Belton Richard--An appreciation
Belton Richard "Un autre soir ennuyant (Another Lonely Night)"
"We lost a legend yesterday," wrote Cajun musician Wilson Savoy on Facebook last Thursday.
"Mr. Belton Richard, legendary fantastic Cajun singer and accordion player who melded country, swamp pop, and Cajun music together to create a sound unlike anything anyone had ever heard before. Fantastic songwriter, brilliant with words and emotion, and influence to all of us."
Belton Richard, whose Cajun French ""Un Autre Soir Ennuyant" cover of "swamp pop R&B teenage idol" Jimmy Clanton's 1960 pop hit of the Neil Sedaka/Howard Greenfield composition "Another Sleepless Night" is arguably the most popular Cajun music recording, died June 21 at 77.
"Belton Richard was the Cajun Elvis. He could make grown women swoon with his smooth, sensual vocals," says Cajun musician/historian—and Wilson Savoy's mother--Ann Savoy.
"But perhaps most important was that he wrote beautiful French songs, honky-tonk style," she notes, "songs of deep love--love to fight for. He also translated country songs into French ballads, making them the Cajuns’ own songs. Most who followed tried to copy his singing and accordion style. His excellent bands were hugely admired--hottest steel players, slickest twin fiddles. He was a true cultural icon, and will be deeply missed."
Todd Ortego, host of the popular Swamp N Roll program on Eunice, La. radio station KBON, devoted his entire show Thursday night to Richard, with help from legendary Cajun record producer/manufacturer Floyd Soileau.
"It was four hours of Belton, and Floyd Soileau came on for the first time and told stories. The first song was 'Un Autre Soir Ennuyant' and right out-of-the-box it won the championship! Of course Belton had many significant songs: He was the most recorded Cajun music artist in history, with 80 copyrights and at least that many covers—but he always did them his way and put his own twist on it. He has a place in people's hearts forever, and while he wasn't there physically, he's always there."
Many of Richard's classic recordings were issued on Soileau's famous Swallow Records label.
"He was such a phenomenal artist," says Soileau. "I don't know where to start."
Referencing his business in servicing jukeboxes, Soileau notes, "Belton was the Conway Twitty and Fats Domino for jukebox people as far as Cajun music goes. They'd buy without even listening on any record by the three of them."
Calling Richard "a prince in the studio," Soileau further likens him to Ray Price, "when Ray had his big band." "Un Autre Soir Ennuyant," he says, came about when "we were looking for a good swamp pop melody sung in French, and people loved it and sang along." And while "it came out of the chute like a racehorse," it was surpassed by "The Cajun Streak," Richard's take on Ray Stevens' big 1975 novelty hit "The Streak."
"It took off like a bat out of hell!" recalls Soileau. "People down here in Cajun country loved it and laughed about it, and we sold over 30,000 copies in a month--and that's unbelievable for us. I even heard that while he was in the hospital one of the doctors had that little whistle that he used in the song and came in and blew it for him and put a smile on his face."
Richard was inducted into the Cajun French Music Association's Hall of Fame in 1997, the year it was established. He was inducted into the Acadian Museum's "Living Legends" list in 2003 and won the Cajun French Music Association's Male Vocalist of the Year award in 2004.
"One thing he did, with all his records being that popular, he dragged along the Cajun language with him," continues Soileau. "It was during the time when we were trying to get people interested in the music and speak the language some more, and young musicians who couldn't speak French picked up on it because they wanted to sing his songs and start writing like him. He kept the language alive through his radio and jukebox play and prolonged the language some more, and now schools are teaching the language to little kids to keep it alive: As long as you keep the music alive, you'll keep the language alive as well--and Belton played a big part in that."
"He was such a legend, and inspiration to so many musicians," says Paul Marx, KBON owner and air personality. "I don't know how to put it in words—and I'm not often at a loss for words."
On a personal level, folklorist Moriah Istre, who explored the area's music in her documentary First Cousins: Cajun and Creole Music in South Louisiana, said, on Facebook, "Belton Richard never missed an event that was important to me and he was always just a phone call away. I'm going to miss him dearly as will anyone else who knew the man, his music, and the enduring impact he made on Cajun music as a whole. 'Un Autre Soir Ennuyant' will never seem so real now that he's gone."
Regarding Richard's signature hit, Ortego says, "I can play it five times in a row right now and not one person will complain—and everyone has that song already!"
Having attended Richard's visitation yesterday, Ortego adds, "Music was playing, and it was still a good vibe: No other musician from here had as much effect on the lives and hearts of people from all walks of life as Belton Richard."