Another icon gone
The thing that keeps popping up in obituaries for Stanley “Buckwheat” Dural Jr., from the New York Times to National Public Radio to the local press, is that his music was known around the world, but “he stayed grounded,” and never let fame and success go to his head.
Buckwheat died early Saturday at Our Lady of Lourdes Regional Medical Center of lung cancer. He was 68.
He led what many aficionados said was the “tightest” zydeco band ever. Music is not my real forte, but I understand that — perhaps after ground-breaker Clifton Chenier — the Grammy and Emmy winning Buckwheat Zydeco was as good as they come.
People who know about such things seem to agree. My friend Herman Fuselier, who is probably the reigning expert on south Louisiana music, said that Buckwheat “exposed zydeco to more people on the planet than any other artist. His band’s music has been heard by millions, from high-profile gigs that included the Olympics, presidential inaugurations, national TV shows and hit movies.”
Ted Fox, Buckwheat’s personal manager, said, “Buck was a musical legend and the pre-eminent ambassador of zydeco music. For others around the world, if they got into zydeco music, or felt its influence, or watched the world celebrate this great aspect of Louisiana culture over the past 30-plus years, it’s likely been because of Buckwheat Zydeco. … Buck made everything and everyone he touched better and happier.”
“Everything and everyone” includes a lot of folk. Buckwheat Zydeco played festivals around the world and performed with artists and groups as diverse as Paul Simon, Eric Clapton, U2, the Boston Pops Orchestra, B.B. King. Buckwheat won the Best Zydeco or Cajun Music Album Grammy for the 2009 CD, “Lay Your Burden Down,” which featured Trombone Shorty, Sonny Landreth and other stars. The band received an Emmy for the music in the CBS TV movie from 2001, “Pistol Pete: The Life and Times of Pete Maravich.”
He was recognized on stage by his black hat, glasses and white piano accordion, but the accordion wasn’t his first instrument. His father was an amateur accordionist who played Creole music, but Buckwheat (named for the “Little Rascals” character) was drawn to R&B, and chose to play the organ. The decision to change instrument came after he played with Clifton Chenier’s band in the late 1970s.
“We played for four hours nonstop,” he told National Public Radio’s Scott Simon in 2009, “and he was telling people goodnight and I couldn’t believe it. … I thought we had just got onstage; that’s how much energy he had projected. I wound up staying with Clifton over two years. I said, ‘Next band I get, I’ll be playing accordion.’”
Buckwheat took up the accordion in 1978, started his own zydeco band a year later, and the happy times began. He toured the world for the next three decades, never forgetting his roots in Lafayette Parish, where he, five brothers and six sisters grew up in a two-bedroom house.
“If you want to get respect, you’ve got to give respect,” he said in an interview several years ago with World Cafe host David Dye. “You’ve got to be positive. You can’t have … positive-negative, positive-negative ... It’s not like a car battery.”
But, like a battery, it takes a good grounding to make it work, and that was an important part of the man and his music which, fellow musician Sean Ardoin told CNN, “captured the food, music, language and dancing -- the way of life for people in the region.”
People find any one of those parts of our culture infectious. When you capture all of them and squeeze them through a zydeco accordion, there’s no wonder that you will be remembered as a “legend,” an “ambassador for Louisiana culture,” and “a national treasure” — all of which Stanley “Buckwheat” Dural Jr. was.
A collection of Jim Bradshaw’s columns, Cajuns and Other Characters, is now available from Pelican Publishing. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.