Stanley "Buckwheat" Dural Jr. wouldn't be strapping on his big, piano-style accordion at this weekend's New Orleans Cajun-Zydeco Festival (June 11-June 13) at the Old U.S. Mint if it weren't for the late great Clifton Chenier.
"I got a call from the King of Zydeco, Clifton Chenier," says Dural, 62, of the day in 1976 that would forever change his musical direction. That call eventually led Buckwheat Zydeco earning not only international recognition but this year a Grammy for his excellent album, Lay Your Burden Down.
Growing up in Lafayette, Louisiana, Dural was urged by his father, a push-button accordionist playing what was then called Creole or La La music, to take up the squeeze box and play zydeco.
His son, who as a child would often "bang" on one of the family's three pianos — in the house, on the porch, and in the garage — constantly rejected the suggestion. His attitude was, he says, "Not no, but hell no." At age nine Buckwheat's brother bought him a Farfisa organ and he believed the keyboard would remain his main ax.
In the late 1950s, Dural manned the instrument behind such noted artists as Joe Tex and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown before forming his own organ-driven group Buckwheat & the Hitchhikers in 1971. It was an impressive 15-piece funk band that included vocalists as the leader had yet to start singing.
When Chenier asked Buckwheat to play organ with his band, Dural thought it was a set-up as his father and Chenier were best of friends. He remembers that he felt very negative about the accordion and zydeco having listened to his father play every morning, at lunch breaks and after work. "That was enough for me," he says.
"But I thought about it (doing the date with Chenier) and said, 'I'll give it a shot.'"
Dural's plan was to bring his organ, he was playing a big Hammond B-3 by this time, and put it in his van, play the gig and then put it back into the van. "Then I could say, well, I played zydeco and I still don't like it," he remembers with a laugh. "I think I'm tough, you see, and I wanted to play organ like (jazz musician) Jimmy Smith."
But playing with Chenier changed his mind. "He was dynamite, man," Dural recalls adding that he'd never heard a piano accordion except on the "Lawrence Welk Show."
Dural spent the next two years in Chenier's band. Thus influenced, he took a year off to woodshed on the accordion before forming his own zydeco band, which most people know as simply Buckwheat Zydeco. Dural not only took up the accordion and began singing but for almost 20 years he abandoned the organ. It wasn't until about five years ago that he started to incorporate it in his performances and recordings.
"I always found myself running to the organ, you see, and I wasn't giving enough time to the accordion," he explains. "I said, 'I know what I'm going to do about that situation, I'm going to park the organ.'"
On 2009's Grammy-winning release, Lay Your Burden Down, Buckwheat returns heavily to his roots playing an almost equal number of tunes on the organ as the accordion. He also explores many styles outside of the rhythm and blues type of zydeco that's driven his successful career and earned him four previous Grammy nominations.
"The Hammond B-3 is where I come from," says Dural while he acknowledges that audiences remain surprised when he steps outside of his expected format. There are also more cover tunes on the CD than found on any of his previous releases. Many of those songs come from the pens of unexpected artists and some delve into territory rarely explored by the zydeco man. Lay Your Burden Down stretches to even open with a rock tune made famous by Led Zeppelin, "When the Levee Breaks," which features the stinging slide guitar of Sonny Landreth.
"For me to do a cover — I have to feel it," Dural says. "I have to do something that's gonna help a song and not take away from the song."
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Geraldine Wyckoff is a contributing writer for The Louisiana Weekly.
Photo from The Louisiana Weekly.