"I grew up naked in the piney wood hills along the banks of Bayou Boeuf," says 67-year-old Jay Chevalier of his roots in Rapides Parish. He learned to sing in those backwoods Baptist churches (with his clothes on); but his real inspiration was Gene Autry movies. He loved the image of the cowboy and started singing tunes like "Back in the Saddle Again."
In the fateful summer of 1959, Chevalier was a 23-year-old guitar-playing country singer looking for a break. That's when he first crossed paths with Gov. Earl K. Long.
The state constitution did not allow consecutive terms, so Long was running for lieutenant governor -- his ticket came in fourth, but within a year, he was back on the stump in an ultimately successful Congressional bid. The first law of politics is to make people like you; to achieve that, Long paid for the six-piece J. W. Thompson Band to provide country music on the hustings as Chevalier sang. The band would set up and play in a park or courthouse square, and when "Uncle Earl" arrived to shake hands and give out food, the entourage would move on to the next stop to draw another crowd. Chevalier sang his composition "The Ballad of Earl K. Long," which became a radio hit during the old man's final year.
Long's wife, Blanche, had already moved out of the mansion when he hired Chevalier to play music at his rallies. A male-bonding theme imbues the musician's new memoir, Earl K. Long and Jay Chevalier: When the Music Stopped (Nachitoches: Southern Legacies Press). Here is Chevalier's account of a morning in the Roosevelt (now Fairmont) Hotel as he escorts the governor's paramour, Bourbon Street stripper Blaze Starr, into the hallway to catch the elevator:
"[A husband and wife] were patiently waiting for the bellboy to open their room with a key that didn't seem to fit. About this time, we heard a gruff voice hollering down the hallway: 'Hey! Hey!' Blaze and I stepped back into the hall and there stood the Governor outside of his room thirty feet away, butt naked, except for his shirt which was opened all the way down the front.
"The lady dropped her purse and clapped both hands to her cheeks. Her husband looked dumbfounded and the bellboy just snapped his key off. Blaze hollered, 'You old son-of-a-bitch! Get back in your room. Are you crazy?'
"Earl jumped back into the room, peeped his head out of the door with fingernails gripping the door frame; he sheepishly hollered with his one free hand, 'I just wanted to tell Jay not to forget the peaches!'"
It is unlikely that a consensus will ever form over whether Earl K Long was actually "crazy." Earlier that summer, he made national headlines when he was twice committed to mental hospitals by Blanche, with help from Earl's nephew, U.S. Senator Russell Long. He had suffered a nervous breakdown in the legislature, babbling profanities and insults to politicians as they worked to purge the 100,000 black voters whose rights he had championed.
By the time he hired Chevalier, Gov. Long had spent 17 days at a hospital in Galveston and done a short stint at a state facility in Mandeville. His wife's role in committing him stuck deep in the gubernatorial craw.
"Earl hated Blanche," Chevalier says. "She thought he was crazy to register blacks and run after a stripper." He pauses. "Well, a stripper would cause problems in any marriage. But I never thought Earl Long was crazy. He was eccentric. And there's a big difference."
In the summer of 1960, Earl Long's campaign for Congress took him to Rapides Parish and Alexandria -- the Bible belt. Even with the news of his trips to mental hospitals and his romance with Blaze Starr, he campaigned among the Southern Baptists, unashamed. How did he win support?
"He fed the multitudes," Chevalier says with a chuckle. "We'd give away oranges, hams, peaches, watermelons, loaves of bread and Little Miss Cotton cakes. People liked that. He sent Blaze to Maryland for the last 90 days. People couldn't see her. It's not like today where you can see the same piece of video running over and over on the news. Back then, if something was in the newspaper, you'd read it and then throw it away."
At the time, what people thought of a politician depended much more on personal contact, "pressing the flesh," the rallies and door-to-door appearances, than on a persona formed on TV or radio. Earl Long had a farm near Alexandria and a vast network of rural supporters cultivated over the years. The Longs had put roads and services in communities. That counted. But so, says Chevalier, did the fact that at bottom, the country Baptists whose support was crucial to Long's comeback "were forgiving people. They didn't bear grudges against Earl because of his personal life. He wasn't mean or arrogant. They liked him."
Music was more central to political life before big television advertising budgets. New Orleans Mayor Chep Morrison, who ran for governor in 1959, traveled with a Dixieland band, recalls Chevalier. Jimmie Davis was a singer by profession, with a hit song "You Are My Sunshine" as his biggest calling card. He traveled the state with a ten-piece band in winning the governorship in 1943 and again in '59.
"The Jimmie Davis band all went on state payroll after he won," Chevalier says. "One of 'em was a strawberry inspector. One of 'em was a bridge inspector. One of 'em was a sweet potato inspector -- and you know there were a lot of sweet potatoes needed inspecting. One of 'em was a road inspector. Every time he rode over a road he'd see how it was doing."
Chevalier says that Davis' assistant, Chris Frasier, once told Chevalier that if he hadn't written "The Battle of Earl K. Long," Davis would have hired him for his band. Chevalier's song is one of the cuts in Lost in Louisiana 1959, a CD included in his new memoir.
In When the Music Stopped, Chevalier also writes of Earl's last hurrah. After years of chain-smoking Lucky Strike cigarettes, Long bet $10,000 that he'd win the 1960 Congressional campaign. In the last days of the race he got sick in his hotel room in Alexandria. A doctor was summoned, who told him he'd had a heart attack and needed to go to the hospital. With reporters on the track of the story, Long agreed to utilize an oxygen tent in his hotel room, fearing that if he checked into the hospital he'd lose the election. He ordered the oxygen tent folded up, had it moved under the bed and then met with two reporters from the press pool. Chevalier recalls the scene:
"'What's wrong with you, Governor? Some say a heart attack?' queried Jerry Moses.
"'Nah, boys, just a little touch of ptomaine poisoning, I guess,' the Governor replied. 'I sent Jay over to Shorty's Barbecue to get some of those good pork sandwiches, and they must have been a little over-ripe and upset my stomach. At my age, it don't take much, you know.'
"Five minutes went by awfully fast, as they turned to the Doctor who nodded affirmation to every little lie the Governor was telling."
Earl Long won the election and died a few days later. A demoralized Chevalier soon moved to Las Vegas; he ended up a bandleader who for many years fronted a group called The Louisiana Long Shots. The lure of home eventually pulled him back. He played a small role in Blaze, Ron Shelton's film account of Earl's last year, and now lives in Kenner. Recently, Chevalier was admitted to the Louisiana Political Hall of Fame in Winnfield -- the birthplace of the Longs.
- Jay Chevalierin 1959 and now, from the CD that accompanies his new book, When the Time Stopped.