A year ago, journalist Herman Fuselier was browsing through eBay when he came across item #147543437, with a starting bid of $10,000. Clifton Chenier's accordion was on the auction block.
Fuselier e-mailed the seller of the accordion, but never received a reply. He then expressed his bewilderment in his weekly "Bayou Boogie" column for Lafayette's The Daily Advertiser: "It's like finding 'Lucille,' B.B. King's guitar, in a pawn shop or Louis Armstrong's trumpet with the lawn tools at a garage sale."
Chenier, widely regarded as the "King of Zydeco," blended the popular rhythm and blues of his day with the traditional Creole music of his upbringing. He passed away in 1987; for his funeral, his trademark red velvet crown was placed in the casket near his head. For the last 15 years, the whereabouts of this crown have been uncertain; Chenier's widow, Margaret, has declined to answer questions about its current status.
In August, at the Southwest Louisiana Zydeco Music Festival in Plaisance, Chenier's crown, accordion, and other historic memorabilia surfaced, all with price tags attached. A Houston woman named Deidre Davis had rented a booth to display photos of Chenier's possessions available for auction. Chenier's 1984 Grammy Award had a starting bid of $5,000. His crown started at $4,500 and his accordion had been marked down from the eBay price to $7,500.
Also up for bid: Chenier's suit, tuxedo shirts, suspenders, money clip, personal travel photos and various awards and honors. Among the stranger items are Chenier's wooden crutches and his prosthetic leg (in his later years, Chenier had lost a portion of his leg due to complications from diabetes).
Davis says she is Clifton Chenier's second cousin. Margaret Chenier, Davis says, "just decided that she could part with [the items]. For a while we didn't ever see any of it. When she decided to give it to the family, I decided to take it to the next level, to get him the recognition he deserves."
Margaret Chenier confirms that she gave the items to Davis to sell. "I just wanted to auction them off," she says. "Do you want to buy them?" She then declined to discuss the auction further without receiving compensation for the interview. "They won't buy it here in Lafayette anyway," she says. "Not in Louisiana, I'm sure."
Not all family members are behind the auction. Musician C.J. Chenier is the son of Clifton Chenier, but not of Margaret Chenier. He says it was news to him that his father's possessions were up for grabs. "That's not cool," he says. "That's a shame they're trying to sell all that. It should be in a museum and open to the public."
Officials in Lafayette and Opelousas have expressed interest in the Chenier memorabilia. Steve Teeter, curator of jazz for the Louisiana State Museum in New Orleans, says he's flown to Houston to see the items and is negotiating with Davis for the collection. "We would very much like to have them on display," he says. "Basically, there's some really great stuff there. Our rules require that we get an outside appraisal and they're having a hard time getting an appraisal. It's a question of working with our procedures to make it a fair deal for all parties."
Teeter and Davis may reach an impasse when it comes to the Grammy Award, however. "It is the policy of the Recording Academy that the recipient of a Grammy Award cannot sell or transfer the award," says Ron Roecker, the director of communications for the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS). It's less clear how NARAS enforces its policy or who retains ownership of a Grammy after a recipient dies.
Among the harshest critics of the Chenier auction is State Sen. Don Cravins of Arnaudville, who before entering politics was a well-known zydeco promoter and broadcaster. Cravins says he doesn't buy Davis' claim that the auction is a fitting homage to Chenier's memory. "A fitting way to pay tribute to him would be to display his items, not to start auctioning off his very intimate and personal items to line someone else's pockets," Cravins says. "It's horrible."
Cravins says he doesn't dispute the family's right to sell whatever it pleases. "The line is drawn when you start selling the man's artificial leg and foot," he says. "I believe he and his family deserve much more dignity than that. If I bought the leg, what would I do with it? It's degrading to Clifton's great memory. You need to draw the line somewhere. You don't sell a prosthetic leg. Give me a break. It ain't that damn bad.
"When I heard that, I thought there was something wrong with this picture," Cravins says. "Then to do it under the guise that it's a tribute, where's the tribute?"