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Boozoo Chavis; Leader in Zydeco Music Scene

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Boozoo Chavis, one of the leading performers in zydeco--the musical mixture of Cajun, Celtic and rhythm and blues--has died. He was 70.

Chavis died Saturday at a hospital in Austin, Texas, of complications from a heart attack and stroke. He was admitted to Brackenridge Hospital on April 29 after suffering a minor heart attack following a performance. His condition declined steadily after he suffered a stroke in the hospital.

An accordionist, singer and bandleader, Chavis was one of the elders of the popular zydeco music scene in his native Louisiana. Known for his gritty singing style, Chavis produced a simple, propulsive, idiosyncratic sound with his hard-driving button-style accordion.

His band, the Magic Sounds, was in constant demand on the Gulf Coast and, as the popularity of regional music spread in the 1990s, Chavis became known nationwide.

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Wilson Anthony Chavis was the son of a tenant farmer who played the accordion. He learned harmonica and accordion by watching his father and began playing in dance halls in the 1940s. He was later signed to a record contract.

Chavis’ first hit, “Paper in My Shoes,” was recorded in 1954. In that song, which he sang in French and English, Chavis told the tale of his impoverished youth, when he would stuff paper in his shoes because he’d worn out his socks. The song sold 100,000 copies.

Chavis remained popular in the late 1950s, but quit the record business in the early 1960s, saying that firms cheated him out of income from record sales.

For the next 20 years, Chavis returned to those professions that gave him a living before he turned to music--training racehorses and farming.

But in 1984, Chavis decided to return to music after he found that someone was impersonating him at concerts and drawing good crowds. He simply felt that audiences should hear the real thing.

At 56, his career took off again after he recorded “Dog Hill” and “Zydeco Hee Haw.” The left-handed Chavis wasn’t even slowed when the tips of two fingers were amputated after an accident.

In concert, Chavis always wore a white cowboy hat and an apron to keep the sweat off his accordion.

Known for his bawdy crowd-pleasing style, Chavis had little concern over formal musical presentation, telling one of his bandmates who complained his irregular style was hard to follow: “You follow me. If I’m wrong, you’re wrong, too.”

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Chavis is survived by his wife, Leona, three sons, three daughters, 21 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.


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