As the old clubs close, Louisiana’s traditional music looks for a new home About 1,000 people, black and white, turned out in Lafayette on Sunday, June 19, to pay their final respects at the passing of a cultural legend.
No, it wasn’t a funeral – exactly. It was the closing of Hamilton’s Place, one of a dwindling number of small zydeco clubs where the likes of Clifton Chenier, Rockin’ Dopsie and Beau Jocque, long before they became famous, had once enthralled swaying dancers like Indian snake charmers.
For almost half a century, zydeco-loving blacks and an increasing amount of whites in Acadiana had packed into the unassuming, windowless, white frame structure on Verot School Road to gyrate – and perspire – on its pine dance floor.
But Lafayette zydeco clubs such as Hamilton’s Place and El Sid-O’s have seen the crowds evaporate in recent years, the result of competition from free festivals, of stricter DWI laws, of higher band fees and of changing tastes.
“People can’t drink no more and drive,” reflected William Hamilton, age 76, whose father opened the club in 1956 when Verot School Road was still a gravel country lane. “They catch somebody for DWI coming out of here, then I’m liable. I can’t tell when someone has too much to drink. I gave up my liquor license last January. I didn’t lose it, I gave it up. All we was selling was water and soft drinks. I couldn’t make no money on that. The bands charged the cover, not me. I just said, well, I’ve had enough. I don’t want no more.”
Hamilton also noted that his patrons, both black and white, were mostly older people now.
“The younger crowd don’t like the zydeco,” he lamented. “They like those other bands.”
That wasn’t evident at the June wake for Hamilton’s Place, when an overflow, come-and-go, salt-and-pepper crowd of all ages paid $10 each to hear back-to-back gigs by zydeco’s two hottest names, Geno Delafose and Keith Frank. The three five-ton air conditioners were no match for the body heat radiating from hundreds of perspiring dancers, who took oxygen breaks to mill about outside in the soft June evening and to mourn what they were losing. Many of them paid their respects to Hamilton, topped as always by his trademark Panama hat.
“It’s the end of an era,” mused Leslie Bary, a Spanish professor at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. “I’ve been coming here since 1991. When I was living in New Orleans, I was dating a Cajun who was really into zydeco. Then, when I moved to Lafayette in ’98, I realized I’d been here before. It’s really an old-time place. It was the first time I’d heard black Americans speaking French. It’s one of the most indigenous places I’ve ever seen. It’s perhaps the most amazing cultural experience I’ve had in the United States.”
Her boyfriend, Hungarian-born Istvan Berkeley, who teaches philosophy at ULL, agreed.
“When I first arrived in Lafayette in 1996, this is the first place I came for live music, and I’ve loved it ever since,” he said. “This is the place I always brought out-of-town visitors.”
Also in the crowd were some of the rising zydeco musicians who got their starts here, such as Curley Taylor, whose band, Zydeco Trouble, played here for 15 months.
“It’s been great for zydeco,” Taylor said of the club. “My first gig was here with Geno 10 years ago. It’s a great dance floor. I had real good luck here. This is a real clean-cut club. Everyone just felt comfortable. It’s just so diverse. You had a whole lot of black people and a whole lot of white people together. A lot of clubs are just white people or black people.”
“I came here tonight to celebrate, but we shouldn’t be celebrating,” observed Terry Domingue of Duson, who leads the Zydeco Bad Boys. “This is the place we got started. He [Hamilton] gave us a chance when others didn’t.
“This is one of the hottest zydeco spots in the Southwest,” Domingue added, in the present tense, as though unable to accept the club’s demise. “It’s a place where different cultures can get together – blacks, whites, Asians – just get together for a good time, like a backyard barbecue. I wish somebody would buy it. It’s got a lot of memories.” Two months after that nostalgic night, Hamilton came in from a blazing midday sun after completing some manual labor on the 108-acre farm that he and his siblings inherited from their father to discuss the future of the historic 4,000-square-foot shotgun building that sits between his and his sister’s houses. He confirmed he has had three nibbles. One came from Vermilionville, the Acadian heritage park in Lafayette, and another from Downtown Alive!, Lafayette’s free open-air summer concert series. Another came from a Floridian who wants to move it to the suburb of Scott.
Still, none has agreed to Hamilton’s $175,000 asking price.
“As long as they don’t make up their minds to what I want, it’s gonna sit there,” he vowed resolutely. “Everything goes with it – the [memorabilia] pictures, the sign, three air conditioners.”
Hamilton admitted he hated seeing the club close, and that none of his own five children, who have scattered, showed any interest in continuing the family tradition. However, after he had open-heart surgery five years ago, “My doctor told me if I wanted to live a little longer, I had to quit.”
He gave up drinking, and although Hamilton is a non-smoker, his doctor said the passive smoke in the club was dangerous.
Like his grieving patrons, Hamilton possesses a wealth of memories. He explained that his father, Adam Hamilton, bought the then-rural acreage in 1938 for a pittance when William was 9 years old.
In the club’s early days, he said, Clifton Chenier played there once a month.
“We used to sell beer for 20 cents, and everyone came in free,” he recalled. “Clifton had us charge an extra 5 cents for the beer, and he got that extra nickel. He was glad to get that $20 or $30.”
William Hamilton was working for KLFY-TV/Channel 10 in Lafayette in the early 1960s when someone asked him if he knew Chenier.
“I said sure, he plays at my daddy’s club,” he said. “They asked me if I could get him to come on ‘Passe Partout,’” a morning program that is still on the air. “He was the first black accordion player to appear on ‘Passe Partout.’
“My father let me run it [the club] 40 years ago.” he continued. “He died in 1980. In 1982, I expanded the club. Right after that, I had ‘White Night’ for two years. When oil busted, everything went down. ‘White Night’ went down. It never came back. But whites still came. Sometimes it was half and half, especially when Geno Delafose played. We also had white bands. The Michot Brothers [a Cajun group] played every Friday night. A lot of lawyers came, and the retired people had a club and they would come. Dud Lestrapes was the mayor at that time, and he would come a lot. A lot of policemen came.”
In the last few years, however, he said the club was losing money and sometimes held dances just once a month.
“A lot of people are going to the casino and playing bingo,” Hamilton said. He began having the bands charge their own covers, usually $7 or $8 because “I couldn’t take a chance” on losing money. If it hadn’t been for outside income from his farm and royalties from three gas wells on it, he related, Hamilton’s Place would have perished sooner.
High band cover charges are also threatening the survival of Lafayette’s other zydeco institution, El Sid-O’s, on St. Antoine Street. It was opened in 1983 on the eve of the oil bust by Sidney Williams, brother of Nathan Williams, leader of the renowned Zydeco Cha-Chas.
Like Hamilton, Sidney Williams said the oil bust was a struggle for his club, but by the 1990s, “We was rollin’.”
But the onetime SRO crowds at El Sid-O’s have also disappeared. Why?
“You know what they’re doin’ on Friday nights now?” Williams said disdainfully. “Motorcycle ridin’!”
Like Hamilton, Williams, age 55, has another livelihood that pays the bills, a convenience store just half a block from the club. He also manages the Zydeco Cha-Chas. Smaller crowds, coupled with higher cover charges, are what are killing the small clubs, he said.
“That’s what happened to Mr. Hamilton. Nobody wants to play the small clubs no more. Those clubs like Whiskey River [a Cajun honky-tonk in the Atchafalaya Basin] are takin’ over. People can go to Downtown Alive! for free.”
He also grumbled that his fellow blacks “want somethin’ for nothin’. You tell a white person $5 (for cover), no problem. A black guy he sometimes wants to fight with you.”
He said it is becoming increasingly difficult to justify keeping El Sid-O’s open, at least for zydeco.
“One week I got a new band to play,” he related. “I wanted to help them out, so I agreed to $500 up front. Twenty people showed up. I worked all day here [at the store]) and made $400, and that night I lost $650 at the club.”
Unlike Hamilton’s Place, El Sid-O’s still has a bar, but Williams said it doesn’t make enough to pay the overhead. He said Nathan and Nathan’s son, “Little” Nathan, who now has his own zydeco band, have played there to help him out, as has Buckwheat Zydeco, “but if nobody comes, then they lose money.”
If El Sid-O’s closes, that would leave Richard’s Club and Slim’s Y Ki-Ki, both in St. Landry Parish to the north, as the only established zydeco clubs in Acadiana. Does this auger the eventual death of zydeco?
“Maybe around here, but not all over the world,” Williams insisted. “Everywhere else, they’re hollerin’ for it. Buckwheat’s goin’ to Russia.”
He said zydeco is becoming increasingly popular with white audiences at Louisiana festivals and at traildriving events in Texas.
“There’s more white people than black folks now,” he said.
If he is right, then zydeco may be experiencing the same cultural transformation that happened to jazz and blues. If they had stayed in the back alleys of New Orleans and black honky-tonks in the Mississippi Delta, they may have died out a generation or two ago. But white musicians like George Gershwin and Benny Goodman helped make jazz a mainstream genre, while blues evolved into rhythm-and-blues, which in turn morphed into rock ‘n’ roll. Just as zydeco audiences are increasingly white, more and more white faces are appearing in the bands as well.
That may be encouraging to some, but visionary men like Hamilton and Williams are being left behind.
“We’re losing our culture,” Williams lamented. “This is our heritage we’re losing. But you can’t blame the musicians. You can’t ask them to go and play for 40 people. All I can do is flip the script and go on to something else, like hip-hop or disco.”
Barry Ancelet, a French professor at ULL and the country’s leading authority on the Cajun and Creole subcultures,
said that zydeco in Acadiana has become a victim of its own popularity.
“Zydeco has had a great run of popularity beyond its own region in the last 20 years, and that type of popularity puts tremendous strain on a traditional music form such as zydeco,” he said. “Zydeco evolved as an expression of the [Creole] people who live in this region. It represents their lives, their culture, but it was pushed into serving a larger audience. When it was discovered, zydeco musicians began to hit the road and make a lot more money than anybody imagined. When something like that happens, it makes it harder to keep a place like Hamilton’s open. If a musician is playing in New York, he’s not playing at Hamilton’s.”
Ancelet explained that small clubs that featured zydeco or Cajun bands were once necessary social centers that brought members of the community together once a week, but with changes in communication and transportation, that sense of local community is being eroded and “that weekly social ritual has become difficult to maintain.”
“On the Cajun side, you have exactly the same thing going on with small clubs closing, and for exactly the same reason,” Ancelet said. “Our sense of community has exploded, and these old clubs had a sense of community that was geographically local. The Triangle Club is gone, OSG is gone; they’re dropping like flies. Where do you go today if you want to hear traditional Cajun music? You go to a place like Prejean’s [a Lafayette restaurant]. Places like that couldn’t have existed 20 years ago. Or you go to a festival like Festivals Acadiens.”
Ancelet agreed with Hamilton that younger people are not interested in zydeco, or in Cajun.
“They’re interested in U2 and Britney Spears,” he said. “If you could get Prince to play at Hamilton’s Place, it would be packed.”
He also concurred with Hamilton and Williams that there has been a “shift in contact” toward other activities, like casinos or motorcycle riding.
Bucking the trend, he said, is the Blue Moon Saloon in Lafayette, which he compared to “the clubs of the ’70s.”
Asked its secret, Ancelet said, “I don’t know, it just feels good to be in there. It’s alive and hot and intense.”
Ancelet insisted he remains optimistic that neither the zydeco nor Cajun genres will vanish.
“They are like living organisms, and they’re constantly renegotiating themselves to adapt to the culture,” he said. “They’ve always had an uncanny way of landing on their feet. Over the years, I’ve never ceased to be amazed how cultures find a way to survive. I’ve learned to shut up and watch and listen.”