Monday, April 23, 2007

Nathan & The Zydeco Cha Chas - Bye Bye My Little Moma (El Sid O's 101)

Bye Bye My Little Moma

Hey folks. As you may know, I'll be making my annual pilgrimage to New Orleans later this week to check out Jazz Fest and The Ponderosa Stomp. In light of that, I wanted to try and keep things in that Louisiana frame of mind, and talk a little bit about the first family of Zydeco.

I saw Nathan Williams perform at my first Jazz Fest (some twenty years ago) and I was just blown away. I had no idea music like this even existed. Lucky for me, the good people at Tramps (my late, lamented favorite NYC club), began booking authentic Zydeco acts for a week at a time, and The Zydeco Cha Chas was one of them. My brother and I ended up meeting the band, and they told us "You ought to come down to St. Martinville the Sunday before Mardi Gras... there's a party goin' on!".

So we did.

I think they were kind of amazed that we actually showed up, and from that moment on we were alright by them. Sidney 'El Sid O' Williams, the oldest of the Williams brothers, took us under his wing. Along with owning his own 'one-stop' grocery store and fabled Zydeco and Blues club in Lafayette, Sid also acted as the band's manager, promoter, and (before Rounder signed them in 1988), their producer and record company owner as well. The very cool 45 you're grooving to now is, I believe, Nathan's first appearance on record.

Another thing Sid took care of was to make sure that his hand made parade float was ready for its annual trip through the streets of his hometown. It was equipped with a generator to power the band's amplifiers, and an immense barbecue pit where the family slow cooked all kinds of things as they wound their way through St. Martinville on the way to the after-party at their 'Moma House'. I couldn't believe it when Sid told us we would be riding on the float with the band...

The whole town was rockin', and the absolute sea of humanity that pressed around as the band tore into one great song after another, was truly amazing. I knew Nathan was a star when I heard the local high school band playing Steady Rock. This was something else!

Back at Mrs. Williams' house, we got a sense of what a true family enterprise this was as Sid picked up an accordion himself, and played along with 'Lil Nathan' on the rub-board. The rest of the Williams clan gathered around and welcomed us in true Creole fashion. We had us a time, cher! Later on, the whole party moved on to Tee's Connection (the local lounge where Clifton Chenier used to play), and the Cha Chas just tore the house down...

We returned again and again after that, and not just at Mardi Gras. The Williams family opened our eyes to the incredible regional Zydeco scene that was still thriving in out of the way places like Lawtell and Opelousas (although if Sid ever found out we'd gone to somebody else's club, we were in trouble!). They taught us the difference between the 'button accordion' music played 'north of I-10', and Clifton Chenier's brand of 'piano-key' accordion that folks like Nathan were carrying forward into the next century.

We became good friends, and whenever Nathan and the band played here in the Northeast, we were there, doing our best to return the hospitality the Williams family had shown us. One time in particular, we took the whole bunch of 'em to the top of the Empire State Building, then down under the ground for their first subway ride before showing them around Lower Manhattan. That was a trip!

Although there's been some personnel changes from time to time over the years, one member who's been there since the very beginning is Nathan's first cousin, Mark Anthony Williams - better known as 'Chukka'. Truly a unique individual, I've had some of the best times of my life hanging out with him. His high energy style of 'rubboard' playing, along with his sweat-drenched brand of showmanship, make him a fan favorite and, in my opinion, the best in the business.

Another person who's been around almost as long as Chukka is Nathan's brother Dennis Paul. In addition to being one of the greatest rhythm guitar players (in any genre) I've ever seen, he's also a world class artist whose deeply spiritual world view colors not only his art but his music as well (you can check out some of his paintings here, and also on the cover of the Cha Chas' latest album Hang It High, Hang It Low).

As time marched on, we've shared some of life's biggest moments. The band played at my brother's backyard wedding at our own 'Moma House' here on Long Island in the early nineties, and have stayed there in between gigs when time allowed. After I got married myself, I made it a point to bring my new wife down to meet Mrs. Williams (she approved). We've been there as each other's children have come along, and watched them grow up together... they call us 'The Northern Williams'.

There's been some sad times as well. Nathan's brother Steve (aka 'Scoopy-Doo') passed on some years back, and I still miss him. 'Uncle Harry' Hypolite, who played guitar with Clifton Chenier's Red Hot Louisiana Band for years, sat in with his nephew's Cha Chas whenever he could. A Louisiana blues legend, he was the real deal, man. I used to love watching him play. He was killed in an accident out on I-10 on a dark night in June of 2005. A tragic loss.

Allen 'Catroy' Broussard was the saxophone player and all-around M.C. with the Cha Chas for years. Every show would begin with him blowing Warm and Tender Love real sweet and mellow, then asking the crowd if they were ready for 'Star Time' before introducing Nathan. He was a true gentleman, and one of the nicest people I have ever met. Complications from diabetes and lung cancer had kept him from performing for the last few years of his life. This past October he was released from the hospital, who had told him there was nothing more they could do for him. He called Nathan, and asked to see him. Catroy died of cardiac arrest in Nathan's arms on Halloween 2006.

This past January, a massive heart attack would claim Nathan's brother Allen as well. He was the organist at their Parish Church in St. Martinville, and much loved by all who knew him.

Through it all, this incredible family has survived. At Jazz Fest last year, Nathan's youngest son, Naylan, was out there playing rubboard (while 'Rat' Brown and Rob LeBlanc held down the bottom like they always do) and the crowd just ate it up. This year, his oldest son will be bringing his own smokin' band to Jazz Fest for the first time. Lil' Nathan (yes, the same kid we met at Mardi Gras all those years ago) and the Zydeco Big Timers will kick off the second weekend, while his Dad will close it out on Sunday. How cool is that?

They truly are the 'first family' of Zydeco, and I am proud to call them my friends.


Blogger The Stepfather of Soul said...

Great stories as always - with envy in my heart I wish you a great Jazz Fest and Ponderosa Stomp experience!

Your everlovin' Stepfather of Soul

1:35 PM  
Blogger Roger said...

Thanks for turning me on to some great sounds and reinforcing the important lesson that you should always flip the disc.


8:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ya come down to St. Marinville stop by the Bienveneu House Bed and Breakfast that I've just opened. We love zydeco and the good people that go with it. Just saw Nat and family at the breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival,last weekend. There always good. Also, Geno Delafose-you should come for his fan appreciaiton picnic in September-great! Then there's always Whiskey River on the bayou!

9:09 PM  
Blogger The Reaper said...

Thanks for all the tunes Red. How was the Stomp? Any chance you could give us a review?

9:23 AM  
Blogger Red Kelly said...

Hey reaper (and everyone else) -

The Stomp (and Jazz Fest) were absolutely fantastic, man! I can't say enough about how great it all was. I'll be reporting back in bits and pieces, the way I usually do, soon...

I promise.

10:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You guys rocked the NCTA Folk Festival. Good to meet Y'all, and I will see Y'a down the road.

9:12 PM  

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