Multitalented Chris Belleau talks about Gatemouth Brown, Irma Thomas and New Orleans music legacy

"I think it (Blues) sounds like the voices of southern people.  Blues and jazz is connected to the southern sound because it originated in the south."

Chris Belleau: Swamp NOLA Fever

Who is Chris Belleau? “West of New Orleans, east of Lafayette and south of Shreveport lies Baton Rouge, a city that thinks it's still a small town on the Mississippi river. Home of the swamp blues sound, my home town. Music has always tugged at my soul; I remember hearing brass bands as a child. Jazz bands that blew funky blues on the street.  I've always loved the sound of the accordion...Cajun accordion, what a sound!  Rock and roll, jazz, blues and country; it's all served up on the same plate down here in Louisiana.

I started playing music as a child, I chose the trombone, or maybe it chose me. I picked up other instruments later as a teenager including the guitar, harmonica, piano and accordion. Somewhere along the way music swept me away like a flood; I'm still trying to keep my head above the water. In 1990 I moved to New Orleans where I worked at Charity Hospital and played music in the French Quarter, and other local venues. Around that time I was introduced to Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown by Bill "foots" Samuels. The first time I played with Gate was probably in 1990. I worked for Gatemouth intermittently from the time I met him until he died of cancer in 2005 right after hurricane Katrina. I was fortunate enough to play with him for his last New Orleans Jazz fest appearance in front of about thirty thousand people. I had the opportunity to share the stage with some of the greats like BB King, Pinetop Perkins, Ike Turner, and many others." His debut "ZYDECO HOUNDS, SHAKE IT DON'T BREAK IT" was recorded in Shreveport and Baton Rouge sometime around 1990. The second, "CHRIS BELLEAU & The ZYDECO HOUNDS, REPEAT OFFENDER" was recorded in Baton Rouge around 1996 and the next "CHRIS BELLEAU, KNEE DEEP IN THE BLUES" (2013) is full of Louisiana flavored blues and roots style material. His new album "Swamp Fever" (2017) is a rare breed given its sonic diversity, especially considering a lot is packed into this 47'/8 tunes affair.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Blues music and culture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

About the time I graduated high school I started thinking about the things in life that were important to me. Music was at the top of the list so I naturally wanted to devote a lot of time to developing my playing and knowledge of the music. As a native of South Louisiana, I was exposed to Blues, Jazz and Cajun music. Along with the music came the food, the language, the dances and the lifestyles of the people. I developed a love for this stuff that persists to this day. I suppose every day of my life is influenced by these things in one way or another.

What do you learn about yourself from the Blues and what does the blues mean to you?

I’ve learned that intuition is a very powerful thing.

What experiences in your life make you a good musician? How do you describe Chris Belleau/ sound?

I’ve been inspired by many different styles and musicians. These things have challenged me to develop my musicianship. My sound is based in blues but has influences from jazz, rock & roll, country, Cajun and zydeco. 

"My first recording session with a well known artist was with Charlie Rich. That was a very cool moment in my career." (Photo: Chris Belleau jammin' in the swamp, Louisiana)

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues? What is the best advice ever given you?

Many years ago in Baton Rouge I met a great harmonica player named “Whispering Smith” aka “Moses Whispering Smith”. I heard him play and got to play with him in Baton Rouge. He told me “you gotta keep that harmonica in your pocket and play all the time”

Which was the best and worst moment of your career? Which is the most interesting period in your life?

My first recording session with a well known artist was with Charlie Rich. That was a very cool moment in my career. I’ve had bad moments but a bad moment playing music is better than a lot of good moments doing other things.

What were the reasons that you started the Roots, Americana, Folk, and Blues researches and experiments?

I have always played different styles but never really worried too much about what to call them or how to categorize them. I can’t remember a time in my music career when I didn’t play jazz and blues but I’ve played most other styles along the way in various situations. I’ve always tried to take note of what people respond to and what works on the bandstand in a live setting. People in Louisiana love live music! If you can play something soulful that gets people to dance and have a good time then you can work. If you can’t do that you might as well go back home and play with your Playstation or something.  Through the years I’ve noticed that you can mix different styles, I don’t care if its Charlie Parker, Aldus Roger or Little Walter, it still works as long as you can give people enough of that groove so they get up and sweat a little on the dance floor. I’ve never thought of this stuff as research and experimentation but I guess maybe there’s some of that going on.

How do you describe SWAMP FEVER sound/songbook? What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past?

Bryan Brignac (Sonny Landreth’s drummer) introduced me to Billy Henderson.  Billy was really excited about writing songs that were reflective of the Louisiana Swamp and Roots sound. He had written lots of material through the years with Nashville people and of course Muscle Shoals artists. By the time we met he was ready to do something with a Louisiana sound. He sent me a bunch of words for songs that he wrote with no preconceived ideas for the music. He gave me complete freedom to write the music any way I heard it. As a result of this process, Swamp Fever, The Treater and The Healer were written. I wrote Blues is On the Rise as a tribute to Kenny Neal and his family. I wrote Bienville Blues, a bluesy jazz shuffle, Hold the One Who Cares, a swamp pop style tune, and covered two Jazz standards, When You’re Smiling and Goodbye Pork Pie Hat. The project has a real Jazz flavor to it with a lot a blues and Louisiana references.

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What’s been the highlights in your career so far?

Alvin Battiste was a really important person in my musical development and experience. I took classes from him at Southern University when I was a student at LSU. He had an amazing world view of music that helped me to see beyond cultural biases and to appreciate the significance of what playing music was all about. I started playing jazz standards from the very beginning in Baton Rouge.

I’ve also always had a thing for rootsy blues stuff. It just feels good and reminds me of real life. I remember listening to Moses Whispering Smith play harmonica in Baton Rouge back in the 70’s. He was as good a blues harmonica player as there ever was anywhere. I remember him trying to teach me how to hold the harmonica with a microphone with one hand, how to take a little drink and how to treat your women.  Now aint that the blues? I got my first accordion from my grandfather who bought it from his lifetime friend Mr. Eli Ardoin in St. Landry Parish.  Mr. Ardoin got too old to play and sold the accordion, a snare drum and a homemade case to my grandfather. When my grandfather gave that accordion to me I thought I had died and gone to heaven because I had been wishing for a Cajun accordion all of my life. I taught myself how to play it and before long I was playing it in bands along with the other instruments I play.

In 1982 I moved from Baton Rouge to Shreveport to finish college and figure out what to do with my life. I decided that I wasn’t going to tell anybody in Shreveport that I was a musician so I could concentrate on school and my future. By some twist of fate I ran into Chris McCaa (AKA Professor Porkchop) who I knew from playing in Baton Rouge bars with A-train.  Chris talked me into going to “sit in” with Toby Cooper, a New Orleans style clarinetist and singer who owned his own funky bar in north Shreveport.  Shortly thereafter, Toby announced that he booked us as a house band playing for the local mafia.  The next thing I knew I was wearing a grey polyester suit four nights a week playing trombone for a guy named Vito in a fancy Italian restaurant.  Through the years I was fortunate enough to have several of these house band gigs that were steady jobs playing music. These jobs were very important experiences in my development as a working musician.

"My sound is based in blues but has influences from jazz, rock & roll, country, Cajun and zydeco." 

Which memory from Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown and Irma Thomas makes you smile?

Mostly things on stage that were musically exciting.

What has made you laugh from "Gatemouth" Brown and what touched (emotionally) you from Johnny Copeland?

Lots of things that Gatemouth did were funny and there are lots of good stories about him. One story I like was when some Hippies gave Gate a big jug of homemade apple cider laced with LSD (without his knowledge). He took a big swig of that stuff and started driving the band bus to the next town. At that time his bus had a set of bull horns on the front as a hood ornament. By the time the acid kicked in he pulled the bus over on the side of the highway and jumped on the hood trying to ride the bus like he was riding a bull. I love that story and its true.

I got to play with Johnny Copeland one time in Shreveport. He was a headline act for a big festival there and was scheduled to play in a jam session with some of the local players. Johnny was a powerful presence wearing bright colored clothes; he just dominated the stage with hot blues guitar licks until this white guy came up wearing blue jeans and cowboy boots and plugged in his guitar. I could see Johnny looking at him and probably thinking who in the hell is this? Well it was none other than James Burton, “the master of the telecaster” then all of a sudden things got real serious. The jam session was epic and to say the least I was touched emotionally.

What is the impact of Blues and Roots music on the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

Music strikes a chord (so to speak) in all people so it inspires folks together in a group to enjoy something in common. This is powerful! The power can and should be used for good. It’s all we really have! Life is a gift from God but it isn’t always a walk in the park. Music and music culture brings joy and lifts people up from the doldrums of everyday life. It’s really a beautiful thing to be part of that experience with other people.

"As a native of South Louisiana, I was exposed to Blues, Jazz and Cajun music. Along with the music came the food, the language, the dances and the lifestyles of the people."

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

Honestly, I try not to think too much about the past or the future. I believe that if you have one foot in the past and one foot in the future you’re pissing on today. There’s no place like the present. 

Do you remember anything funny or interesting from the recording time? 

I remember Irma talking about the time she beat up her first husband and left him for good. I was in a recording session with Augie and a guy accidently shot a pistol inside the studio while he was showing it to everybody.

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

One of the best jams was with James Burton and Johnny Copeland in Shreveport. 

Why did you think that Southern music continues to generate such a devoted following?

I think its about the feelings that people relate to.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is?   

Because its easy to understand and it reveals the raw talent and humanity of the artists.

Do you believe in the existence of real blues nowadays?

Yes!!!

Do you believe that there is “misuse”, that there is a trend to misappropriate the name of blues?

No!!!

"I’ve learned that intuition is a very powerful thing."

What characterize the sound of South? Do you know why the sound is connected to the Blues and Jazz? 

I think it sounds like the voices of southern people. Blues and jazz is connected to the southern sound because it originated in the south. 

Are there any differences and similarities between: Blues, Tex Mex, Zydeco, Jazz, Rock and roll and more?

These styles are all rooted in the blues. 

What are the lines that connect the legacy of New Orleans music with Mississippi Blues and beyond? 

New Orleans is geographically close to Mississippi and has always been full of people from Mississippi.

What are you missing most nowadays from the old days of Southern culture and old days of Blues?

I don’t feel like I miss anything like that at this point in my life.

Which things do you prefer to do in your free time? Happiness is…

Lately I’ve been enjoying writing songs and cooking meals for my family in my own kitchen.

"New Orleans is geographically close to Mississippi and has always been full of people from Mississippi." His new album "Swamp Fever" (2017) is a rare breed given its sonic diversity, especially considering a lot is packed into this 47-minute/8-song affair.

Are there any memories from Chuck Rainey and Augie Meyers, which you’d like to share with us?

Chuck is a fascinating character and he has some great stories about playing with various people. One of my favorites is the time that James Booker showed up late for a King Curtis gig in Las Vegas dressed in drag. Augie Meyers and I met for the first time in Shreveport. We were booked to play a gig that night in a local nightclub. Earlier that day I was playing a klezmer gig in a synagogue and Augie came to that gig thinking that the klezmer band was going to be the band he was working with. He took one look at us and told the promoter that he was going to walk. He was pretty suspicious about what was going to happen until we got to the club and played the first tune. After that he came up to the bandstand and we played all night. Another time I was playing a big festival with Augie in Texas. The bass player’s son who was about 4 years old told his dad that he needed to go to the bathroom. His dad told him to go ahead so the boy went right up to the front of the stage in front of several thousand people and pissed into the audience.

If you had to choose guitar, harmonica, trombone what would be your choice - what excites you more today? 

I love them all but I tend to perform more on the harmonica and trombone. I write on the guitar and piano.

What are your hopes and fears on the future of music and special for southern traditional? 

I’m not really worried about it. It will be around a lot longer than I will.  It will be its own thing regardless of what my hopes and fears are. 

Which incident of your life you‘d like to be captured and illustrated in a painting? 

Maybe playing in front of people that are dancing and having a good time. 

Chris Belleau - Official website

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