In The Press

I Talk the Talk and Walk the Walk

Written by Gene Tomko

Living Blues Magazine #239

Little Henry. Little Clem. Little Henry Clement. Big Chief Takawaka. The Swamp Doctor.

Oakland, California–based multi-instrumentalist, singer and bandleader Henry Clement has performed and recorded under several different names throughout his 60-plus years in the music business. But despite the particular moniker he used at the time or where he happened to reside, his rousing mix of New Orleans–inspired rhythm and blues, funked-up soul and dance floor–filling zydeco has remained as firmly rooted in the rich Louisiana tradition as it was when he made his first recordings for famed producer J.D. Miller six decades ago in his native southwest Louisiana.

Born in Crowley, Louisiana, in 1935 and raised by his Creole French–speaking parents, the 79-yearold Clement was a musical prodigy, starting out on piano at age seven after being inspired to play blues and boogie-woogie. By high school he had broadened his musical talents to the drums and became the top student percussionist in the state for four straight years, an achievement which earned him a full scholarship to Southern University in Baton Rouge. While attending college, Clement would spend many of his nights and weekends performing in area clubs with both local and national artists. Being such a versatile musician, he would be called upon to play drums, piano, saxophone and other instruments with many notable musicians who passed through, such as Bobby Bland, James Brown, Amos Milburn and Roy Brown as well as “pinchhitting,” as he describes it, with area musicians, some of whom were on the verge of national recognition like Clifton Chenier and Joe Simon.

It wasn’t long before producer Miller took notice of Clement’s considerable talents and began offering him opportunities in his studio. After asking him to play harmonica on an early session behind future Excello recording star Lightnin’ Slim in 1954, Miller soon realized Clement’s other skills as a songwriter, bandleader and singer, and he cut a string of recordings with him and his various bands—the Drops of Joy, the Dew Drops and the Trojans. Clement was also frequently on hand to provide support on other sessions at Miller’s busy studio, backing artists such as Charles “Mad Dog” Sheffield and Lazy Lester, among others.

After relocating to Oakland in 1970, Clement and his large, horn-driven Gumbo band remained one of the Bay Area’s most popular blues, jazz and zydeco groups for four decades, performing at many of the region’s largest festivals and clubs and serving as the premiere backing band for many of the national acts touring the area. Clement also continued to make recordings since his early days with Miller, the most recent of which being Bar-Be-Queing in the Front Yard in 2005 on his own Gumbo label.

But making music is only part of this gifted musician’s story. Clement actually devoted most of his life to education, teaching math and science and serving as a counselor, administrator, athletic coach, band director and political and social activist. Despite his accomplishments as a performer, bandleader and recording artist, remarkably, music remained something he did in his spare time on weekends and during summer breaks and holidays. Although he is extremely proud of his decision to dedicate his career to education, there is still a part of him that feels some regret. In the back of his mind, he wonders how far he could have gone had he strictly played music.

In early 2014, after leading his Gumbo band on the West Coast for 40-plus years, Henry Clement announced his retirement from the music business to the dismay of his many loyal fans. Although at the time he told his hometown newspaper back in Louisiana, the Crowley Post-Signal, “Nobody wants to quit, but all shows must come to an end,” it seems he hasn’t completely written off performing and making music for good. More than a year after his retirement, he is already hinting that it may turn out to be more of a much-needed break. Now also comfortably retired from teaching and having no more restrictions on his schedule, it just may be the right time for Henry Clement to make a comeback—giving him a chance to think not about what could have been, but what still could be.

“I was born in Crowley, Louisiana, on November 8, 1935. My uncles played just lay-type stuff. We didn’t have no professional [musicians]. I think I was probably the first professional in the music world—I was the first musician in my house. I had brothers and sisters. They all played sports and stuff like that. What I did was sports and music—and education.

“[When I was] approximately seven years old, right around first or second grade, I started with the piano. I picked up the piano one day at one of my friend’s house and he taught me how to do [Pinetop Smith’s] Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie, and I learned how to play that in one day. And then I learned that he told my mother that she should send me to music lessons with a lady by the name of Miss Ennis in Crowley. So I took lessons on the piano from first grade, second grade throughout elementary and middle school, up to eighth grade.

“When I went to [Henry Clay] Ross High School there was a conflict with me playing in a marching band, concert band and jazz band. So when I went to high school I was introduced to all the percussion, the drums— timpani and all that stuff, and saxophone and other instruments. I received a full scholarship at Ross High School to Southern University. My scholarship was on percussion. I participated in the marching band, concert band, jazz band, rock band, blues band, ROTC band, etcetera, etcetera.

“[I started playing professionally] in the ’50s. In the ’50s, professionally I kind of pinched hit with Clifton Chenier and most of the guys from around the area. By being a musician, word gets around. If you need somebody from Crowley, call, you know. I was with [Chenier] when needed—from around 1955. His first record was Ay-Tete Fee. Cleve, his brother [was in the band]. And then later on, Joe Brouchet [also known as Jumpin’ Joe Morris], he was from Crowley, he started playing with him. Joe played bass. And [his brother] Gene [Brouchet, who recorded and performed as Gene Morris] was his drummer.

“And when I was at Southern University I was in an area where all musicians came through because Highway 90 at that time was Old Spanish Trail, which came through Crowley. And coming through Crowley Joe Davis had a club called Little Harlem. [It was a] nice big place where most of the musicians came. And [J.D.] Miller had one of the bigger studios at that time between New Orleans and Houston. I was like a handyman and played piano and most of the other instruments. So I had the opportunity to meet most, if not every musician that came through.

“During that time it was, of course, Jim Crow. Jim Crow meant it was segregated, black and white, so that meant that most of the musicians didn’t have a hotel or motel, so they stayed at people’s houses. And my mother had an apartment building that was not being used behind the house so most of the musicians that came through they stayed at that particular place. So I was able to interact with most of those musicians, just about everybody who was doing something at that time. You know, B.B. King and Bobby Bland, all the guys coming out of Houston. Roy Brown. James Brown. All those guys played the area—played in New Iberia, Opelousas, Lafayette. So I was able to meet them and interact with those guys. I personally had James Brown come to Crowley because he and I were very good friends. I met him and most of the other musicians and we were able to interact with just about every musician who came through. Especially by me being at Southern and being one of the top percussionists in the area. I was first percussionist in high school for four years and #1 first percussionist at Southern for four years so I was able to play with all the bands who came through. That’s how it was.

“I met James through playing through Baton Rouge and Southern University and here and there. And when I needed him here at Ross High [years later] because we had the school and the funds were limited for our athletic program and the band program. He told me, ‘Anytime you need me, just call me.’ So I called him up. He was in Macon, Georgia. I said, ‘Man, I need you to come out and help us. We need to raise some funds for the kids.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry about it. I’ll be there. Tell me when.’ I said, ‘Man, we can’t pay you no big money.’ He said, ‘I’ll be there and we’ll deal with it.’ I put the tickets out and got them going and he came on down at the Rice Festival building—a nice big place. So, I did my thing and sat in with him on a few songs and he took care of it. That was James. Bobby Bland, all them guys—same thing. Barbara Lynn, Joe Simon—all them did the same thing. They were all friends of mine. Little Willie John. They all came through. Crowley was like a center—right through Crowley to Lafayette and down to New Iberia on to New Orleans. By being here in Crowley, J.D. had his studio and he always took a ride around the area and developed a relationship with most of the musicians and he found out I was able to play. We had Richard King and a lot of other musicians from here and you see he knew those guys who were semiprofessionals— Warren Nielson and a bunch of other guys. Katie Webster was here too. That’s how we became acquainted.

“I was here in Crowley from Southern and so Miller was getting ready to record Lightnin’ Slim, but his harmonica player was not here, which was Wild Bill [Phillips] from [either] Port Arthur or Houston, Texas. He was speeding or whatever and got a ticket and got put in jail and wasn’t able to be here on time for the recording. So [Miller] called me to the studio after school and told me, ‘Hey, look. Here’s a harmonica. You’re going to have to play on a set tomorrow.’ I said, ‘Well, Jay, I don’t know how to play no harmonica.’ He said, ‘Well, you’re going to learn tonight and play that harmonica tomorrow because I need a harmonica player!’ So I played on the first session the next day. It was an overnight thing to learn how to play.

“I played on a lot of sessions. A lot of them people who would come through and ask for whatever because I was like a handyman musician who could play most of the instruments. Charles Sheffield from Beaumont, Texas, I believe—I played drums with him. I was able to accommodate whatever they needed. I was in the studio all the time and if we needed a drummer, I played the drums; if we needed a piano player, I played piano; you need someone to do some scratching on an old rubboard, I’d do that. And then the harmonica—whatever was needed.

“The band we had [included] Earl Joseph and all of those guys right out of high school. We called it the Trojan Band. That was in the ’50s. [We started] about ’56-7. Don Briggs and all those guys who were around here, we did a lot of stuff together. We backed just about everyone you saw. If they needed a band, then my band was the backup band. Barbara Lynn, Joe Simon, Amos Milburn, Robert Milburn—anybody that came through, come from California down through what we call the old Highway 90—the chitlin’ circuit. We had Little Harlem in Crowley. We had Leo’s Rendezvous in New Iberia. We had the Jazz Room in Lafayette. In Opelousas there were several different places all around the area. Baton Rouge—a lot of different places.

“The musicians in the area, all of us were pretty sharp. So [Miller] would come down and say, ‘Hey, you guys want to come down and do something?’ And we’d be at the studio every day, now. We did the first recordings Please, Please Darling, I’m So In Love with You, Tall Skinny Mama—all those tunes on Zynn and several different labels. I don’t recall all the labels. [Miller] had several different labels, you know. It was very positive [working with Miller].

“[But] I always taught school after graduating from college. I was what you’d call a weekend musician. See, I was with Ross High from 1958 to 1970. [I taught] math and was assistant band director. And I played music when everybody came through on weekends and whenever—from Houston to New Orleans but always came back home.

“In 1970, they closed the black schools down [in Crowley] and integrated all the other schools. I was in California at the time. I was in the mathematics program with the federal government. The federal government sent all the math teachers back to school, the math and science people. One of the guys that knew me was in education in California. A new superintendent came and he wanted black math and science teachers. So I was in school at the University of San Francisco. So when he came through they told him that they know a nice young man from Crowley, Louisiana, and he’s in math and science. So he offered me a contract and when the school closed here, we went down and made the contract in California. When they triple your salary you might as well go.

“I promised mom and all of them that I’m gonna come back. You know, they were all sad when we left. ‘We want you to come back for every Christmas.’ So I came back every Christmas. I’ll be 80 years old and I’ll be here 80 Christmases. And that’s the way I done it.

“But I played music all the way through. In California, I played music the same way. I taught school and played music on weekends with all the artists that came through—Bobby Bland, B.B. King, Joe Simon, Ray Charles, Barbara Lynn. Charles Brown—he was a very special friend of mine. And he’s from Texas. Right out of Galveston, Texas. So we all became close friends and played together. I met Charles in Oakland. When he played and I played, I substituted and played for somebody in his band and we just stuck together for a while.

“Everybody came to Ruthy’s Inn. It was a nice club in Oakland—a big club in the San francisco / Haywood area. We all played in that area. But like I said, I didn’t travel with those guys. I taught school. So that gave me the opportunity to stay there and play with them—local.

“Big Chief Takawaka—the Swamp Doctor. Now that happened by me coming to Louisiana and we played a festival in New Orleans—in Algiers. My son is a musician so he said, ‘Daddy, you know, if we do the second line we got to have a chief. And you’re not no chief, but we have Chief Clarence [Dalcour]. He lives right behind the house. Maybe we can get him to ordain you or do whatever they do because you’re going to have to be a chief.’ So we worked it out and he had just completed a Mardi Gras costume and he said, ‘Look, I’m not supposed to sell these uniforms or give them away or nothing, but if you take this uniform and take it to California, as long as it crosses the Mississippi and don’t come back, you can do that.’ [laughs]

“Then he said, ‘Boy, you talk the talk and walk the walk!’ He said, ‘We gonna call you Chief Takawaka.’ [laughs] I talk the talk and walk the walk. And that’s how that came about!

“So I would do shows as Henry Clement and special shows as Big Chief Takawaka. Then I had to change the name of the band [from the Trojan band]. Some of the guys from Crowley didn’t go to California. So when I got to California I met friends of mine from Southern University. So we reformed the band and we had one white guy, we had a Jewish guy, we had a lady and three or four other black guys. So we didn’t know what to name the band so we called it Gumbo! You know, we just mixed it up, you see. And that’s what we did—the Gumbo Band.

“Then the accordion started falling in. Clif [Chenier] always wanted us to kind of play along, you see. After Clif passed, people started asking me, ‘Why don’t you play accordion?’ I had the opportunity to play with him so long. And I spoke the language because my parents were French. So I was able to sing with that language anyway. And that’s how that came about.

“[The band played] all the time, all the time. Year ’round. We played for the governor in Sacramento. We played with Jimmy Smith. We played with just about everybody that came through. We were the front band. So by me being the front band, we always had a big band—ten-piece group, five horns, etc., which very few guys had. So all of the big artists came. They liked that front. So we played the first set and the major artist came on [stage] afterwards. You saw Jimmy Smith and Henry Clement and the Gumbo Band. Or you saw Bobby Bland and Henry Clement and the Gumbo Band. We did the first set all the time.

“We did at least 30 to 40 festivals a year. I was glad to see Lazy Lester on a couple of them. He came to a few and met me out there. [I met Lester] in Crowley—way back in the ’50s. We recorded together with Miller. He played scratchboard and all that stuff on a lot of my songs. We did a lot of stuff together. He lived in Crowley for a while. Yeah, Lester was alright. [smiles]

“I’ve been traveling on the weekends and the summers. That’s what I liked about the school. The school thing, when June came, you were finished until September. You had June, July and August to travel and you had every weekend and every holiday off. So I was able to go anywhere I wanted during those holidays and stuff. That’s what made the schools so convenient. Then if I went somewhere and I couldn’t make it back, I’d just call my principal and say, ‘Hey, I’m over here.’ And he knows I was a musician and he knew I was doing my thing but I’d be back to school soon. And they needed math teachers and I was an assistant band director that they needed, so he kind of let me do what I wanted to do. The kids used to really like me and I enjoyed the kids. The kids enjoyed me and we were all friendly.

“The first tunes we did for J.D. Miller, they took off. They really took off. If only I could have been just in the music world because they were in the Top 10 in England and France and Germany, all over. They wanted me to go over there and take off four, five, six months leave and I couldn’t do that. I would have had to quit school to go do that. You know, to take that risk—music is too up and down. Then we went out and I was in Japan and I was in England and Rome and all those places and I played sets all over those different places. Now they wanted us to stay on that kind of tour. My son was a captain in the air force, and he contacted the general music director and they had set up a thing that they wanted me to do tours of all the army and air force bases overseas, but they wanted me to do four or five months at a time in the tour. I didn’t want to do that so I said, ‘No, no.’ I wouldn’t give up the school to just take a risk. Maybe it was for my own good or maybe it wasn’t. “As far as just playing music, I enjoy it. I would probably like to be a special guest artist. Let somebody else play and they put me on the bill and I show up and do a set and get my ass down. It would be difficult for me to try to form a new band where I got to be responsible for ten or 15 people. That’s the way the job is. I did that all my life. Lately, my drummer had a stroke. My trumpet player died last year. Another one had to have an operation. You start losing your people after 40 years. See, I had the same band for 40-something years—the same guys. So when those guys start dropping off, then you get replacements, and you know, musicians are not like they used to be. At that time, your word was your bond. With these cats [today], you can’t get on them. They say they are going to work this gig this week and they don’t show up and go with somebody else who pays them ten dollars more.

“I retired March 17 [2014]. Everybody is sick and mad with me. So I told them I don’t know what I’m going to do. I told them, ‘Give me a break! I had a band since I was a child, man.’ You know, you got 15 people on your rolls, see, so I had to charge three or four or five thousand dollars for a gig. Gigs started dropping after the computer came out. The emails and all of that and going online, so it started cutting the music thing down unless you are in the Top 10 and hit the star part. “But I did alright. I can’t complain. I did nice on my tours. I did all the festivals and I played with everybody that you can name.

But the thing is I stayed with the school and played music separate. Now was that good or bad? I don’t know. I’ll never know. You know, we make decisions in our lives and we don’t know which way was which way. But whatever was done was done.”

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