Tuesday, December 29, 2015

"Bon Ton Roula" - Clarence Garlow

While leaving the arena of Cajun music briefly, we can't ignore it's influence on another genre of music: Zydeco. While some can debate it's origins for years, many can agree it falls in line with the same similar origins of Cajun music.   Determining the first zydeco recording can be difficult, with as many opinions as there are artists.  Was it Clifton Chenier in 1955? How about Boozoo Chavis in 1954?   Was it Amede Ardoin in 1929?   One can make a strong case for either of these artists.  Yet, researchers and authors point to a briefly popular R&B musician in the late 1940s named Clarence Garlow.
You see me there, well I ain't no fool,
I'm one smart Frenchman never been to school,
Wanna get somewhere in a Creole town,
You stop and let me show you your way 'round,
You let the bon ton roula, you let the mule-ay pull-ay,
Now don't you be no fool-ay, you let the bon ton roula.

At the church ba-zar or the baseball game,
At the French la-la, it’s all the same,
Want to have fun now you got go,
Way out in the country to the zydeco.
Clarence Garlow

The song was an original 1949 Macy's recording "Bon Ton Roola" (#5002) considered the first zydeco recording by some.  Garlow recalls:
I happened to be coming through the town of Houston and stopped at he Coconut Grove. They had a band and I asked the guy if I could sit in.  I did and they must have liked it.  They called Macy Henry and Steve Poncio to come listen and they came over.  I didn't think I was good enough but they thought differently.  [Bon Ton Roula] was born in the studio when we was trying to find something to record. It caught like a shot in the arm and the crowds got bigger.
Garlow’s band stopped momentarily when he sang the line about zydeco, making it seem to hang suspended in time. Listening to it today evokes a dramatic sense of Louisiana music history in the making. Clarence Garlow brought critical mass to the word zydeco, but not to the music per se. Garlow’s forté was mainstream African-American rhythm and blues. His singing — in English, French, and “Franglais” — blended passion with sly street smarts, and his expert guitar work recalled the style of T-Bone Walker.5

It was a glorious cut that sounded rather more like an R&B garage band with a Mardi Gras beat than a full-baked zydeco performance.   Others consider it a "proto-Zydeco" recording in which other's after him had modernized and popularized into actual zydeco music.2  His band consisted of Clarence Garlow on vocals & guitar, Shelby Lackey on alto sax, Wilmer Shakesnider on tenor sax, Johnnie Mae Brown on piano, probably L.D. "Eldeen" Mackintosh on bass, and Johnny Marshall on drums.

By 1953, Macy's label had collapsed and he had made a deal with J.D. Miller to record a different version of the tune, calling it the "New Bon Ton Roola" (#1000).  Mysteriously, Miller re-used this catalog number for reasons unknown, however, given he'd record Clarence again using his 3000 series, there's a good chance this record listing should have been #3000.  Eddie Mesner of Alladin Records, heard about his performance in Beaumont and asked him if he was signed with anyone. Garlow eventually signed with Aladdin Records and re-record it a third time, spelled "New Bon-Ton Roulay" that same year with the Maxwell Davis Orchestra.  The Messner brothers even released it on their own distinctive label called "Roula". He was so known for this song, it became his nickname.

The sound is so vastly different from the Cajun music of it's era, it's a struggle to find a way to veer off into this record's article and maintain the connection to the commonly accepted sound of Cajun music. Regardless of the debate on it's origins, not long afterwards, pioneers of the genre like Clifton Chenier and BooZoo Chavis combined more traditional sounds with new rhythm and blues elements, creating a new style of music.  By 1957, he'd try once more with Eddie Shuler's Goldband but the song's success had died out, until 1967, when Clifton would cover Clarence's song.

  1. "South To Louisiana: The Music of the Cajun Bayous" by John Broven
  2. Music USA: The Rough Guide By Richie Unterberger
  3. http://home.comcast.net/~cajunzydeco/zydemagic/whatiszydecomusic.htm
  4. http://americanamusictriangle.com/timelines/cajun-zydeco/
  5. http://blog.ponderosastomp.com/2015/09/if-you-cant-dance-to-zydeco-you-cant-dance-period/

Clarence "Bon Ton" Garlow ‎– 1951-58 (Flyright, 1983)
Louisiana Stomp-Clifton Chenier With Clarence Garlow (JSP, 2009)
Queen of Hits: The Macy's Recordings Story (Acrobat, 2011)


  1. It's weird that JD Miller re-used the catalog number on Feature, because George Khoury might have done the same thing with Clarence Garlow's releases on Khoury's Lyric label. Lyric 101 (and possibly Lyric 100) look like they were used for Garlow's records as well as one or two records by the Cupcakes.

    1. The Lyric/Khoury numbering scheme is one of the most confusing to follow because much of it didn't follow any kinda chronological order nor follow certain genres. Given that George left very little information regarding dates, it's been difficult to piece together how his number order was decided during different years. Later numbers didn't necessarily mean later issues. George didn't keep good records and with money tight, he probably didn't care too much about how his label was organized.


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