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.
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.
- "South To Louisiana: The Music of the Cajun Bayous" by John Broven
- Music USA: The Rough Guide By Richie Unterberger
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)