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True Heroes of Texas Music by Michael Corcoran
Harry Choates, the Godfather of Cajun Music

Considering what Harry Choates was able to accomplish in his 28 years — bringing Cajun music to the Billboard Top 10 in the 1940s and creating a “coon-ass” anthem with “Jole Blon” — his death in the Travis County Jail on July 17, 1951 was unfathomable. He and his band the Melody Boys not only brought French-speaking Louisiana culture to German and Czech dancehalls in Texas, but they could play Western swing, polkas, waltzes and blues with the best of them.

But off the bandstand Choates was a sad alcoholic and the magic quickly turned tragic. The autopsy on the fiddle-playing bandleader, who grew up in Port Arthur, but lived in Austin the final year of his life, detailed cuts and bruises that seemed consistent with a beating, and for years that was the rumor — that Choates was drunk and belligerent and said the wrong thing to a guard or fellow inmate. There’s no way this charming, gregarious bandleader could’ve caused his own death.

But interviewed in 2001, on the 50th anniversary of Choates’ death, steel guitarist Jimmy Grabowske recalled visiting the fiddler the day he died, and witnessing Choates “shaking uncontrollably, stumbling around his jail cell in a stupor.” Choates was likely suffering from alcohol withdrawal and had the DTs (delirious tremens) when Grabowske and two other members of Austin’s top Western swing band, Jesse James and All the Boys, came by with cigarettes and magazines. Choates had been jailed for failure to pay child support three days earlier. “We went to one of the guards and told him that Choates (pronounced “Shoats”) needed a doctor, badly,” said fiddle player Junior Burrows. “But he said there was nothing he could do about it.” An hour later, the three musicians were at the Brown Building, where they performed every day on Lady Bird Johnson’s KTBC radio station, when they heard the ambulance. Choates was declared dead in his cell at 2:45 p.m.

Even though Choates had been to Cajun music what Bob Wills was to Western swing, he died penniless. Beaumont deejay Gordon Baxter had to organize a benefit dance to pay for Choates’ burial in Port Arthur’s Calvary Catholic Cemetery.

“He was a maze of contradictions,” Houston music historian Andrew Brown said of the Cajun who gained fame singing in a language (French) he wasn’t fluent in and rarely used in conversation. “He was an exceptional jazz guitarist and multi-instrumentalist whose best-known records portray only a simple folk fiddler. He was a wild, disreputable character who sang mournful lyrics set off against traditional Cajun melodies.”

Choates’ drinking was already out of control by the age of 12, when whiskey became a steady part of his diet. “I didn’t even know that he was an alcoholic because there was never any change in his behavior,” said Burrows. “I guess it’s because he was always drinking.” Grabowske agreed. “He wasn’t obnoxious like some drunks. He just seemed to always be in a good mood.”

Choates played with his eyes on fire, often jumping on tables and unleashing his trademark “Ah-Yeeeeeee!” and “Eh-Ha-Ha!” yelps. Years after his death he would give Doug Kershaw an act.

If there was a good year for Choates, it was 1946, when Houston’s Gold Star label released “Jole Blon,” which had been recorded with a much more subdued arrangement in 1935 by Choates’ fiddle mentor, Leo Soileau. The waltz landed at No. 4 on the Billboard country charts, the first time Cajun music made the Top 10. Choates sold his rights to the tune for $100 and a bottle of whiskey to Houston-based “hillbilly boogie” piano player Moon Mullican, who had an even bigger hit later with “New Jole Blon.” Choates and his Melody Boys recorded 40 songs for Gold Star in two years, including “Allons a Lafayette,” “Rubber Dolly,” “Poor Hobo,” and his second-best-known song, “Devil in the Bayou.” His band also played pop standards such as “All of Me,” which Choates would pick on an electric guitar.

He was a master showman, by all eyewitness accounts. “Audiences loved him,” said Grabowske. “He was a featured guest with (Jesse James and All the Boys), and whenever he’d come on, the energy level would shoot through the roof.” Choates had lost his band after he was kicked out of the musicians union for continually missing gigs, but he was always welcome to sit in. One of the last records he cut, at a session in San Antonio six weeks before his death, was “Austin Special,” an ode to his stomping grounds during the final year of his life.

The Austin year had been a tumultuous time in his marriage to a prim and proper Gulf Coast gal named Helen Daenen. The couple had a little boy and girl, but Choates couldn’t give up the bottle. The couple broke up and reconciled with regularity, with him swearing off booze forever every night he came home stinking drunk. They had an apartment off North Lamar near Threadgill’s, but after Helen filed for divorce on Feb. 21, 1951 and took the kids, he slept in the back of Dessau Hall.

Grabowske has seen his share of tragedies. He was on the bandstand for Johnny Horton’s Nov. 4, 1960 show at the Skyline on North Lamar. The “Honky-Tonk Man” died the next day in a car accident near Milano. Grabowske also backed a deteriorating Hank Williams at the Skyline in his final public performance, two weeks before his heart broke for the last time on Jan. 1, 1953. But the steel guitarist said that he was particularly haunted by Choates’ death. The stumbling and incoherent mess he saw in the jail cell was not the fun-loving Choates he knew. But too often it’s the Choates he remembers.

“I was just 22 years old, so you can imagine how hard the whole thing hit me,” he said in 2001, thumbing through old pictures of musicians in cowboy hats and hand-painted ties. “He was really something,” he said with a smile when he came across a picture of Choates in Bandera, smiling broadly under a white cowboy hat.

Choates died underappreciated, but in recent years, with his legacy finally acknowledged by more than a handful of researchers, collectors and musicians, there is a monument next to the grave of a man who didn’t even rate a doctor 62 years ago. “Purrain de la Musique Cajun,” it’s engraved in French. next to the English translation: “The Godfather of Cajun Music.”