Roy Head looks like an older Belushi brother, one who appears a shot of whiskey away from snapping and turning into the guy who'd shout in your face about what a worthless piece of shit you are. He's neither, but at the Ponderosa Stomp, the 1960s-era Texas soul shouter sang his hit "Treat Her Right" with the intensity of a bare-knuckles brawler. An hour or so later, he reprised it with a full R&B band, but this time he didn't have to work as hard on the staccato "Hey hey hey" in the chorus, with a horn section and organ to give those moments so much punch.
The band was the reunited Top Cats, the R&B band that guitarist Lil' Buck Sinegal led in the '60s. Sitting behind a Hammond B-3 organ the size of a Geo was Stanley "Buckwheat Zydeco" Dural Jr., looking like he was having the time of his life. In glasses and dark, wavy hair, he grinned as he backed Head, Barbara Lynn, Phil Phillips and Archie Bell. Talking by phone from a hotel in Burlington, Vt., he couldn't remember if he had ever shared bills with any of these artists in the past.
"I played with a lot of people," he says. "I've done a lot of things I forgot. I'm going to start digging my brains up to check back on myself and see what I did. That would be a bio, man."
Buckwheat's new album, Jackpot! (Tomorrow), is his first studio album in eight years, and it represents a return to the early days of his career. It features the zydeco that fans have come to expect from him, and it ends with three tracks dubbed "Organic Buckwheat." Each of those pieces features Buckwheat (or as many people refer to him, "Buck") on the Hammond B-3 organ instead of the accordion, and each is performed in a different style. "Buck's Going to Trenchtown" is reggae, "Buck's Going Downtown" is blues, and "Buck's Going Uptown" is a jazz track that owes a lot to the late Jimmy Smith.
"There's imitation, never duplication," Buck says, laughing. "My idol in this is the all-mighty Jimmy Smith. That man was so hot." Buck didn't learn the influential organ player had died last Feb. 8 until Buck played an organ piece in concert a few days later. "The promoter says, 'Buck, that was real nice what you did for Jimmy,' but I didn't know he had died." It was only partway through the conversation that Buck realized something was wrong, and the promoter told him Smith had died in his sleep on the previous Wednesday.
Though he is associated with the accordion, Buck began playing organ when he was 9, and he preferred R&B and soul to the accordion and zydeco. He formed the 15-piece R&B band Buckwheat and the Hitchhikers in 1971 in Lafayette, and during that time he played with another New Orleans organ legend: Art Neville. "Me and Art, we go way back, too," he says. "The Nevilles used to play Lafayette all the time and we'd jam on the organ." He kept the group together until 1975 when he finally dissolved it. "There were so many personalities I had to give my brains a break."
Shortly after, zydeco pioneer Clifton Chenier called Buck from a gig in Austin, Texas, telling him not to make any musical plans until he could talk to him. He suspected Chenier was going to offer him a gig, and he was certain he didn't want it. Chenier was friends with Buck's father, and the two would often play accordion together, solidifying zydeco as old people's music in Buck's mind. Then again, longtime friend Lil' Buck was playing with Chenier at the time, so he reasoned that it couldn't be too bad.
When Chenier asked him to sit in for a gig in Lafayette, Buck planned to show up, play the B-3, and then say he didn't like it. "I was stubborn," he says, but "I loved it. It was very energetic. It was more fun than the time with the Hitchhikers and the Top Cats."
He joined Chenier and played organ with him for two years, until he got tired of breaking his back lugging his B-3 around, being the last man out of every club. "I parked it, and I parked it for years," he says, and took eight months off to learn the accordion, which launched him on a 25-year career as a zydeco bandleader.
His B-3 can be heard on the zydeco tracks on Jackpot, simulating a wah-wah pedal on the title track, for example, or fattening the chords on "I'm Gonna Love You Anyway." He is also playing the organ in concert again after getting one chopped to manageable size for touring, and he's having a great time rediscovering the instrument. "It's different," he says. "It's like Urkel said -- 'Did I do that?'"
For an interview with Travis Morrison and reviews of CDs by Lucinda Williams and Robert Gordon, see Opening Act 2.
- "My idol in this is the all-mighty Jimmy Smith," says Buckwheat Zydeco, who rediscovers his love of the organ on his latest release, Jackpot! "That man was so hot."