Harry Choates Biography

26 December 1922, Rayne, Louisiana, USA, d. 17 July 1951, Austin, Texas, USA. Choates, who has been called the Cajun Hank Williams and the Godfather of Cajun Music, is reckoned by many authorities to be the man most responsible for the genre becoming part of country music. During the Depression, Choates and his mother relocated to Port Arthur, Texas, where he grew up regularly spending much of his time listening to music in local honky tonks. He had a natural talent for playing instruments and soon became proficient on accordion, guitar and steel guitar, before finally favouring the fiddle. At the age of 12, already becoming addicted to alcohol, he was playing fiddle in local barbershops.

In the late 30s, he played in various Cajun bands, including that of fiddler Leo Soileau, one of the first artists to record Cajun music. It was then that he undoubtedly first learned ‘Jole Blon’ (‘Pretty Blonde’), a song that Soileau had recorded in 1935. Choates had a reputation for never remaining in one place for long and in the early 40s, he played with various Cajun units, becoming respected for his driving fiddle playing and vocals. He sang well enough in Cajun French to endear him to Cajun audiences but actually spoke it with a strong English accent, while his spoken English carried a Cajun accent. By the mid-40s, his drinking had worsened and he became unpredictable and unreliable. In 1945, he married Helen Daenen and quickly sired two children, before he once again moved on. In 1946, Choates, accompanied by his band which played a mixture of Cajun and western swing in dancehalls, recorded his now famous version of ‘Jole Blon’ for the Gold Star label in Houston. It entered the Billboard country charts on 4 January 1947 and peaked at number 4. Although the song had originally been recorded in 1928 by Amade Breaux, because of Choates’ new and exciting arrangement it has always been associated with him.

Following the song’s success, Choates became a legend around the clubs and dancehalls in Louisiana and Texas, although his excessive drinking meant he was sometimes unable to play and often missed shows altogether. Between 1946 and 1949, he made further recordings for Gold Star, including ‘Poor Hobo’, ‘Port Arthur Waltz’ and ‘Catting Around’ but he never repeated the popularity of his first hit. Selected recordings that he made for Gold Star during those years were released years later on the D label.

Choates’ career came to an end in jail, in Austin, on 17 July 1951. He had been arrested three days earlier, for failing to answer charges filed by his wife for desertion and child support, on a warrant issued by Jefferson County Court, which had also charged him with contempt of court. One early report gave his death as being caused by delirium tremens but some of his friends stoutly maintained that he died through police brutality, having been beaten to quieten him. Another statement said that Choates, who is reputed to have appeared agitated and nervous in jail, had never recovered consciousness after falling into a coma following an epileptic fit. A later report said that his death was caused by cirrhosis of the liver and his agitated nervous state was explained as being caused by the fact that, during the three days in jail, he had been deprived of his usual heavy intake of alcohol. He actually died 30 minutes before the Jefferson County sheriff arrived to return him to Beaumont to answer the charges. Researchers into Choates’ life have failed to trace any official inquest verdict. Although Choates was a brilliant instrumentalist, he never actually owned an instrument. The fiddle that brought him fame was a cheap seven-dollar instrument that he once borrowed from a friend and ‘forgot’ to return. Choates was buried in Port Arthur, Texas, on 20 July 1951, his grave being unmarked until the early 80s, when local Cajuns provided a gravestone.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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