Jimmy C. Newman, early 50s,
Photo: Johnnie Allan Archives
Rufus and Jimmy C. Newman, 1951, Photo: Johnnie Allan Archives
George Khoury, in his Lake Charles record store, 1988, Photo: Larry B.
J.D. Miller in Crowley, LA, studio, 1988, Photo: Larry B.
Famed Cajun fiddler, Rufus Thibodeaux, died in his sleep, Friday, August 12, at a nursing home in Nashville, TN, where he had moved in 2000 to be closer to his family. In recent years he had been in declining health, battling complications from diabetes, including poor circulation, which necessitated the amputation of part of a leg.
Ironically, his death was overshadowed by not one but two fiddlers of great renown, the eclectic Vassar Clements, who expired a mere four days after his passing and bluesman, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, who, after being rescued from his residence in Slidell, LA, succumbed in Orange, TX, on September 10. Yet, Rufus was held in the same high esteem by not only his peers but by all the cognoscenti. To Jimmy C. Newman his longtime bandleader, “he was the greatest Cajun fiddler that ever lived and one of the greatest country fiddlers.”
In the studio, Rufus, though entirely self-taught, brought a lot to the table. He knew all the nuances of the violin, all the subtle changes, and all the possible harmonies. Possessed of an uncanny sense of perfect pitch, he also could instinctively tell if the other instruments were out of tune. Thus, when he suggested an improvement or another approach, everyone concerned with the creation paid him heed. Whether to supply the dulcet strains to Bob Wills’ “Maiden’s Prayer” or the more discordant tones reminiscent of Saint-Saens’ symphonic poem, Danse Macabre, he was just that good. Whatever was needed, he could concoct on the spot.
“I only ever cried three times in my life - when my mother died, my daddy, and when a little girl accidentally crushed my fiddle,” said Rufus in a 1990 interview. Though a succinct comment, it would speak volumes about his priorities.
If indeed Cajun music could be described as an amalgam of both the sorrow incurred by the hardships of living off the land and the joy of just being alive to greet another day, it was Rufus who could best convey it through his bow. “He could simply bring you to tears when he played,” said longtime friend Bobby Charles, who often sought out his services throughout his long career.
Rufus Thibodeaux was both literally and figuratively larger than life. He had enormous appetites for not only wine, women, and song but also Acadian cuisine. Although noted almost as much for his home-grown philosophizing and ready wit, his most prominent characteristic, aside from his prodigious musical acumen, was his joie de vivre, his zest for living. Until his constitution deteriorated, he could party with the best of them and would jam at the drop of a hat. Although sedentary by nature, he’d become positively energized when any opportunity to perform presented itself, even from the very beginning.
Rufus Thibodeaux was born on January 5, 1934 in Ridge, LA, a small town ten miles southwest of Lafayette and was raised in Hayes in the Lake Charles area. Like most prodigies, his musical initiation came early on and by age six he was already well versed on the guitar and even sat in with his father’s group in hamlets like Lake Arthur and in roadhouses with ominous sounding names like the Bloody Bucket. By the mid-40s, his reputation on guitar and fiddle was well established; so much so, that the recently late Eddie Shuler, recording pioneer of the Goldband label of Lake Charles, recalled a young Rufus stealing the show from his own band, the Reveliers, at a festival in 1946.
Barely into his teens in the late 40s, Rufus gladly accepted an invitation to join up with Papa Cairo (Julius Lamperez), a legendary steel guitar player from Crowley who was then leading an eight-piece string band. Papa Cairo, formerly associated with Cajun heroes including Harry Choates (“Jolie Blonde”), Joe Falcon, and Leo Soileau, would often change personnel over the years and just the guitar alumni alone of his outfit would fill a Cajun hall of fame - Johnny Janot, Happy Fats (Leroy LeBlanc), and Mamou’s Jimmy C. Newman.
By 1948, Happy Fats, later notorious for his ultra-conservative diatribes/sermons for producer J.D. Miller of Crowley, had broken out on his own and, although he could also count celebrated fiddler, Doc Guidry, among his sidemen, recruited a second, the then starry-eyed fourteen-year-old Rufus. And the group proved immensely popular in the territory, especially after landing a regular slot over KSLO radio in Opelousas, LA. Nevertheless, though he was associated with one of the more highly regarded aggregates in Louisiana music history, his tenure with Happy Fats would be short lived, as even a bigger name would soon beckon.
In the early 50s, Jimmy C. Newman (then Jimmie) and His Rhythm Boys, a group he inherited from Chuck Guillory, became simply the hottest ticket in Acadiana. Playing a mixture of C&W and Cajun, they attracted an immense following. They also piqued the interest of another trailblazing producer of that era, George Khoury, who had an eponymous record label (but no studio of his own) in Lake Charles. Jimmy had previously recorded for the Colonial label of New Orleans and J.D. Miller’s fledgling Feature in the very early 50s with mixed results, but even he was not prepared for what was to follow when he teamed up with this record man, who, prior to this partnership, specialized in selling a limited amount of his disks to the local Cajun community - artists like Nathan Abshire and Lawrence Walker. Jimmy’s recording of “(Cry, Cry) Darlin’” (Khoury’s #630) in 1952, featuring Rufus’ plaintive fiddle, refrain proved to be a monster jukebox phenomenon and would have had a national impact had Khoury had a distribution network for it. In fact, Khoury would run into a similar predicament with his memorable “Sea of Love” by Phil Phillips (Baptiste) in 1959.
This was not the case for the aforementioned opportunistic J.D. Miller of Crowley, who by then had both a facility and a burgeoning label, feature, which could boast of an R&B roster including Tabby Thomas, Lightnin’ Slim, and Clarence “Bon Ton Roula” Garlow and a Cajun/C&W stable, including brothers Rusty and Doug Kershaw, Mack Hamilton, Al Terry (Theriot), and Wiley Barkdull. Discovering that Newman never had a contract with Khoury and that he was essentially a free agent, Miller quickly swooped in to re-sign him, not wishing to repeat his first mistake of allowing him escape.
But even at that time the shrewd Miller knew that he’d never have a blockbuster of his own unless he had connections to Nashville and this he accomplished by penning the smash for C&W superstar Kitty Wells, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” (Decca # 28232) in 1952, for which he also wisely applied for the publishing, Acuff-Rose. With his foot in the door, so to speak, Miller could then lease his C&W masters to writer Fred Rose’s Music City-based Hickory records (including the Kershaws, Barkdull, and Terry, and those of his R&B artists - Lightnin’ Slim (Otis Hicks), Slim Harpo (James Moore), Lazy Lester (Leslie Johnson), Lonesome Sundown (Cornelius Green), and King Karl (Bernard Jolivette) to Ernie Young of Excello records in the same city. He further hammered out an agreement with Randy Wood of Dot records of Gallatin, TN, to accept his newest acquisition, Jimmy C. Newman, with Rufus Thibodeaux in tow. What was significant about these three separate deals was the fact that all of the resulting efforts of these artists would be relentlessly pitched by radio personality DJs like Bill “Hoss” Allen, John R. (Richbourg), Gene Nobles, and Herman Grizzard over Nashville’s 50, 000 watt clear channel powerhouse, WLAC, which could reach (at night) 15 million listeners, who could then buy them via mail order through Ernie’s (Young) Record Mart or Randy’s (Wood) Record Shop in their respective towns. Moreover, another station, WSM, also in Nashville advertised heavily over the airwaves for Ernest Tubb’s downtown record store at 417 Broadway where anything, especially of a C&W nature, could be likewise purchased. Miller could never hope to reach such a huge and diverse audience from his provincial locale of Crowley.
To say the least, it was an auspicious beginning for Jimmy C. Newman, now contracted to the major label, Dot. Since Khoury had no copyright, Miller almost immediately revised (adding a bridge) and re-recorded “Cry, Cry Darlin’” (1195) and it again became a hit, but this time country wide; so much so, that it earned Newman’s band a slot on the fabled Louisiana Hayride show originating from of Shreveport, LA. And its follow up, claimed to have been written by Miller, the Cajun two-step, “Diggy Diggy Lo” (1215), fared almost as well. Both “Daydreamin’” (1237) and “Blue Darlin’” (1260) in 1955 also made the Top Ten, while “A Fallen Star” (15574) in 1957 sold so well as to cross over onto the pop charts at #25. In fact, Jimmy (and Rufus) became such a sensation that he was rewarded with a regular niche on the Grand Ole Opry show then broadcasted over WSM on Saturdays from the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. It was a status he was to retain for decades to come and prompted both musicians to move in 1956 to Murfreesboro, a town southeast of Nashville. Rufus’ home away from home remained a trailer on Jimmy’s property there, where the singer/guitarist still resides.
Not only was Jimmy’s career taking off by the mid-50s but also that of Rufus, especially as a session musician. And he soon joined the ranks of an elite company in the C&W capital - pianist Floyd Cramer, guitarists Chet Atkins and Grady Martin, pedal steel exemplar, Pete Drake, fiddler Chubby Wise, saxophonist Boots Randolph, and bassist Bob Moore, just to name a few of this select group.
In the late 50s, it wasn’t unusual for artists of different labels to travel together in large caravans, be they R&B or C&W. Such road engagements were ordinarily backed by one of the performer’s orchestras which would became the house band for the duration of the tour. Jimmy, now on MGM (he would later join another major throughout the 60s, Decca), would often travel in tandem with RCA’s Jim Reeves, Columbia’s Lefty Frizzell, or Starday’s George Jones, and Rufus would play back-up for both C&W luminaries on the ticket. It was through this Starday affiliation that Rufus first recorded a single.
Bill Starnes was the founder and first owner of Starday whose headquarters were in Beaumont, TX. It was a great little label that generally catered to C&W figures like Leon Payne, Arlie Duff, Don Owens, Cowboy Copas, and Merle Kilgore, but could boast of some fine early rockabilly classics by Sleepy LaBeef, Cliff Blakely, and saxophonist Link Davis, the composer of Cajun classic, “Big Mamou,” and the instrumentalist on both the Big Bopper’s (J.P. Richardson) “Chantilly Lace” and Johnny Preston’s (Courville) “Running Bear,” both million sellers. In the middle 50s, Don Pierce and Pappy Daily bought Starday.
Although Daily still had a piece of the action at Starday, he had his own label, D, based in Houston, whose only remarkable hit was the aforementioned “Chantilly Lace,” which he leased to Mercury. However, it was Daily who was first to recognize Rufus’ talent as an instrumentalist during this period.
In the early 60s, Rufus still commuted between Nashville and Lafayette, doing session work for a variety of musicians. By 1963, J.D. Miller was looking to replace some of the members of his heralded studio cast, which originally included Katie Webster on piano, Al Foreman, on guitar, Lionel Torrence (Prevost) on saxophone, Bobby McBride on bass, and Warren Storm on drums. Of the latter two, McBride was becoming increasingly unreliable and Storm (Schexnider) had gone off and signed with a rival producer, Huey Meaux, formerly of Kaplan, LA, who now ran the Teardrop trademark near Houston. Having had experience with the guitar in his youth, Rufus, without a hitch, ably took up the electric bass in this capacity, while Austin Broussard, who recorded solo as Bruce Austin, assumed Storm’s percussion chores. Both figured prominently in the mid-60s Excello efforts of bluesmen Lazy Lester, Silas Hogan, Lightnin’ Slim, and Slim Harpo, until Miller abruptly terminated his relationship with Ernie Young about 1966.
1963 was also the year wherein Jimmy C. Newman had his first serious flirtation with traditional Cajun music for a major label, Decca, issuing the magnificent Folk Songs of Bayou Country which showcased the exuberant bowing techniques of Rufus and the fluid fingering of accordionist Vorris “Shorty” LeBlanc. As far as Newman’s career was concerned, this retrospective masterpiece of which he is still justifiably proud was a premonition of things to come.
Perhaps finally acknowledging a musical genius in his midst, Miller encouraged Rufus in 1966 to pay homage to one of his major influences, the late Harry Choates. It would be his first solo album, on the Tribute label #103, Tribute to Harry Choates, and second single, “Jolie Blonde” (1001), Choates’ signature song, featuring Abe Manuel on vocals. Not directed at a national demographic, it was greeted favorably in the Southwest Louisiana region.
The late 60s and early 70s also proved to be a very busy period in Rufus’ life. Not only was he continuing with the long distance roundtrips as before (and traveling with Hank Williams Jr., Bob Wills, and Lynn Anderson) but also was becoming involved in a series of personal projects. When not performing with Jimmy, in Lafayette Rufus became a sideman in some of the more illustrious groups to ever play in Acadiana, including the Joe Douglas (Badon) outfit with Warren Storm, which regularly played Toby’s near Opelousas, and later another ensemble led by accordionist Jo-el Sonnier, which also included Warren and stellar steel guitarist, Rodney Miller. This latter group, the brainstorm of Carol Rachou, who also sponsored it, was utilized as a promotional vehicle for Cajun music, which by that time was rapidly losing favor, especially among the young. Jo-el Sonnier, dubbed the Cajun Valentino by Eddie Shuler when he recorded for Goldband, later became a superstar for RCA records, as well as former songwriter and employee of Carol Rachou’s La Louisianne records, Eddie Raven (then Eddie Futch). By 1971, Rufus had cut his second LP, this time for Rachou, The Cajun Country Fiddle of Rufus Thibodeaux (LL-129) and in 1973 came a third, Cajun Fiddle (LL-137). Between Nashville and Lafayette, during this time frame, Rufus was enjoying the best of both worlds.
After parting ways with Decca in the early 70s, which coincided with his commercial decline, Jimmy C. Newman returned more and more to his Cajun roots (which he had explored from time to time on his three major labels). He recorded a slew of singles for the aforementioned Cajun label, La Louisianne, including an area novelty hit in 1977, “Lache Pas La Patate” (8139), translated loosely, “Don’t Drop the Potato.” Soon after, Newman became a cult figure in French Canada when Deram, a London records subsidiary, picked up its international distributorship and the platter easily surpassed a million copies. It stands, along with the 1972 Apple (1852) release by the Sundown Playboys, “Saturday Night Special,” produced by Ville Platte’s Floyd Soileau, as the biggest authentic Cajun seller ever. This gold record precipitated a major promotional tour of Canada wherein Rufus Thibodeaux, as soloist, made legions of fans.
Undoubtedly, owing to the success of this single, former Mercury A&R man and talent scout, Shelby Singleton, who had bought out Sam Phillips of Sun and who now headed the SSS label of Nashville, was curious whether he could duplicate the feat in the States by having Jimmy record another such “ethnic” disk. It had been attempted, with modest results, before in 1961 with Emmitt “Bill” Matte’s “Parlez-vous L’ Francais,” released by Church Point’s Lee Lavergne on his Lanor (503) logo. And with a tip of the hat to his faithful fiddler, Jimmy recorded the rollicking “Thibodeaux and His Cajun Band” in 1978 for Singleton’s subsidiary Plantation (175). Unfortunately, outside of Acadiana, the tune created hardly a ripple.
In 1978, perhaps through his well merited Nashville reputation, Rufus was called upon by rocker Neil Young (post Crazy Horse years) to furnish the fiddle parts of his Reprise album, Comes A Time (RPS 2266), which also featured Ben Keith on pedal steel and the late Nicolette Larson on vocals, from which was culled two singles, Ian Tyson’s “Four Strong Winds” (RPS 1396) and the title cut, 1395. After the positive response to this first endeavor, Rufus again joined Neil Young for another undertaking, his 1980 Hawks and Doves (2297), which similarly resulted in two separate single releases, “Stayin’ Power” and “Hawks and Doves.” Although these items are currently out of print, some of the tracks appear on a “best of” compilation, Lucky 13, originally a 1988 Reprise album and now on Geffen records since1993. Rufus would go on to lend a hand on no less than five of Neil Young’s LPs of that era and even went on the road with him throughout the U.S. in 1985, plugging Neil’s C&W flavored project, Old Ways (with cameos by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson), as part of the “International Harvesters,” his back-up band which also included Ben Keith.
By the mid-80s, Rufus had taken up a semi-permanent residence in Lafayette and managed to eke out a living as a musician by accepting any and all gigs, either as the main attraction or in a supporting role, in both the nearby Cajun clubs - Kaiser’s Place in Breaux Bridge, Smiley’s Bayou Club in Erath, or the Rainbeaux in New Iberia - or in the spacious, Cajun-themed tourist restaurants with ample dance floors, like Mulate’s in Breaux Bridge, Belizaire’s in Crowley, Prejean’s on I-49 near Carencro, and Randol’s in Lafayette. And Rufus made more than just a few appearances at the celebrated Liberty Theatre in Eunice, which still broadcasts its Saturday evening show of indigenous Louisiana Music. As a consequence of having been invited to perform at the 1984 World’s Fair in New Orleans, Rufus’ portrait was chosen to grace the highly collectible poster of the prestigious Festival de Musique Acadienne (Lafayette) of that same year.
In 1985, Rufus and Rodney Miller formed the popular group, Cajun Born, which often included the veteran pedal steel player, Jessie Credeur, who would substitute for the latter. In fact, when Rufus, himself, couldn’t make the venue, like the time he backed Crosby, Stills, and Nash in Philadelphia for a Live Aid concert, he’d invariably fill his vacancy with a capable young protégé. Although Cajun Born was “good to go,” even voyaging as far as East Texas, it was especially noted for how long it remained stationary, holding down a long engagement of several years on Sunday afternoons at Yesterday’s Lounge in north Lafayette. And this was no mean feat considering the caliber of competition in the vicinity.
1989 marked a triumph of sorts as three Swamp Pop stars, Johnnie Allan, Warren Storm, and Clint West (Guillory) collaborated with Cajun Born and accordionist Blake Mouton to produce an eponymous album on La Louisianne (LL 147), composed mostly of original material. Written by Johnnie Allan and sung by Warren Storm, a single, “Cajun Cool” (8170), not only made a big splash in South Louisiana but also would become a perennial juke box selection. “I can’t give Rufus enough credit. Not only did he put it together, but he directed the whole affair in the studio [La Louisianne at 711 Stevenson St.]. He just took the reins,” said longtime friend, Johnnie Allan (Guillot).
Still more or less in Lafayette in the 90s, Rufus remained very active. Some significant achievements during this decade include at least four highly acclaimed CDs in which he participated. In 1990, Young Turk accordionist Zachary Richard turned to old veteran Rufus Thibodeaux for guidance in his breakthrough Women In The Room on Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss’ A&M label (75021). Next in 1991 came another celebration of his Cajun heritage - Alligator Man - by Jimmy C. Newman, this time for Cambridge, MA-headquartered Rounder (6039). A friendly rivalry between two distantly related violin virtuosi (the other being Tony Thibodeaux) gave rise to the dueling fiddle concept of Fiddlin’ With Friends (La Louisianne, LL 1018). And Rufus’ last interesting assignment during this time frame involved the recently late, Scottish-born, London-based banjo player, Lonnie Donegan, who almost single handedly invented the skiffle genre of folk music(a highly influential precursor to rock and roll) and whose father, himself, was a noted fiddler. Aided and abetted by accordionist Jo-el Sonnier as well, the grateful Donegan, who also had recorded for Dot in the U.S., released Muleskinner Blues (RCA/BMG CAPO 501) in 1999. Undoubtedly, the prolific Donegan had encountered Rufus during one of the latter’s Wembley Stadium (London) concerts and soon cemented their relationship with an invitation to do an album.
Although he lived in modern times, Rufus was actually a throwback to the days of Cajun string bands of the Nineteenth Century, before the German diatonic accordion was introduced into the culture. He was a direct descendant of the old time fiddle patriarchs like Dennis McGhee, Sady Courville, and Leo Soileau, who early in their careers played in all acoustic ensembles, minus that upstart “foreign squeezebox.” Today when one envisions the line-up of a classic Cajun band, he assumes that the accordion is the dominant instrument, and certainly this type of music has had its fair share of accordion marvels - Iry Lejeune, Alphee Bergeron, Aldus Roger, Nathan Abshire, and Belton Richard, just to name a few. But in the grand history of Cajun music, they are all Johnny- come-latelys.
But Rufus hung around long enough to witness not only the resurgence of Cajun music in general but also the Renaissance of the fiddle, itself, as a lead instrument again in Cajun bands. What goes around comes around. And despite in all the intervening years of being either being relegated to the role of being just an accompanying instrument or being eliminated altogether, he always had one foot in the past and the other in the future.
Because if you believe that Cajun music is a form of the blues, only a fiddler like Rufus could supply its really essential ingredient -its emotional content- which is at the heart of the music. And this is what he did the best. He was traditional, it’s true, but also sounded contemporary because he knew that true blues would always be timeless. And that try you might, you could never get a blue note from a two-note.
Larry Benicewicz, Baltimore Blues Society