Clifton Chenier’s personal items are up for sale – right down to his prosthetic leg.
October 23, 2002
A year ago, Herman Fuselier was browsing through eBay when he found Clifton Chenier’s accordion on the auction block. Item #147543437 had a starting bid of $10,000.
Fuselier expressed his bewilderment in his weekly Bayou Boogie column for The Daily Advertiser. He wrote, “It’s like finding ‘Lucille,’ B.B. King’s guitar, in a pawn shop or Louis Armstrong’s trumpet with the lawn tools at a garage sale.” Fuselier e-mailed the seller of the accordion, but never received a reply.
Chenier is generally regarded as the King of Zydeco. The Opelousas native blended the popular rhythm and blues of his day with the traditional Creole music of his upbringing. Chenier may not have invented zydeco, but he certainly defined it.
In his book The Kingdom of Zydeco, Michael Tisserand contends that when Chenier passed away in 1987, his trademark red velvet crown “was placed in his casket near his head. Many believed it was buried with him, both literally and symbolically.” For the last 15 years, no one has been able to pinpoint the whereabouts of Chenier’s crown. Tisserand briefly interviewed Chenier’s widow, Margaret, who claimed to have the crown in her possession, although she wouldn’t elaborate without being compensated by Tisserand.
In August, at the Southwest Louisiana Zydeco Music Festival in Plaisance, the king’s things resurfaced, and the price tags were still attached. A photo of Chenier’s accordion was displayed in a booth, with a marked down price of $7,500.
Deidre Davis of Houston rented the booth to display the photos of Chenier’s possessions still available for auction. They included his 1984 Grammy Award with a starting bid of $5,000, his crown for $4,500 and an oil painting titled King of Zydeco for $3,000.
One could also bid on Chenier’s suit, tuxedo shirts, suspenders, money clip, personal travel photos and various awards and honors. But perhaps the two strangest items were Chenier’s wooden crutches and his prosthetic leg.
Davis, who is Clifton Chenier’s second cousin, says Margaret Chenier “just decided that she could part with (the items). For a while we didn’t ever see any of it. When she decided to give it to the family, I decided to take it to the next level, to get him the recognition he deserves.”
Margaret Chenier confirms that she gave the items to Davis. She says, “I just wanted to auction them off. Do you want to buy them?”
Margaret Chenier won’t talk about the auction without being paid for it. After it’s explained to her that newspapers don’t generally pay people for interviews, and that telling her story could raise public awareness of the auction, she says, “That’s all right. Not if you’re not paying me. They won’t buy it here in Lafayette anyway. Not in Louisiana, I’m sure.”
Chris Strachwitz, founder of Arhoolie Records and Chenier’s longtime producer, says that in an age when pop music memorabilia sells like hotcakes, “these vernacular traditions are becoming part of the pop music scene and many of the relatives of the musicians are living in dire poverty.” And while regional musicians are finally gaining overdue national attention (like the recent praise for bluegrass veteran Ralph Stanley), their memorabilia will never fetch the big bucks associated with The Beatles and Elvis.
State Sen. Don Cravins of Arnaudville doesn’t buy Davis’ claim that she is paying homage to Chenier’s memory by selling his personal items. He says, “A fitting way to pay tribute to him would be to display his items, not to start auctioning off his very intimate and personal items to line someone else’s pockets. It’s horrible.”
Cravins says a more fitting tribute to Chenier’s life is the statue that will be erected in front of the Clifton Chenier Community Center in Lafayette. And if nothing else, Cravins says, couldn’t the family exhibit Chenier’s belongings inside the center?
Cravins doesn’t dispute the family’s right to sell whatever it pleases, but “the line is drawn when you start selling the man’s artificial leg and foot. I believe he and his family deserve much more dignity than that. If I bought the leg, what would I do with it? It’s degrading to Clifton’s great memory. You need to draw the line somewhere. You don’t sell a prosthetic leg. Give me a break. It ain’t that damn bad. When I heard that, I thought there was something wrong with this picture. Then to do it under the guise that it’s a tribute. Where’s the tribute?”
The city of Opelousas would like to pay tribute to Chenier by displaying the collection, but there isn’t a budget for it. Part of the city’s planned revitalization efforts, planned by students at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, include a public performance area and a Cajun and zydeco museum. Cynthia Perdue, director of community development for the city of Opelousas, says, “We would love to have those items to honor him.”
But the Louisiana State Museum may beat the city of Opelousas to Chenier’s possessions. Steve Teeter is curator of jazz for the museum in New Orleans. He says he’s negotiating with Davis to acquire the collection. He’s flown to Houston to see the items and says, “We would very much like to have them on display. Basically, there’s some really great stuff there.”
Teeter says, “Our rules require that we get an outside appraisal and they’re having a hard time getting an appraisal. It’s a question of working with our procedures to make it a fair deal for all parties.”
Teeter and Davis may reach an impasse when it comes to the Grammy Award. Ron Roecker is the director of communications for the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, the entity that awards the sought-after music awards. He says, “It is the policy of the Recording Academy that the recipient of a Grammy Award cannot sell or transfer the award.” It’s not known how the Recording Academy enforces its policy or who retains ownership of a Grammy after a recipient dies.
C.J. Chenier is the son of Clifton Chenier, but not of Margaret Chenier. It was news to him that his father’s possessions were up for grabs.
“That’s not cool,” he says. “That’s a shame they’re trying to sell all that. It should be in a museum and open to the public.”
Fuselier pondered the same notion when he broke the news a year ago. He wrote, “Aren’t some things still sacred? Or can even the untouchables of history be hawked to the highest bidder?”