Jay Chevalier (By Tony Wilkinson)
Born 4 March 1936, Forest Hill, Louisiana
There were quite a few young Cajun musicians who were influenced by the emerging big beat of rock 'n' roll and one who took to it in no uncertain way was Jay Chevalier. Born on 4th March 1936 in Forest Hill near Lecompte and his parents Joseph E. and Jewell Goodman Chevalier were relatively poor. Jay recalls: 'I grew up naked in the piney wood hills along the banks of Bayou Boeuf' (1). Along with his grandmother, the family stayed here whist his dad enlisted in the navy during the second world-war.
Jay and his school friends loved to go to the cinema on Saturdays where they could watch their heroes such as the singing cowboys Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and Jimmie Davis. His dad bought him a Sears & Roebuck guitar for Christmas when he was 10 years and, along with his cousin Alious Richard ´Pee Wee´ Chevalier and other relatives Dewey and Tiny Jenkins, they made a lot of music. When Jay was 17, he heard live broadcasts by country singer Dallas H. 'Diddle' Babb Jr. on radio station KREH. The pair became friends and Jay was soon performing on the same airwaves, often with Pee Wee Chevalier and billing himself as 'Jay Chevalier - The Cajun Sensation' or 'Cajun Balladeer'. After sacks of fan mail were received, he quickly gained a sponsor.
This had been the musical background for Jay who had left Forest Hill High School in 1954 and had enlisted in the marines for four years. Jay enjoyed his time in the services as he got to see the world and was able to play music when not on duty. Upon receiving his honourable discharge as a sergeant, he again linked up with Pee Wee, Dewey and Tiny and started performing. He also attended a course at the Louisiana College in Pineville during 1958/59 with his wife helping to feed the family. However, the lure of music took over and soon he was a professional musician. Whilst in the army, he had been a member of the cast of the Jimmy Dean television show and this now assisted him obtaining bookings for his band who Pee Wee, Charlie Horton, Tommy Strange and Ambrose Williamson. Incidentally, Tommy Strange (1939-1992) is the guy who recorded the cult favourite Nervous And Shakin´ All Over und What Am I To Do (Rocko 45-504) in June 1960 and later went on to cut sides for labels such as Era.
During the army stint, Chevalier and Sergeant Garry Gilmore had formed a record label. Jay's self composed songs Rockin´ Roll Angel c/w Down Heart Break Trail (Over Teardrop Mt.) were released on Cajun Records (C-45-101). In order to achieve the popular rockabilly sound, he utilised a lot of echo on the recordings. As was the case with many small independent labels, they lacked distribution. However this did not stop the band using the disc as a promotion device to obtain bookings. When they played the Ranch Inn Dance Hall, Jay met Jimmy Stretch, the Public Relations Man and Road Record Distributor in the area for RCA Victor. Jay asked him how to get onto the bill of the June 1959 ´Jimmie Rodgers Country Music Festival' in Meridian, Mississippi as he felt that this would provide an invaluable boost for his career. Stretch gave him details of the show and offered to provide Chevalier with accommodation at the Lamar Hotel that was booked solid by RCA Records for their artists, executives and disc jockies but also advised that Jay would need money for promotion to get all this moving along. To demonstrate to Stretch that he was serious and would make it along to Meridian, purchased a 1959 Ford. At the festival, there was to be a talent contest for 75 singers who were selected from around 350 entrants. The prize was a recording contract with RCA but, almost as important, was that talent scouts would see the acts.
Jay printed 2000 autograph pictures to give away and had ´Jay Chevalier, The Cajun Sensation, Alexandria, Louisiana' painted on the side of his car in big letters. Jimmie Stretch took him along to station WMOX along with disc jockeys Earl Aycock, Jim Dowdy and Claude Gray so that he could promote himself to the festival visitors. One of them was Jimmie Davis (11.9.1899-5.11.2000). Jay Chevalier remembers it: 'He walked over to me and asked ´What are you doing here´. I was so cocky, you wouldn´t believe how cocky I was. I told Gov. Davis ´I´m here to win this contest' (3). He sang two songs, including Jim Reeves´ Billy Bayou, and was voted one of the best three on that day. This took him into the semi-finals where the judges were Chet Atkins, Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow, Ted Mack, Harry Stone, Mac Wiseman and Owen Bradley. Again he sang himself into the top three the finals. Everything looked good, the widow of Jimmie Rogers was rooting for him but he came second loosing out to Ken Mabry.
In the summer 1959, Jay was thrown out of college as he was away too often, but this did not bother him over much. His prime thoughts were to making a new record and so once again he contacted Pee Wee, Dewey and Tiny Jenkins. At the time, one of the top tunes in the USA was 'Battle Of New Orleans' by Johnny Horton. Also featured in the regions news, and elsewhere, were lurid stories about the affair that 63 year old Governor Earl K Long was having with 27 years old stripper Blaze Starr (real name Fannie Belle Flemming) from the Sho-Bar on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Earl's wife, Blanche Revere, had attempted to have him committed to the local mental hospital on two occasions. Earl had taken over the governorship from his brother Huey P. 'Kingfisher' Long and had served three terms before being succeeded by singer Jimmie Davis in 1960. Jay wrote Ballad of Earl K. Long in twenty minutes on a brown paper bag, and stopped on the way home to play it to some street workers who liked it right away. He met H. G. 'Dee' Marais, the producer and owner of Shreveport based Recco Records who was sponsored by an oil company. A couple of days later, Marais booked time at Eddie Shuler´s Goldband Recording Studios. For the session, they did not have a drum kit available and so the drummer adopted a carboard box instead. For the other side, the guys recorded Ballad of Marc Elishe. However the local radio stations declined to play Earl K Long side due to its alleged political content. Finally Jay played the song to Jimmy Stretch who liked it and took some copies away with him to promote the release.
A few days later in August 1959, Jay's doorbell rang at two am in the morning and neighbours advised Chevalier that Jimmy Stretch was trying to get in touch with him. When contact was made, Jay was informed that the song Ballad Of Earl K Long had broken out down in Baton Rouge and that he needed to get down there to promote it better. Jay borrowed some travelling money from his neighbours and went to Jimmy who told him: When I got Baton Rouge last night, I went over to WAIL radio to visit with my disc jockey friend, Bill Bessom. Bessom had played the song to the station director who was against it but the DJ had finally given in with the words For you, Jimmy I will. After playing the disc, the telephones started to ring with requests for further plays. The listening audience were ten promised that the next fifty requestors would be rewarded with a free copy of the record. These were gone in next to no time and so Stretch arranged a press conference for the new singing star. Earl K. Long had left the hospital and turned up. Within 24 hours, Chevalier on all the local and some national radio stations and even United Press International ran with a piece on him. All this helped to sell in excess of one hundred thousand copies of the record. Earl K. Long liked the song and invited Jay along to his campaign meetings. When Chevalier was asked how much he would charge for a fulltime job on the campaign trail with Long, he replied See if he´ll go for $ 500 a week and all my expenses. Long's answer was give to Chevalier by Edgar Coco who told him He (Long) said ´Five hundred dollars! Who in the hell does he think he is, Elvis Presley (2). They finally settled for 200 $ per week. Jay travelled with Long and sang songs such as Big Mamou, Jolie Blonde, Kansas City and of course his hit. When in New Orleans, they often stayed at the Roosevelt Hotel where Chevalier met Blaze Starr.
Apart from his meetings with Blaze Starr , Earl K.Long enjoyed the bars and nightclubs of the area and often sang his favourite songs Goody Goody and Bill Bailey Won´t You Please Come Home. In addition, Long liked nothing better to attend football matches. On 31st October 1959, Long along with Chevalier and some friends attended the game between the Louisiana State University (LSU) Tiger and Ole´ Miss. Up to then, Jay had little interest in football but, when in the second half, LSU-Star William A 'Billy' Cannon made a 89 Yard Touchdown against Ole Miss, Chevalier changed his mind. Jay was so impressed with the game that he instantly wrote the song Billy Cannon.
Earl K.Long lost his job as Governor in the election to Jimmie Davies but Jay got lucky with his new song and went to number one in the local charts on WAIL-Radio in Baton Rouge.. The song was released on Jim Rentz's PEL records from Baton Rouge. The flip side of Jay's record was High School Days (Almost Over). Sadly the company only had limited distribution and so it failed to break out nationally. This time around, Jimmy Stretch was unable to help as he had his hands full promoting RCA recording artist Jimmy Elledge.
Christmas time 1959 saw Jay seriously considering the future as he found out that his son Jay Earl was on his way. On New Years day 1959, Jay wrote the lyrics for his song Lost in Louisiana 1959 and then later that month composed the song Kruschev And The Devil. Chevalier recorded a demo of the song and sent it to Eddie Shuler at Goldband Records. The next month, February 1960, Eddie Shuler called him and said that an national distributor was in town and liked the song and wanted to offer it to Warner Brothers in Hollywood. Jay borrowed $600 and drove to Hollywood to get this launched but after two days, they turned him down on the grounds that the song was too political, may cause riots and could even lead to World War III. On the way home, Jay met Johnny Bond who introduced him to Tex Ritter and the pair stayed in touch until the latter passed away on 2nd January 1974. Ritter in turn introduced him to Joe Maphis who booked him for his band and a few gigs at a salary $80 for the weekend. Jay in his show at the Showboat-Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas included 11 year old Barbara Mandrell, which was a great help in launching her career.
Back home in Louisiana, Jay found out that Earl K. Long was now trying to get elected into congress. Chevalier visited Long and was welcomed back into the fold, joining his entertainment troupe on the campaign trail. Jay sang songs such as Cold Cold Heart, Jambalaya, Billy Bayou, Mansion On The Hill, In The Garden, I Saw The Light, Your Cheatin´ Heart and I Thought I Heard You Calling My Name along with his hit Ballad Of Earl K. Long at many of the political meetings . J. W. Thompson and his Hillbilly-Band usually backed him. They were successful and Long was elected to congress but, sadly eleven days later, Earl passed away.
However, besides blazing along the campaign trail, Jay had recorded Castro Rock and Mona at the Goldband Studio. Whilst Castro Rock became a cult rockabilly song in the seventies, it failed pretty miserably at the time of its initial release as, again, the political content was too much for the somewhat timid radio stations to tolerate. When Goldband re-pressed the record, Schuler changed the name of Jay's backing band from The Moon Men to The House Rockers. Come 1961, Jay joined up with his cousin Tommy Strange in his band the Features. And they contacted Baton Rouge producer Sam Montel, who in the years to come used Jay on several occasions. He recorded the outfit on I Iula Francana (My Louisiana Maid) and True, So True which was released on Montel Label.
Along with the Features, Jay journeyed back to Hollywood in 1962 to record for Crest Records. Jay recalled the connection with Crest: Before we left for Las Vegas, we auditioned for Crest, owned by Sylvester Cross. I sang him a song that my cousin and I had written ´If I Can´t Be Near the One I Love - I´ll Love the One Near Me´ plus another one I had written about that time called ´Check Out Time´. I got a call back and Sylvester asked me if I knew why I was getting the recording contract. He told me that Jimmy Bowen had come down the stairs that morning whistling ´If I Can´t Be Near the One I Love - I´ll Love the One Near me´ and if you have a song that someone can whistle or tap their toes to, usually you´ve got a hit song. So that´s how I got on Crest Records out of Hollywood". For the flip side, Dale Fitzsimmons and Jay and the Features recorded the Chevalier and Jack Miller composition It Doesn´t Matter.
In February 1962, Jay and the guys performed at the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas. Jay liked it there so much that he founded his own band The Louisiana Longshots that included musicians Bobby Edwards and Dale Houston on piano. Dale was born 23rd April 1940 in Seminary, Mississippi, and had made his first record Lonely Man in 1959 before being signed in 1960 by Sam Montel as a songwriter. Houston of course went on to record with Grace Broussard, sister of Van Broussard, as the duo Dale and Grace. Between 1963 and 1968, Chevalier performed at the Golden Nugget for ten weeks of each year. He also worked as a studio musician for Sam Montel and played on the monster hit I´m Leaving It Up To You by Dale and Grace, which was a reworking of the song originally by Don and Dewey. As a result of this success, Jay placed Dale & Grace in his Las Vegas show. He also subsequently used Rod Bernard in a similar role. The show was a local Opry type affair and it is worth recalling that Merle Haggard's wife, Bonnie Owens' asked Jay to help her husband get on in Las Vegas.
Between 1963 and 1968, Jay recorded several records for labels such as Speedy, Cotton Town Jubilee Records and Shelby Singleton´s Minaret-Label. In 1972, he returned to Las Vegas, this time performing at the Union Plaza Hotel. Come the late seventies, Jay went back to Louisiana and in 1978/79, recorded at in 1978/79 If I Can´t Be Near The One I Love, Bayou Baby, A Cajun Toast, Un Toast Cajun, Super Country USA and, his tribute to Chuck Berry, Ballad of Johnny B. Goode at the studio of Creole Gold Records. He also ran a dinner theatre and served as the host for the Friday night radio show ´Super Country USA' for around a year. In 1980 Jay became the entertainment director of The Palace, a big nightclub in Beaumont, Texas and for which he hired many bands, including Alabama. Then, in 1982, he organized bus tours for live country shows.
Writer Huey Perry, who had written the story of Blaze Starr in 1974, called Jay in 1989 as Hollywood now wanted to turn the book into a movie. Accordingly, Jay signed on as a supervisor for the A & M/ Touchstone production of the film 'Blaze' and indeed had a cameo role playing the part of Senator Wiley Braden. Blaze Starr herself also appeared in movie as Lily. The role of Earl K Long was played by then 64 year old Paul Newman whilst 28 year old Lolita Davidovich had the title part. Blaze was filmed on location in Baton Rouge, National Park Tennessee, New Orleans and in Winnfield, Louisiana and premiered on 13th December 1989 in America and was then released all around the world. Jay got an actor's pass for his part and also recorded Come Back To Louisiana for the film but this was unfortunately omitted from the final soundtrack. Jay then went on to record the live album A Tribute To Hank Williams with the Louisiana Long Shots at the Duchess in Port Huron, Michigan for the Freedom label in 1992.
In 1992 Jay had to undergo a bypass operation but was soon performing again. He met the legendary Chinese-American sheriff Harry Lee at the Rotary Club in New Orleans and subsequently went onto to record the album The Ballad of Sheriff Harry Lee, along with his partner Shelley Ford and the Louisiana Long Shots, including Junior Basco, at the David Praet Recording Studios in Alexandria. This was eventually released in August 1994 on Stargaze.
Back in 1979, Jay had become the sheriff of Jefferson Parish in 1979, a job that he still held as he approached seventy years of age. Fast forward to the middle of 1994, Jay was contacted by producer David V. Lester called him for his new movie Cobb, an Alcor/Warner Brothers-Films production on the story of baseball legend Tyrus Ty Raymond Cobb (18.12.1886 - 17.7.1961) from Georgia. Jay played a gambler whilst Tommy Lee Jones, with Lolita Davidovich starring as Ramona, played the leading male role. It was released in the USA on 2nd December 1994.
In 1995, Jay ran for the position of Lieutenant Governor of Louisiana but the Acadia Parish Clerk of Court in Crowley shows that he just lost on 21st October 1995 to Kathleen Blanco. This lady was subsequently re-elected to this post in 1999 and then in 2003 went on to become the first female Governor of Louisiana. Then, in April 2000, Jay was elected into the Louisiana Political Hall of Fame which is based in Winnfield, the home of the Long family. This nearly brings us up to date except to say that in 2003, his new CD Lost In Louisiana 1959 was issued on Creole Gold Records and his autobiography Earl K. Long and Jay Chevalier - When the Music Stopped was published by the Southern Legacy Press. Jay still plays live music with the Louisiana Long Shots.
Watch out for the forthcoming CD on Hydra Records to be released in March 2004. It has extensive liner notes by Dieter Moll. Our thanks to Hydra owner Klaus Kettner for letting use these as the basis of the foregoing.
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