The band was tossed together. Hired to play for a housewarming party, the group only planned to play once. They had a guitar, drums, and a bass. With the addition of an accordion, the musicians figured that they would play some zydeco, the fun music that had recently gained some popularity outside of its native Louisiana.
The band played the gig. The drummer, Ric Lee, recalls that things clicked that day. By the end of the gig the band knew that they had something worth holding onto. The music jelled and had a certain magic. “We all knew, by the end of the gig, that we really had something,” says Lee. “And we made $350 in tips!”
In the 20 years since that party, the Bayou Brothers have ensured that Southern California has its own bit of Louisiana to call our own. Playing solid zydeco, they have also become one of San Diego’s most successful bands, performing at a great number of venues and just about every zydeco/Cajun or blues festival in the Southwest.
“We didn’t advertise. We just got gigs through word of mouth, and started right off the bat doing festivals,” says Lee. “We played the first Gator by the Bay and the Long Beach festival. The band just got more and more popular.” Within a year the group was a full-time band, with all the members giving up other musical projects to play full time with their new zydeco ensemble. “We originally called ourselves the Zydeco Rockers, but with a band name that starts with a Z, we were usually the last on the list.” Changing their name to the Bayou Brothers got them at least up to the Bs.
Though he grew up and went to school in Coronado, Lee has deep roots in the South and Louisiana, being a direct descendant of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. The music bug hit him when he was quite young. “Where I grew up, there was a garage down below us, and the family who lived there, that’s where their teenage son lived, in the garage. He played the drums, and I saw him playing there. And it just hit me and I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do with my life.’” From scrap wood Lee fashioned his first drumsticks and started playing drums when he was ten years old. He played in rock bands in high school. Before the Bayou Brothers, some of the notable acts that he performed with were Hollywood Fats and the Blond Bruce Band.
Lee fell in love with zydeco 40 years ago, first hearing the lively music when he was in a band that opened for Queen Ida, the first female accordionist to lead a zydeco band. He remembers falling in love with the music right from the start.
Thus commenced Ric Lee’s somewhat crash course in all things zydeco. To learn more about his new musical love, he checked out the zydeco bands he encountered while he was touring. He also picked up records and tried to imitate what he heard. He also used the age-old 15-minute musician seminar method of stopping performers backstage at festivals and peppering them with questions on approach and technique.
I took Lee up on having my own 15-minute seminar. I asked him to give me a very quick primer on playing zydeco drums. “The basis of the zydeco drums is the double pump,” he says as he demonstrates by slapping his hands on my kitchen table. BAD-A-BOOMP, BA-DA-BOOMP! The table comes alive with a zydeco backbeat. “This is the essence of the sound. I’ve found that it’s okay to play this rhythm several songs in a row. It’s what people want to dance to. And it’s so easy it’s hard for some guys to play.”
If you’re still wondering what zydeco sounds like, it is almost always high spirited and well suited to dancing. The sound is dominated by the accordion. The rhythm is accented and enlivened by the rubboard, an instrument that is worn as much as it is played. The rubboard player wears his instrument as a type of metallic vest. Corrugated, like an old-fashioned washboard, the rubboardist plays the accented rhythms with thimbles on his fingers or other metallic devices.
Okay, Cajun music has accordions and is from Louisiana, and zydeco music has accordions and is from Louisiana. So what’s the difference? Lee clarifies that Cajun is akin to folk music, and zydeco is related to the blues. Zydeco is what black people have played in Louisiana for decades. It’s also funky. Zydeco is Louisiana-style super groovy backyard party music,” Lee says. “Chubby Carrier explained it best. Zydeco is a close cousin of the blues; it’s like the blues sped up.”
John Chambers, accordionist for the Bayou Brothers, is one of the original founding members. He and Lee go way back, having attended Coronado High School together. Chambers is also a long-standing accordionist, picking up the instrument at the age of eight. That was back in the fifties, when there was an accordion studio on every street corner, and the accordion was the most popular instrument in the United States.
Chambers strayed from the accordion for quite a few years. Overnight, yes literally overnight, the night that the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan, the accordion went from being the most beloved instrument in America to the musical equivalent of a man wearing a tuxedo and brown shoes. While the kids went crazy for the Beatles and the electric guitars that they played, accordions wound up in attics and dumpsters. The young Chambers told his mother, “Mom, this isn’t cool anymore.” He put away his accordion and took up the Farfisa organ.
Chambers spent time in the Army. Upon returning to San Diego, he threw himself into the local music scene, performing in lots of bands in lots of bars and lots of clubs. When he first encountered zydeco, he picked up the accordion once again.
Two decades is a long time for a band to be together. In that time, 16 guitar players have worked with the Bayou Brothers. Before you start to get a Spinal Tap-like image of rock ‘n’ rollers dying in bizarre gardening accidents or coming to strange ends one after another Lee lets us know that nothing unusual occurred with any of the 16 guitarists. He speaks highly of all of them and considers the band lucky to have worked with such an array of talented individuals. And none of them blew up on stage.
Their current guitarist is Jack Stevens. The San Diego native picked up the guitar at age 14 and was playing professionally more than 40 years ago with his family band the Stevens Brothers. He toured in the eighties with John Ford Coley (known possibly better as the second part of the seventies duo England Dan and John Ford Coley). He’s played with a plethora of other bands, notably Chained Reaction and Finger Tips. Lee says, “Jack adds great flavor to the band. He’s funky; he’s got that James Brown funk. He brings in a lot of rhythm and blues influence, too. He’s a real powerhouse.”
Former Republic of Music bassist Danny Perez takes care of the bottom end for the Bayou Brothers. “As a drummer, Danny is great to work with. That drums-bass thing is the center of everything and it’s great to lock in with him,” says Lee. If it has strings and makes low notes, Perez plays it, including four-string, six-string, fretless, and upright bass. He has multiple recording credits to his name in over 30 years of music. Classical music is in his background, and he studied upright bass with San Diego’s godfather of the bass, Bert Turetzky. “Danny is a super funky bass player,” says Lee. “Danny is musically intelligent. He really raises the bar, all about the drums and bass. He’s got that funky big bottom.”
Judy Seid is considered a Bayou Sister and goes back to the founding of the band. As a matter of fact, it was her housewarming party that provided the impetus for the formation of the band. She has loved Louisiana and its music since almost forever and had been involved with the Bontemps Social Club of San Diego, our local Cajun/zydeco music appreciation and dance organization, for years before becoming part of the Bayou Brothers. Seid provides all that extra zydeco spiciness with her rubboard. The extra or alternate rubboardist for the band is Lee’s daughter, Jessica Lee. Jessica has performed and recorded with the Bayou Brothers numerous times.
Guest performers include San Diego blues singer Michele Lundeen, who assumes the persona of Madame LeRoux when she performs with the band. Billy Thompson and San Diego’s Queen of Boogie Woogie, Sue Palmer, also guest performs. Palmer is considered an official Bayou Sister and recently played with the band at the Rosarito Blues Festival. “Sue is one of our favorite guest artists,” says Lee. “When she plays with us it’s like Fourth of July fireworks going off.”
The band has a full schedule of festivals every year. On the horizon are the Yuma Blues Festival, Pirate Mermaid Festival in Long Beach, Simi Valley Cajun and Blues Music Festival. They have played regularly for the San Diego Zoo Wine Festival and are regular performers at Humphrey’s Backstage Live. Lee says, “We appreciate Humphrey’s it’s a nice upscale place to play.”
Their CDs include a disk of Christmas zydeco, including such numbers as “Crayfish for Christmas” and “Let It Snow Zydeco.” Their latest disk, High Roller Zydeco, came out last year and has sold well.
There is a lot of talent in the band, but Lee likes to point out the people who have been particularly helpful in the band’s career. “Terry Bernays of KUSI taught us a lot about how to be on TV,” Lee says. “He taught us about properly taking our cues. He showed us how to make sure the band’s name appears on the credits. That stuff helps a lot. When they need somebody we get the call.”
In 2013 the Bayou Brothers won the San Diego Music Award in the blues category. Some folks didn’t think the band sufficiently fit into the blues genre. “But we did that UK tour with Lazy Lester, and he’s certainly blues,” counters Lee. That tour with Lester was noteworthy for the United Kingdom as much as it was for the Bayou Brothers, because it was the first time in the history of the UK that a zydeco band played there. In a hat tip to the British and their music the band performed a zydeco version of the Herman’s Hermits classic “I’m Henry the Eighth, I Am.”
“Peter Oliver is a big part of our story. He has been one of the most loyal supporters of the band,” Lee says. “And we’ve played every Gator by the Bay. It’s one of the best festivals to play, too. They treat the musicians really nice. They’re a big help with transporting the equipment to the stage and the food’s good, too! RosaLea Schiavone, from the Bontemps Social Club, has been a big help to us.” Lee also mentions Katherine Miller, who has been one of Gator by the Bay’s organizers since its beginning in 2001. “Katherine, we played her wedding!”
The Bayou Brothers want to ensure that zydeco endures. The band regularly brings in some outstanding teen players when they perform at street fairs. Recent young talents include 14-year-old Benji Davis and 15-year-old Serena Geroe. Anthony Cullens will join the band for an upcoming show in Fallbrook. “We’re trying to expose the next generation to this great music,” Lee says. “We want to give back to the community. We also think it’s good that we can get these kids up on a real big stage.”
The band is hoping to make it back to England for another tour. “And we’re going to keep playing this music,” Lee says. “While we’re still standing on two feet, we’re going to keep going. We’ve got a rich history and lots to share with folks. And how much fun we’ve had!”
GATOR BY THE BAY: A LITTLE HISTORY
A long-time lover of all things Louisiana, Peter Oliver explains why Gator by the Bay is one of San Diego’s most successful music and cultural festivals. “We started off as dancers,” he says. “I think that’s why we cater to our attendees.”
Oliver has been at the helm of San Diego’s annual Gator by the Bay San Diego’s annual zydeco, blues, and celebration of Louisiana culture, since its inception 15 years ago. On Mothers’ Day weekend, the 5th through the 8th of this month, the festival returns to Spanish Landing.
Originally held in Chula Vista, Gator by the Bay brings out Southern California’s best zydeco and Cajun performers, most notably the Bayou Brothers, who have performed at all of the festivals over the years. The Euphoria Brass Band, which is San Diego’s Louisiana brass funk band, performs as well. Top national touring zydeco performers on this year’s roster include CJ Chenier & the Red Hot Louisiana Band and Jeffery Broussard & the Creole Cowboys.
Over the years, Gator by the Bay has added blues, Latin, and a few other genres to their musical jambalaya. Oliver says, “We decided that San Diego is so diverse that we needed to offer people some blues, country, Latin, and some other music. People will have all kinds of options.
“One new band to our festival that I’m excited about is Ass Pocket Whiskey Fellas.” (see the Fellas’ CD review in this issue) The San Diego-based band has a high-energy mix of traditional Irish folk music and country rock. “We also have San Diego Music Award winners Rebecca Jade, Sarah Petite, the G Burns Jug Band, and Todo Mundo.”
Just as the festival has added blues and country to the mix, there are always additions to the festival to enhance the experience for attendees. “We’ll be having a real Mardi Gras Indian both Saturday and Sunday in full regalia, with all those feathers,” Oliver says. “And we’ll be having Mardi Gras Parades Saturday and Sunday with the Mardi Gras Indian leading.”
For those who don’t want to hang onto a printed schedule to check and recheck where in the festival that they are going next, the festival is introducing a phone app that can make and keep your schedule for you. “And if you use the app, you don’t have to hang on your cell phone, you can use the app to have your friends find where you are at the festival,” adds Oliver.
Food. How could you have a Louisiana festival without great food? The French Quarter Food Court will have po’ boys, red beans and rice, jambalaya, and just about any food you can find on Tchoupitoulas Street. On Saturday and Sunday guests can stop by the Taste of Louisiana Food Demo Tent to learn the secrets of cooking up a great plate of shrimp etouffee and other southern dishes. Guest chefs and students of San Diego Mesa College Culinary Arts Department will demonstrate cookinmethods and be on hand to give tips on gumbo and other Cajun delights.
Have a yen for something besides jambalaya? You’ll be able to find some great Thai, Jamaican, and other international taste treats. You can even get a hot dog if you want. “And we’ve added food trucks on the west end, which expands the festival on either end,” Oliver says.
Gator by the Bay gives a full appreciation of the culture of Louisiana. At the Bayou Grove Stage, an intimate setting with a small low stage, attendees can get up close and personal with some of the musical performers and personalities, who will answer questions on culture and have workshops on their instruments and music.
In addition to the afternoon costumed Mardi Gras parades and the Rad Hatter, who helps kids of all ages make imaginative and outrageous hats, the children’s entertainment has been expanded this year.
Other special events include a harmonica jam that will be lead by Chet Cannon of San Diego’s Chet and the Committee. Oliver says, “This is going to be a grand slam harmonica jam, with five harmonica players on stage. And there are going to be 55, maybe 60, harmonicas given away during the event.” Blues artists Junior Watson and Billy Watson will be leading a kazoo parade comprising 100 kazoo players.
What is it like to work with all this talent? “I feel like an artist,” Oliver says. “I think it’s something of an art to get the right performer at the appropriate time and make sure the schedule is just right. It’s a great feeling winding up a festival and saying to yourself, ‘We sure did this right.’”
Gator by the Bay is held over the Mother’s Day weekend, from May 5-8, at the Spanish Landing Park. For complete details, go to: GatorByTheBay.com