Working Man Not Looking for Zydeco Crown

Accordion player John Delafose, a sharecropper's son, would rather concentrate on his music than his rank in the industry. He performs Saturday in Orange.

Since the death of zydeco music king Clifton Chenier in 1987, so many pretenders have claimed the crown that you'd think all of Louisiana's crawfish were boiled in Imperial margarine.

Let the rest of them chase the crown and title, John Delafose figures, he's got work to do. A sharecropper's son, Delafose spent much of his own life in the fields or rice mills. Though the 52-year-old Eunice, La., resident has made a living with his music for well more than a decade, the toil of the work week isn't something he's likely to forget. And when he performs now, his accordion-driven music overwhelms with hypnotic dance grooves and Saturday-night pleasure, as if by sheer force of will he can keep Monday from ever arriving.

Delafose took up the accordion when he was 16 after hearing traditional-styled players such as Boisec Ardoin, Freeman Fontenot and Wilfred Latour. In his 20s, he became heavily influenced by Chenier's zydeco style, a blending of Cajun music with rhythm and blues.

It also is Chenier's influence that steers Delafose away from worrying about who is dubbed "king" or who has the biggest recording contract. Speaking by phone Monday from a relative's home in the Bay Area, Delafose explained, "I learned one thing from Clifton. He always told me, 'John, you got a good little rhythm band. You don't need nobody to help you with it. You just go on and do what you're doing and don't worry what people say, because there's always going to be people who say they're better than you.' So I don't worry about the other guys. I just go and do my thing, and if that keeps people happy, that's what I'm looking for."

Delafose finds some of his best audiences in California, where zydeco draws both a world-beat crowd and expatriate Louisianans. Though a good number of his fellow Creoles have relocated to Los Angeles or the Bay Area, Delafose says he was never tempted to seek the good life out here.

"Not one time. Not the slightest bit. I don't know if it's better back home, but when you're brought up in one spot, that's the spot for you. There, you can take off and go down the street and it don't be too crowded, and you don't have no hills to climb. You can go fishing, hunting, dancing, eating, with all kinds of food and whatnot. I guess your mind is more at ease."

Delafose spends most of his time performing at home in the bayou country, but also tours parts of the United States several times a year. His music also has taken him to Europe and on a 10-country tour of Africa.

He may have played Kenya and Gabon, but one locale that's new to him is Orange County, which has hosted very few of the nationally touring Cajun and zydeco acts. Delafose and his band will perform Saturday at the Sunset Beach Club in Orange. Promoter David Gaar hopes it will be the first of many such shows.

Since June, Gaar, 29, a Westminster resident, has presented Chank-a-Chank, a weekly event of accordion-based dance music and Cajun food in Santa Monica, currently held at the Alligator Lounge on Pico Boulevard. The Sunday shows have featured such squeeze-box Sinatras as Nathan & the Zydeco Cha-Chas, Tex-Mex legend Steve Jordan and local light Chris Gaffney.

Gaar had no previous experience at promoting shows. The impetus, he said, came from several visits to Louisiana.

"I got to know a lot of the musicians on a personal basis--I play accordion myself--and there was nothing happening out here for this music," Gaar said. "There'd be the yearly Cajun and Zydeco Festival (in Long Beach) and on a sporadic basis there'd be the church dances at Verbum Dei in South Central Los Angeles for the Creole community, but there really weren't any outlets to go see many of the performers otherwise. So I figured I'd take a chance and see what happened."

His Santa Monica shows--which include dance instruction for those who want it--have been a qualified success.

"It certainly hasn't been a windfall," Gaar said. "It's more a labor of love than anything else, the economy being the way it is now, and a lot of this being a marginal style of music. I've been satisfied so far to be almost breaking even on a lot of the shows. But I'm happy doing it."

Living in Orange County, Gaar is well acquainted with the difficulties of presenting original music here.

"It's tough here," he said, "seeing the Cuckoo's Nest, Safari Sam's and the original Golden Bear all get swallowed alive. It's quite frustrating that there's nothing going on. It seems whenever someone does try to get something going down here, it has a very short life.

"But I honestly think there's an audience here. If people know that the options are out there, I think they would come out for something as interesting as this. I know a lot of them have been coming out to the Cajun festivals in Long Beach, but then there's been no outlet for it in Orange County."

Gaar had first tried to interest local clubs, including Bogart's and the Coach House, in booking some of the zydeco acts he was bringing into Santa Monica, but found they didn't want to take a chance on acts that were unproven in the market. He settled on promoting the Delafose show himself in the recently opened Sunset Beach Club because he thinks the venue's dance floor and laid-back atmosphere are well-suited to the music. If the show is at all successful, he hopes to work with the club to make a monthly event of it.

Like his Santa Monica shows, Saturday will be a multiset dance marathon, with gumbo and other traditional fuel made available by caterer Cedric Singleton, formerly of L.A.'s Big Easy Cafe.

Delafose himself isn't worried at all about working to a new audience.

"It sometimes takes a few songs to find what gets their feet tapping," he said, "but we've even played to sit-down concert audiences, and before we're through they're crowding the aisles dancing."

He still is surprised and delighted by the world audience that zydeco has found.

"I never expected it. Everybody had it down as just a rural style. We always had the little French dances in the country, house dances, but even that started dying off a few years ago. Then it came back alive, and now most young men are getting accordions . . . There's so many accordion players now that I'm afraid they might flood the market. It keeps me working hard, because there's so much competition now you have to be good to stay in the business."

* John Delafose & His Eunice Playboys perform Saturday at 9 p.m. at the Sunset Beach Club, 777 S. Main St., Orange. Tickets: $10. Information: (714) 835-7922 or (714) 373-0102.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World