Since the death of zydeco king Clifton Chenier a little more than a year ago, the scramble has been on to assume his throne. And when you consider that such famed accordion pumpers as Buckwheat Zydeco, Terrance Simien and the Mallet Playboys, Rockin' Dopsie and the Twisters, and Good Rockin' Sidney are all in the hunt, it might take a while until someone finally gets to wear the crown.
Not that the zydeco palace is vacant. Sitting on her own throne for the past decade, accordion scepter firmly in hand, has been one Ida Guillory, otherwise known as Queen Ida. But for Ida, ascending to the top of the zydeco heap came somewhat unexpectedly, considering her background.
Ida Guillory (nee Lewis) was born in Lake Charles, Louisiana (she won't reveal the exact date, but it was approximately sixty years ago). "When I was about nine years old," she says, "we moved to a part of Texas called `the Triangle,' which is an area that covers three cities: Beaumont, Port Arthur, and Orange, Texas. A lot of people from Louisiana who share the same culture and background moved to that area." In fact, it was one of the Triangle's citizens, Clarence Garlow, who recorded the first big zydeco single, "Bon Ton Roula (Let the Good Times Roll)" in 1950, which combined Garlow's Texas-style blues guitar with the syncopated bayou rhythms of Louisiana. During World War II, the lure of employment in California's defense plants brought many families from Louisiana and Texas to the West Coast, including the Lewises. Ida was still a teen-ager when they moved to the Bay area, and it was just a few years later when she became a wife and mother. The family maintained its musical roots, however, as did many of the Creole immigrants, who continue to listen to and support local zydeco bands to this day. Two of Ida's brothers became musicians, and Ida took up piano, although she secretly preferred the accordion (which her parents discouraged as being too "unladylike").
With the demands of motherhood and holding down a job as a school-bus driver, Ida had little time for music during the Fifties and Sixties. As her children became older, however, she began to find the time to play the once-forbidden instrument. The inspiration for this development in her life came, interestingly enough, from hearing Creedence Clearwater Revival on the radio: "When I heard songs like `Lodi' and `Bad Moon Rising' on the radio, I said, `That's Louisiana music!' which I hadn't heard since I lived back there." As her playing improved, she and her brother Wilbert Lewis, who plays the percussive rub-board, began to sit in with her other brother's band, Al Rapone and the Barbary Coast Bon Ton Band. It was at a Mardi Gras festival in the Bay Area in 1976 where she was seen by a free-lancer for the San Francisco Chronicle, who dubbed Ida the "Mardi Gras Queen." Later that year she recorded her first album for Gene Norman's GNP-Crescendo Records (a rather odd, long-time independent label that carries everything in its catalogue from Stan Kenton jazz to the Sixties punk group the Seeds). Thus began Ida Guillory's second career, when she was already in her fifties.
Since then, her fortunes have continued to rise. Her fourth album for the GNP label was recorded live in Europe and earned her a Grammy in 1982. The next year, Francis Ford Coppola heard her at a private party and invited her to appear in his film Rumble Fish. She was on Saturday Night Live about two years ago (she remembers it well--Pee-wee Herman was the host), and last year she appeared on Austin City Limits as part of an accordion celebration, along with Ponty Bone (a former member of Joe Ely's band) and Tex-Mex squeeze-box king Santiago Jimenez. This month, she'll return to the studio to begin work on her eighth album for GNP-Crescendo, which will emphasize the contributions of her son Myrick, who also plays accordion and percussion.
Paralleling Ida's rise in popularity has been that of the accordion--with rock and country groups like John Mellencamp, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and the O'Kanes, to name a few, slapping liberal doses of the instrument on recent records. But it wasn't always so, reminds the Queen: "Only now is the accordion receiving the attention it deserves," she says, with a hearty laugh. "When I was young, it was a turnoff, a no-no."
The last few years have been good for Queen Ida, and for zydeco in general. Rockin' Dopsie backed Paul Simon on one cut on Graceland; Good Rockin' Sidney had a hit with "My Toot Toot," which was covered by both Ida and John Fogerty, among others; Buckwheat Zydeco has become the first zydeco artist to sign with a major label (Island) and served as the opening act on Eric Clapton's tour last year (Clapton also cameos on Buckwheat's most recent Island album); and Terrance Simien and the Mallet Playboys appeared in the film The Big Easy. But isn't there some danger that all this popularity might dilute, and ultimately dissolve, traditional zydeco and Cajun music?
Queen Ida's answer is diplomatic: "It's going to change [the music]. Now whether that change is going to hurt it or make it better, I can't say. It probably would hurt it, to the people who want to hear just the traditional style, but for the audience at large--see, they like it." Her perspective on the subject is particularly interesting, because of her own approach to the idiom. On one hand, she still performs many of the traditional Cajun folk tunes and waltzes ("Jolie Blon" comes to mind), and on the other, she has recorded her versions of rock songs like Creedence's "Bad Moon Rising" and Nick Lowe's "Half a Boy, Half a Man."
Ida claims that incorporating rock 'n' roll into zydeco is only natural. "It's got ingredients from all over--a little blues, a little country, a little of the Caribbean--all different kinds! Zydeco has something for everyone, the young and the old. I refer to it as a musical gumbo.