Jan. 12 was supposed to be a celebratory day for Stanley “Buckwheat” Dural Jr., leader of Buckwheat Zydeco.
That day, the world’s premier zydeco band reissued its 1997 album, “Trouble,” on its own fledgling label, Tomorrow Recordings, but the occasion was tempered with the news a day earlier that Dural will undergo surgery Jan. 19 at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville to remove lesions on his vocal cords.
A three-month East Coast and Midwest tour, scheduled to begin Jan. 14, has been postponed until the spring when, after three months of vocal therapy and training, Dural is expected to sing again.
Dural remains upbeat, buoyed by Dr. Robert Ossoff’s office wall of fame, pictures of star patients who have benefited from his techniques.
“They’re all up there on his wall, from Willie Nelson to George Jones to President Clinton, a whole bunch of people,” Dural said recently. “When I go to his office and I see those people up there, I go, ‘Wow, I’m in good company.’ I know I’m in good hands.
“With me, I believe in whatever shall be shall be. You have to take the bitter with the sweet and pray things go well.”
Dural said his lone vice, smoking, has come back to haunt him. “No doubt, the smoking is a factor,” he said. “Smoking is very bad, you know, and I’ve been smoking for a long time and been around people who smoke, so it can put a wear and tear on your vocal cords. I quit smoking about a month ago. It’s really hard, but when something like this touches close to home, you realize ‘You’ve got to quit now.’ “
Regardless of what happens, nothing’s going to keep him from performing.
“I can hear and I can see and I can still play,” Dural said. “Maybe it’ll be time to keep my mouth closed for a while. When a man lives for half a century, that’s a lot of talking.
“I love music. I don’t know what I’d do without it. If I couldn’t perform anymore, I’d at least like to sit in the studio and run things. I’ll be doing something with music, no matter what.”
Music has been in Dural’s blood since the late 1940s growing up in Lafayette, La. There, he was exposed to a wealth of sounds – blues, soul, rock, country and Cajun and Afro-Caribbean rhythms. Dural recounts how his father played the accordion at home, but he resisted following in his footsteps.
“My father played it for family entertainment only, not onstage,” Dural said, “and, man, he was like 24-7, every day, every day, every day. Man, I thought that was enough accordion, so I didn’t care for it too much because I heard it all the time. I didn’t care for the accordion, until I met up with Clifton Chenier.”
Seeing Chenier, the late “King of Zydeco,” perform gave Dural a new appreciation for the French-rooted genre.
“Clifton had this band with a guitar, bass and drums, and that was unheard of,” Dural said. “I got an invitation to play organ in his group and wound up playing with him for over two years. Then when I started Buckwheat Zydeco in ’79, I hadn’t touched an accordion till then. And you know what’s funny? I hadn’t sung before either. All these things that happened just happened. The only reason I was singing was because nobody wanted to sing with me; they would say, ‘Buckwheat’s going crazy.’ The be-bop musicians here thought there was something wrong with me, this cat playing the accordion, they couldn’t believe it. ‘He’s left the organ and he’s gone crazy,’ so nobody wanted anything to do with me.
“They felt like I felt, that the accordion was for the older generation. Here I am, a heavy R&B, jazz and blues organist and now I’m playing the accordion. I would think I was crazy too.”
Buckwheat Zydeco scored legions of fans throughout the South in the 1980s, but music journalist Ted Fox (an editor at Audio magazine and author of “In the Groove” and “Showtime at the Apollo”) helped move the group to the next level. He became their manager and co-producer and secured them a deal with Island Records, the first major-label signing of a zydeco act. Their debut Island album, the Grammy-nominated “On a Night Like This,” was named one of 1987’s 10 best albums by the New York Times.
It only got better: Buckwheat Zydeco opened for Eric Clapton, U2, Los Lobos and Robert Cray and played at both of Clinton’s inaugurals; the group is among the Top 50 grossing touring acts, according to Pollstar, and its music can be heard in numerous TV series, commercials and films, mostly recently “The Waterboy,” which prominently featured the rousing “Trouble” instrumental track “Hard Chargin’.”
“Trouble” faltered the first time around in 1997 when the Atlantic-distributed Mesa Records was having problems of its own. Dural and Fox convinced Atlantic to revert the album rights to them, then launched Tomorrow.
“You can’t judge this thing,” Dural said. “How do you categorize this music? You can’t. This company (Atlantic), nothing against them, it’s a pity no one knew what to do because this is culture and roots. This is the real deal, not like putting a coin in the jukebox, play a record and rehearse it. This is an original.
“I’m learning there’s a lot of things that go with doing a record on your own; you need everyone, not just two edges, you need all four corners. If you don’t have that, don’t get out there. You’re like a door-to-door salesman, you have to have people working all over the place, not just in Louisiana and Texas. It’s a lot of work, but I love it.”
With Tomorrow, Dural plans to look after the zydeco community.
“You see so much talent back here, guys in the same situation, zydeco bands, Cajun bands,” he said. “No matter what kind of music, if it relates to the public, that’s where I’d like to go. I’d like to go in there and help some of the musicians here. I mean, you can get some rough deals. What I’d like to see is companies being fair to artists; I see a lot of great people just hang it up and quit because of that reason, getting the short end of the stick. I want to change that.”
Among other things, Tomorrow will release the best-of collection, “The Buckwheat Zydeco Story,” later in the year.
Zydeco isn’t for everyone, Dural concedes, but there’s no denying “it’s great music. It’s happy music with a lot of energy. You have no business sitting down listening to zydeco. Go check your doctor, ‘cuz something’s wrong with you if you’re sitting down.”
BWF (before we forget): Fans can send get-well cards and letters to Dural in care of Buckwheat Zydeco Enterprises, PO Box 561, Rhinebeck, NY 12572. … Swing with Buckwheat Zydeco on the Web @ www.buckwheatzydeco.com or www.bakernorthrop.com.
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