Harry Choates, Godfather of Cajun Music
Of all the stars in the field of music that burned out too soon, the most tragic may be Harry Choates. Choates died in a jail cell in Austin, Texas after being confined for three days without any alcohol. He went into delirium tremors, or DTs, and began to bang his head on the walls and bars of his cell. Chronic alcoholism was taking the toll on the 28 year old musical genius. Three of his friends visited him that last day and saw that he was almost catatonic and was nervously pacing his cell and hitting his head on the wall. His friend Jimmy Grabowske, approached a jailer and pled with him to try to help Choates, as he appeared to be dying. The guard just shrugged his shoulders and said there was nothing they could do. The three friends began walking back to the radio station, KTBC, where they and Choates were playing with the Jesse James and his Gang band. Almost to the station, they began to hear the siren of an ambulance. Choates was taken to the hospital and pronounced dead at 2:45 p.m. He died without being seen by a doctor and the ambulance was called too late.
By any definition, Choates was a musical genius. He was born in Cow Island, Louisiana according to baptismal records, New Iberia, Louisiana, according to his Texas death certificate. No matter it was Vermillion Parish definitely. About 1930 he moved with his mother to Port Arthur, Texas. He was eight years old and already showing signs of two things, an affinity for music, and not wanting to go to school.
The house they lived in was raised on piers and it was easy for the boy to crawl under the house and play there all day instead of going to school. By the time he was 12 he was going to the barber shops and juke joints on Proctor Street. He saw someone playing a fiddle and decided that he could learn to do that. By merely watching, he was able to learn to make the moves with the bow across the strings and by ear he could learn melodies. He also was developing a flair for showmanship. He would rise on his toes when he played the high notes. The listeners liked that and began to toss money to him as tips for his playing.
Choates was playing music for money. He liked that and never went back to school. Whiskey was a part of the environment he was in and he began to develop a taste for that too. For the rest of his life the two most important things in his life were his music and his drinking.
In 1940 he began playing with Leo Soileau and Leroy “Happy Fats” Leblanc in their Cajun band. He started playing with a borrowed fiddle. For the rest of his career he played with borrowed instruments and may never have actually owned his own. If he did, he would have bought it from a pawn shop and then later sold it to buy something to drink. Choates could play anything with strings and also the piano. Once, when the strings on his bow were broken, he cut them off in a ceiling fan, rosined the wood of the bow and played the fiddle with that.
Choates decided to form his own band and in 1946, the Melody Boys organized. That was also the year he rewrote the Cajun waltz “Jolie Blonde”, and recorded it in Houston, Texas on the Gold Star label. Bill Quinn was the owner of the studio and the label. Quinn misspelled the name and it became “Jole Blon”.
Quinn met resistance getting the song played, but once it began to receive play, it became a hit. A young Gordon Baxter was beginning his career as a disk jockey at KPAC radio in Port Arthur, Texas and liked the song so well the first time he played it that he played it three times in a row. The station manager was not happy, but the listeners loved the song and began to search for it in the record shops. Boneau’s Record Shop in Port Arthur had trouble keeping it stocked.
Jole Blon became the only Cajun song to make the Billboard Top Five charts. It reached number five and after dropping, it returned to number five six months later. In 2014 Rolling Stone Magazine rated Jole Blon at 99 on its list of the top 100 country songs of all time. The song was a money maker, but not for Choates. He had sold the song for $100 and a bottle of whiskey. Neither he nor Quinn had bothered to copyright the song and as a result, neither ever received any royalties.
Business did not matter to Choates, he only wanted to play his music and drink any kind of alcohol, as much as he could afford at the time.
On July 11, 1945 Choates married Helen Daenen. He had met her while he was living at the Sikes Hotel in Orange, Texas and playing “Across the River” at the Showboat night club. The Showboat was a former river boat, the Harry Lee, that had been moored across the Sabine River from Orange on Highway 90. Daenen fell in love with Choates because of his stage presence and his personality. He was always an upbeat fun loving person. Often he was so drunk he could hardly stand up, but no one seemed to notice. Daenen knew about the drinking, but thought that she could live with it. They had two children, a boy Edison, and a girl, Linda. Even though he loved his family, they were third behind his drinking and music. Eventually they would divorce and his not paying court ordered child support would be the cause of him being jailed in Austin and dying there.
Choates knew no boundaries when needing money for whiskey. Once in Lake Charles, he busted out a window with his elbow, reached in and grabbed a bottle of whiskey. One time he sold a fiddle for one dollar to buy a half pint of whiskey and once he sold the starter off of the car he borrowed from a friend because he needed a drink and was broke. By the end of his life, he would drink lighter fluid, after shave lotion or any kind of liniment, as long as it had alcohol in it. His cause of death is officially listed as kidney and liver failure due to chronic alcoholism. Reality is probably him not having alcohol and being severely in need of it. Possibly medical care could have prolonged his life.
When they learned Choates had died, his friends in the Jesse James band held a fund raiser to buy his casket. In his hometown, Port Arthur, disk jockey Baxter announced his death and asked people to come by the station and make a donation for his funeral expenses, “even a dollar will help”, said Baxter. Over $1,000 was raised, enough to cover all the expenses. He was buried in St. Mary Cemetery in Port Arthur. His grave was marked with a white marble stone obtained through his service as a U.S. Army veteran. In 1980 funds were provided by Tim Knight and Roy Dunn to erect a gray granite stone giving him credit for being “The Godfather of Cajun Music”. In 2007 a Texas State Historical Marker was erected at his grave.
Photos at bottom are the grave markers and the historical marker erected in Choate’s honor.
Photo at top right – Harry Choates “the Godfather of Cajun Music” is shown with his fiddle.