right on Rhythm came just before his first New Orleans Jazzfest invitation in May, 1998, and according to Wayne, it was the first set of tracks issued on CD by stellar area guitarist David Earl’s new studio in Severn, MD. Twist & Shout (ROR004) was completed with the addition of some live numbers taken from a February, 1998, engagement at the New Haven Lounge.  

            The next offering by Roy on Right on Rhythm had a curious history. And it had much to do with Roy’s insistence (even up to the present) working as a lone wolf without agents or long-term contracts. Ray Alden of upstate New York, who like Wayne ran a tasty little label, Chubby Dragon, had spotted this zydeco exemplar during his 1995 performance at Clearwater’s Hudson River Festival and was determined to record him at his upstate New York home studio, which he ultimately accomplished in 1997, resulting in Offshore Blues & Zydeco (CD 1003). It turned out to be such a worthy endeavor, truly capturing the essence, that is, as its title implies, the blues basis of this down home style of music, that Wayne took it upon himself to insure that it would never go out of print. In 2001, he finally had the means to buy Alden out and re-release the effort as ROR008.

            Roy’s fourth Right on Rhythm album combined studio cuts made at Acadiana Sounds Studio in Eunice, LA, with live recordings from one of Roy’s favorite venues, Relay Town Hall in Relay, MD. Whiskey Drinkin’ Man (ROR009) was released in February, 2001.

            Rounding out Roy’s discography is a 2001 release through Mardi Gras records of New Orleans, a major player in the Louisiana jazz, blues, gospel, and zydeco (Fernest Arceneaux, Jude Taylor, Beau Jocque, Rockin’ Sidney, Rockin’ Dopsie Jr.) market, owned and managed by Warren Hildebrand, the son of the late renowned founder, Henry, of All South Distributors, once the most mighty one-stop in the Crescent City. Warren acquired the Lanor catalogue from the Murray family of Jennings, LA, into whose hands Lee Lavergne’s complete inventory had fallen after his sudden death in January, 1998. Still in the process of separating the wheat from the chaff of the old Lanor masters, Warren issued Zydeco Soul (JS1322), which, according to Wayne, is only displayed in gift shops in the French Quarter specifically geared to the tourist trade.

            Roy’s most recent oeuvre, Living Legend: Roy Carrier and the Night Rockers (Severn CD-0031) is not only his most ambitious but also his best album to date. Not only is he affiliated with one of the most prestigious blues labels in the country (Roy Gaines, Sugar Ray, Steve Guyger, Lou Pride, Big Joe & the Dynaflows, Jelly Roll All-Stars, Mike Morgan & The Crawl, etc.) but also he finds himself in one of the finer state-of-the-art recording facilities with the deft hands of the aforementioned David Earl at the controls of the console. And it doesn’t hurt the enterprise in the least to have Wayne Kahn looking over his shoulder as executive producer. And as a result of their diligence, the listener here doesn’t have to concern himself about the muddled, unbalanced sound which all too often accompanies such zydeco productions; it’s clear as a bell.  

            I asked Wayne how to characterize his label’s involvement with Roy’s latest CD and he responded, “Officially, it is a Right on Rhythm recording licensed to Severn for distribution for an initial 5-year period with extensions possible. I also view it as a collaboration and joint effort and will do everything I can to see that everyone is smiling at the other end of the deal.” Whatever the arrangement, their collective handiwork has yielded one of the most faithful representations of authentic zydeco to come down the pike in years. 

            And it begins with the personnel, most of whom have been with Roy for ages and can follow his every move, including longtime bassist (and road driver) and nephew Kevin Carrier and Phillip Carriere, another relation, on rubboard. And if it is true zydeco that you seek (not the single-note, repetitious, chanky-chank variety espoused by the young Turks), you absolutely must have a blues guitarist in the band and Roy has always fulfilled this obligation by carrying one of the greatest bluesmen in the business, Raymond Randle of Alexandria, LA, on any day, the equal of Clifton Chenier’s erstwhile sidemen, Phillip Walker and Paul “Little Buck” Senegal. The only non-charter member of this superlative cast is Stevie “Skeeter” Charlot, who established his reputation as the percussionist for the late Beau Jocque (Andrus Espre). Although he has been beset by personal problems over the years, Skeeter, when he’s on his game as vocalist and drummer, is second to none in Acadiana.

            Unlike most artists whose CDs are just excuses to regurgitate the zydeco classics, Roy has to be commended for supplying all the compositions for this release, even though a couple of the dozen songs are derived from his earlier crowd-pleasing “You Better Watch Out” groove - “You Got Me Dancing” and “She Burnt the Bacon.” And he also includes a reprise of his signature La La tune (played characteristically with only accordion, rubboard, and drums), the frenetic “What You Gonna Do [With a Man Like That].” But Roy is unique in that no one plays this type of material. And anyone hearing Living Legend for the first time will think it’s quite a refreshing departure from the standard fare zydeco ilk.

            As usual, Roy sticks to the basics, which is all about the maintaining the beat, and his high energy dance selections are all carried along by a steady, infectious rhythm - what real zydeco is all about. And if such rocking numbers as “Put a Hump in Your Back” and “I Got Something for You Baby,” as well as the other aforementioned burners, don’t get you out on the floor, you definitely must be moribund. If nothing else, this hour’s worth (Roy never short changes the audience) of high voltage music should accord you quite a cardio-pulmonary workout. Richard Simmons, move over.

            As a disciple of Clifton Chenier, Roy always includes a few gut bucket blues offerings to add variety to any project and Living Legend is no exception. In addition, the low down, straight-ahead blues of “Everybody Call Me Shoon,” “I Come From the Country,” and “You Told Me That You Love Me” with their extended riffs allow Roy to “voice over,” revealing details not only about himself but also the everyday trials and tribulations of the common people, sentiments which Roy feels should be mandatory components of this style of music. Often citing Boozoo Chavis’s song, “Paper in My Shoe,” as an example of this confessional/biographical genre of music, Roy says, “Everybody can relate to being down and out like that.”  And this is what puts him at odds with some of the kids that try to transform rap songs into zydeco, or vice-versa.  “Zydeco from the very beginning has never been about gangsters or pimping” he adds with disgust in his voice, commenting upon the direction that he fears his beloved music is headed.

            All in all, Living Legend: Roy Carrier and the Night Rockers would make a most worthy addition to any zydeco library. Had I been in charge, being the nit-picker that I am, I would have had Raymond Randle sing a blues number and I would have had Roy tackle a French waltz (he has some great ones up his sleeve), two ingredients of his stage show not accounted for in this handsome labor of love. But I guess you can only cram so much into one package.

            Being one of the last survivors of blues-based zydeco, others being Fernest Arceneaux and Jude Taylor, Roy is definitely in the minority today. Confronting mortality, he feels his days are numbered. Having seen so many of his peers vanish over the years, many before their time, including Boozoo Chavis, John Delafose, Beau Jocque, Marcel Dugas, and of course his idol, Clifton Chenier, he now resorts to sitting down on stage in order to save himself and live to play another day for his fans. He won’t be around forever. And if you can’t catch his act, do the next best thing and buy his CD. Take a little of Roy home with you. You won’t regret it. Larry Benicewicz

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