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Friday, July 12, 1991

The World Accordion to Latour

The World Accordion to Latour

The musician was raised on the original Louisiana sound and, at 69, still performs it with peppery passion. 

He will play Saturday night in Anaheim, California.

July 12, 1991

by Jim Washburn
LA Times
Wilfred Latour, known as the King of French Music, was band leader and lead accordionist of Wilfred Latour and His Travel Aces and Wilfred Latour and His Zydeco Goodtime Aces..
To fans and scholars of Cajun music, Amede Ardoin and Adam Fontenot are legendary names, founders of the infectious accordion-based Cajun music that has grown from a regional backwater style to find a worldwide audience.

To Wilfred Latour, though, the long-departed Ardoin and Fontenot aren't sketchy chapters in a musicologist's treatise. They were neighbors and family friends, who sat a 7-year-old Latour on their knees and taught him the rudiments of his instrument.

Now 69, Latour is one of the few remaining links to the origins of Cajun accordion music, which he still performs with a peppery passion, both in his Louisiana Cajun Trio and with Wilfred Latour and his Goodtime Zydeco Aces. The latter outfit--which includes fiddle player Tom Sauber, bassist Carolyn Russell, guitarist Jerry Benton, drummer Charles Givings and rub-board player Stanley Fontenot--performs Saturday night at the Anaheim Cultural Arts Center.

Like so many other elder musicians, Latour has a spirit and animation that belies his years. Tuesday at Russell's Garden Grove home (once the site of many folk dances and concerts; Russell is a longtime proponent of folk music in the county), Latour recalled his 62 years behind the bellows with a sharp memory filtered through a rich Creole accent.

Latour, who transplanted to Southern California in 1984, grew up in the heart of Acadiana, in a rural area between such south Louisiana outposts as Mamou, Basile and Eunice. Like nearly all of his neighbors, Latour's family was sharecroppers, working cotton, corn and rice. His father also was a respected fiddle player, who would perform at weekend dances.

"My dad wanted me to also be a violin player," Latour said. "But I wanted that accordion. The sound of it just grabbed me. So I grabbed it.

"Back then practically all they had in Cajun music--we called it Creole music--was the fiddle. The accordion itself was a new instrument to us at the time. Amede and Adam were two of the first to start using it, back before I was born. That accordion music started appealing to people right away because it was a very attractive rhythm of music, so different from the violin, which everyone was used to. Some accordion players based their music on the violin playing, but Amede made it something that was more fast, more jumpy."

Latour explained that at the dances in his youth, they would have a "sleeping room" to put the young children in while the adults danced.

"They'd put me to sleep in a room, but I was so curious I just didn't want to let go; I didn't want to get away from that accordion. So I would go get underneath a bench in where they were dancing so I could hear the music. That's how I first saw Amede and Adam. So when Amede would visit at the house, he'd already seen how interested I was in music, and he'd say, 'You know I believe you're going to make a musician.' He was interested to see the interest I took in music, because I was so small and could already do a little on the accordion."

Raymond Latour, nephew of Wilfred Latour, playing vest frottoir a at Slim's Y-Ki-Ki in Opelousas, Louisiana.
Under the tutelage of Ardoin and, later, Fontenot (who also was the father of famed fiddler Canray Fontenot), Latour learned his way around the now-traditional Cajun one-row button accordion. He was performing at dances by the time he was 12 and was "being my own man" by 14, when he began performing on his own. At the time, he said, Cajun bands usually consisted of just two or three players, on fiddle, triangle and accordion.

"That meant it was hard work then," he said, "because you had to learn to play completely by yourself, it wasn't several guys playing a part and the leader just taking a short solo. You really had to know your instrument.

"Amede and Adam taught me the scales and that, but music really is a gift. It's a feeling, and they can't teach you that. It has to come from inside"--Latour tapped his chest--"Something has to be in you. If you're not relating what you feel, you're just wasting time by trying to play. You're only making noise."

The sharecropping life in Acadiana was a simple one. There were no cities nearby then, and the towns weren't much to speak of. One could only see a movie, Latour recalled, when a traveling show would set up a tent and projector in a field and show silent films for a nickel. Not that folks much wanted to see movies.

"People working on farms didn't worry about going to no movies, because they were silent, you didn't hear anything. You'd work in the field six days . . . and when you'd get out of the field Saturday evening, all you're looking for is, 'Where's the dance going to be tonight?'

"I'd work all day in the field, come back to get my accordion, and go out and 
play all hours at night. And I kept doing that week after week, year after year."

Wilfred Latour and His Travel Aces Poster for an event at Slim's Y-Ki-Ki in Opelousas, Louisiana.  The original Travel Aces band included. Wilfred Latour, accordion and vocals, his brother, Wilson Latour, frottoir, Bill Thomas, lead, guitar, Alex Milton, bass guitar, and Leo "The Bull" Thomas, drums.
During the Depression years the dances were strictly segregated, but Latour said black and white neighbors would often get together in their homes to play music.

"My daddy would play violin, and they would come dance together, one learning from the other. But at that time if the white people had a dance, it was just white people. If we--they didn't use black then, it was people of color --had a dance, the whites didn't come to it. Uh-unh. Fortunately, that's changed now; people have just about forgot about that."

While honing his skills over the decades, Latour kept abreast of the changes taking place in the music. Chief among those was the advent of zydeco music, the melding of the traditional music with new instrumentation and rhythm and blues influences. While Latour's good friend Clifton Chenier popularized the music and was the first to adopt its now standard piano-keyboard accordion, Latour says the style dates to before Chenier started playing.

"The first two men to play that kind of music--nobody ever wrote books about them--were Sidney Babineaux and a person everyone just called Black Snake Slim. Sidney Babineaux came up with that rhythm 50 or 60 years ago. He started playing a different accordion--a two-row and then a three-row--than everyone else was using, then Clifton came along with that piano accordion, picking up on the sound of those two.

"With this music, the instrument you play it on makes a big difference in how it sounds. I can play the same song on both the Cajun and piano accordions, and they're going to come out very different."

Latour typically plays the small Cajun accordion in the Louisiana Cajun Trio and the piano model with his revved-up zydeco band. Just as he earlier had learned from the best proponents of the Cajun accordion, he learned his piano accordion technique from Chenier, the uncontested and recently departed "King of Zydeco," who in return learned the traditional styles from Latour.

While Chenier and a few others earned their living solely with their music, Latour held onto his day jobs, first farming and then working for an oil company. "Clifton warned me early on that you have to be careful with this music because it's an up and down thing. Or, as he said, 'It's hell.' " He did manage to get away to travel with his band, building a following in California, which has an appreciable Cajun/Creole population.

When he retired from the oil company in 1984, he moved to the Los Angeles area, both to be near his children and because, ironically, he felt then that his brand of music stood a better chance away from its natural element.

Wilfred Latour and His Travel Aces perform at Slim's Y-Ki-Ki in Opelousas, Louisiana.  (Pictured from left to right) Leo "The Bull" Thomas, drums,  Wilfred Latour, accordion and vocals, Raymond Latour, frottoir, Bill Thomas, lead, guitar, and Alex Milton, bass guitar.
"This music practically died in Louisiana for a while. For a few years before I moved here, it seemed people didn't care too much for this kind of music. They were too used to it and wanted something new. But I found out when I'd performed here that everybody was impressed by this music. I could see a future in it here. If I'd have stayed back home, I'd probably have had to give it up."

While there has since been a proud resurgence in Cajun music in Acadiana, Latour has indeed fared well here. There is hardly a week when he isn't busy. Here in Orange County, in addition to Saturday's Anaheim show, his Cajun trio will appear at the Fullerton Museum Center on July 26.

He likes the busy schedule just fine.

"You can't retire from music. You take a musician like me: You do it all your life, and music becomes a part of your life. It's what I've been doing since I was 7. So I can't say I'm going to quit, not as long as I'm able to do it. And there's something about it that's good for you. It keeps you going. Look at old Cab Calloway, he's some 80 years old, and he doesn't retire."

Wilfred Latour and his Zydeco Goodtime Aces will play Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Anaheim Cultural Arts Center, 931 N. Harbor Blvd., Anaheim. Tickets: $9. Information: (714) 638-1466.

The World Accordion to Latour
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