However, if you ask a group of people which song was the first zydeco song, you may get a slew of answers. Was it the 1929 recording of Douglas Bellard? How about the 1930 recordings of Amede Ardoin? Aurally, their music is considered by most people too primitive to be contenders. As far as it's usage in music, it's commonly believed that the first occurance was by Clarence Garlow in 1949 in the lyrics of his song "Bon Ton Roula". Even though Garlow's sound was closer to zydeco than Ardoin or Bellard, it contained a lot of elements more closely aligned with brass bands that march along the streets of New Orleans. Today, many researchers and experts agree that it's not until Wilson Anthony "Boozoo" Chavis enters the studio with Eddie Shuler in 1954 when we hear the earliest beginnings of zydeco's modern form in his recording of "Paper In My Shoe" (#1197). The song put zydeco music on the map.
Chavis was heavily influenced by his great-uncle Sidney Babineaux, a famed accordionist. Babineaux was one of the earliest Creole musicians to play the piano accordion. Even Joe Falcon cited Sidney as the origins of some of his tunes, such as the famed "Ils La Volet Mon Trancas". In 1954, Lake Charles record producer Eddie Shuler wanted to record a Creole musician for his Goldband label. Cajun accordionist and instrument builder Sidney Brown told Shuler about Chavis. Shuler recalled:
He said there's a little black boy out there that's got a real good song. So I said, "Well, bring him in."10
Shuler auditioned Chavis, and then hired Classie Ballou’s rhythm and blues (R&B) band to accompany him on the record after Guitar Gable suggested the band.3,9 According to Shuler:
I came into contact with one Boozoo Chavis, a colorful character, to put it mildly. He talked in short, clipped sentences and was a natural-born clown. Boozoo played a German button accordion in a style known in this part of the country as zydeco and had no band of his own. I decided to record him and went out and found Classie Ballou, who then had the best R&B band in the area.5
Lake Charles had a rich R&B scene at the time, and young Classie was soon playing with Shelton Dunaway and Ernest Jacobs (later of Cookie & the Cupcakes of Mathilda and I'm Twisted fame), and then formed his first band-- Classie Ballou and the Tempo Kings which featured Dunaway on sax and vocals, another sax player known simply as Biscuit, and eventually Cookie Thierry himself joined the group.11 Chavis' song contains strong sexual innuendo, common for Chavis who was known for his "danceable tunes and risqué sense of humor."3 Another of the most interesting items of the song is the fact that many of musicians are playing in different keys. Shuler had met with Ballou before the session.
So I told him I got a boy down there that plays this black Cajun music. I said "Can you play this stuff?" "Oh yeah". Well, he was lying, because he couldn't. In the studio, the styles of the accordion player -- who had previously only played with a rubboard or by hitting his foot on a Coke box -- and the Ballou's band collided head-on.10The resulting session was chaotic. The band did not know how to back Chavis, who was well known for “breaking time.” The resulting tracks reveal an unresolved tension between Chavis’s accordion style and the band’s spirited R&B style.3 Allegedly, he would tell his band members "If it's wrong, do it wrong, with me, if I'm wrong, you wrong, too!"1 According to Shuler:
I didn't know it, but Ballou's band had never heard of zydeco music, let alone played it, and after eight hours in the studio no mentionable results were forthcoming. Ballou's boys just couldn't dig Boozoo's music and Boozoo didn't know that they weren't with him!5According to Shuler he had to give him something to drink. He told author John Broven:
At last someone decided to give Boozoo something stronger than water to help things along and we got a little jug and carried on rolling the tapes. The door to my studio was just an ordinary front door with no glass, so I couldn't see in from the control room, but I knew Boozoo was getting saturated. Suddenly there was a colossal crash in the studio, but as the take was the best so far I didn't check what had happened until the number was finished. When I opened the door there, before me, lay Boozoo. He had fallen off his stool but managed to keep his accordion in the air and play on without missing a note! We laughed until we were hysterical. It was about the most comical sight anyone could hope to see!.5Shuler also told a similar story to author Michael Tisserand:
It kept going downhill, and on the third day it was worse off than it was when we started. So I said, "Boozoo, do you drink any at all?" He said "Yes sir." So I went out and got a pint of Seagram's Seven, and after about halfway into that jug of whiskey, it started to sound better".10
Shuler wasn't sure what to do with all the tapes and found himself broke after paying for the long session. He says he paid the band $250 and figured it for a loss.10
Afterwards I played the tapes back to see if there was anything there worth all the trouble and expense. The number where Boozoo fell on the floor was still the best, so I thought I would edit it and then release it as a feeler to test public reaction. The song was "Paper In My Shoe" and it was just one of those natural hits that seldom come along. I am used to surprises, but that was amazing! I had a friend called Johnny who was a salesman for A-1 Distributors out of New Orleans and I got him to handle the record. He took it to Lew Chudd of Imperial, who leased it from me. It sold over 100,000 copies and at that time you had a hit if you sold 25,000. This was the biggest seller I had had so far!5
It was released on the Folk-Star label, a subsidiary of Goldband, before being reissued by Imperial Records. The record was a regional hit, subsequently acknowledged as a zydeco standard, but Chavis was convinced that it was more successful than the record companies claimed, later saying:
I got gypped out of my record. I get frustrated, sometimes. I love to play, but, when I get to thinking about 1955... They stole my record. They said that it only sold 150,000 copies. But, my cousin, who used to live in Boston, checked it out. It sold over a million copies. I was supposed to have a gold record.1,2
Chavis continued with Shuler for several years, recording a handful of tunes, but soon tired of hectic touring and what he felt were unfair business practices in the music industry. Chavis continued to deny the details in Shuler's drunken story, telling author Ben Sandmel "Shit! How the hell you gonna keep playing like that? They made that up."6 In the 60s, after Chavis' brother convinced him that Shuler wasn't paying him the correct royalties, he left the professional music field and returned to training racehorses.3 Chavis was a prolific writer of zydeco songs, some including references to his friends and acquaintances and others too raunchy to be sold openly.4
I got a paper in my shoe,I got a paper in my shoe,Oh what your mama don't know,And what your papa don't mind,Oh what your mama don't know,And what your papa don't mind,I got a paper in my shoe.J'ai un papier dans mon soulier,J'ai un papier dans mon soulier,Pour ça ta maman connaît pas,Et ça ton père veut pas,Pour ça ta maman connaît pas,Et ça ton père veut pas,J'ai un papier dans mon soulier.I got a paper in my shoe,I got a paper in my shoe,Oh what your mama don't know,And what your papa don't mind,Oh what your mama don't know,And what your papa don't mind,I got a paper in my shoe.Oh don't you worry about your baby,Oh don't you worry about your baby,Oh don't you worry about your baby,Oh don't you worry about your baby,And what your mama don't know,I got a paper in my shoe.
Today, his 1954 recording of “Paper in My Shoe” is generally cited as the first zydeco recording. So, what's the origin of the song title? It's believed it came from the old folk tune "Pepper In My Shoe". Although Chavis was the first person to record the song in French, he acknowledges that he first heard it from Ambrose "Potatoe" Sam in the 1940s.10 Over time, it may have converted to the more popular title "Pebble In My Shoe", famously recorded by Ella Fitzgerald in 1938.
So why did Boozoo change the title to "Paper"? Some believe the paper is a sacramental record such as a marriage record between the lover and the love interest. Jokingly, the phrase "Papal In My Shoe" is either a reference to a time when Acadians secretly carried a tiny picture of the pope in their shoes or a sly way to refer to the Catholic church documents themselves. According to L. C. Donatto of the Zydeco Slippers, he confirms it's about a "marriage license in his shoe that the parents do not know about", given that rural people used to keep their valuables in their shoes . Other rumors suggest that he's putting a paper with a ladies phone number in his shoe to hide from his wife. Hence the "what your mama don't know, your papa don't lie" line suggests he's talking to his kid that catches sight of the paper when he takes off his shoe.
Yet, others argue that it has nothing to do with church documents. Rather, the title is deeply rooted in African hoodoo practice. According to legend, when a hoodoo practitioner puts a paper in their shoe, the name of their enemy is written on the paper. The paper is then put in the shoe to keep the enemy under the foot. Every time the hoodoo steps down, the enemy is ground beneath the heel. It's very basic and very effective magic. Hence the line "Don't you worry about your baby." In other words, "the situation is being handled. I got a paper in my shoe."8
Musician Larry English, who asked Boozoo this very question, confirms the more popular belief: a lover that is so embarrassed because he is so poor, he has to put paper in his shoes to cover the holes; wanting to impress the girl and her parents. According to English:
[Boozoo] explained that it means he was so poor, his shoes had holes and he put paper in the shoe so his feet wouldn't be on the dirt.7He even stated something similar to author Michael Tisserand, inferring the paper was to keep his feet warm:
If you got some socks, well you'd rather keep it for on the weekends, for going to church. But in them days, it was just rough for everybody.10
Regardless of the truth behind the title, the song's popularity eventually took off once other zydeco artists such as Clifton Chenier recorded it and performed it live all over the world. According to Shuler, who was shocked with Boozoo's denial:
He's always denied falling off that stool, but that's the best commercial he could ever have. You couldn't even dream up something that valuable.10
- Biography by Craig Harris, Allmusic.com.
- Jon Pareles, "Boozoo Chavis, 70, Accordionist Who Spread the Zydeco Sound", New York Times, May 7, 2001
- South to Louisiana: The Music of the Cajun Bayous By John Broven
- Zydeco! By Ben Sandmel
- Paper in My Shoe: Name Papers, Petition Papers, and Prayer Papers in Hoodoo, Rootwork, and Conjure by catherine yronwode
- The Kingdom of Zydeco By Michael Tisserand
- NOTE: Contrary to popular information on the internet, there is no early reference to zydeco in 1929. Gid Tanner's band was never called the Zydeco Skillet Lickers.
Rural Blues Vol 2: Saturday Night Function (Liberty, 1969)