Born Clarence Joseph Garlow, 27 February 1911, Welsh, Louisiana
Vocalist / songwriter / guitarist / accordeonist / violinist.
Clarence Garlow, a black Cajun, was the first zydeco performer to have a hit on the national R&B charts : “Bon Ton Roula” in 1950. In simplistic terms, zydeco is the black version of the Cajun music from Louisiana. As the audience for zydeco was quite small, Garlow had to look towards the wider black music spectrum to make a living. As a result, his approach to music was eclectic, ranging from zydeco, city blues and swamp-blues to R&B and rock & roll.
Born in Welsh, Louisiana, Garlow moved to Beaumont, Texas, as a child. Musically he was influenced by his father, who was a fiddle-playing country-dance performer. The fiddle was Clarence’s first instrument. In his teenage years he learned to play the guitar and the accordion as well. His main influence as a guitar player was T-Bone Walker. In Beaumont Garlow worked as a mailman, playing music in his spare time. In 1949 he became a professional blues/R&B artist, with a band of his own. At a gig in Houston he was discovered by Macy Lela Henry and Steve Ponchio, who owned the Macy’s label. Garlow and his group cut ten songs for Macy’s in 1949-50, six of which were released on three singles. The second record, “Bon Ton Roula” (Creole French for “Let the Good Times Roll”), entered the R&B charts in February 1950, peaking at # 7. After this hit (his only chart entry), Garlow was often billed as “Bon Ton’’ Garlow.
Shortly after this success, Macy’s (primarily a hillbilly label) collapsed, forcing Garlow to arrange one-shot deals with Feature (owned by Jay Miller) and Lyric (owned by George Khoury). The new releases lacked the distinctive hit-making qualities of “Bon Ton Roula”. None of his post-1950 recordings had success outside of his local area. In 1953 he was signed by the prestigious West Coast label Aladdin, for which he did two sessions, one on March 4 in New Orleans and one on July 24 in Los Angeles. Two singles were released, including a new version of “Bon Ton Roula” (“New Bon Ton Roulay”). But his best record was made in 1954 for the Flair label, coupling “Route 90” with “Crawfishin’”, with rousing accompaniment by the Maxwell Davis band. Good as it was, this rock and roll sound was not the direction that Garlow wanted to go ; he was looking for a more down-home feel. Returning from the West Coast, Clarence recorded for Jay Miller’s Folk Star label (1954-55) before making a deal with Eddie Shuler of Goldband Records in 1956. Only three singles were released on Goldband in 1957-58 (including yet another version of “Bon Ton Roula”) ; most of the unissued recordings were first released on a Flyright LP (UK) in 1983.
By 1958 the musical good times had rolled to a grinding halt for Garlow. Withdrawing from performing, he concentrated on his disc jockey duties at KJET in Beaumont. In 1979 he had retired from music altogether and was happily involved in “TV repair, seafood sales and invisible vinyl repair”. It was a strange assortment of jobs, as eclectic as his approach to music had been. In 1984 Garlow was persuaded back into playing by California deejays Charlie Lange and Ice Cube Slim. He appeared at that year’s San Francisco Blues Festival and he also performed alongside Clifton Chenier at the 1986 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Then, after a short illness, he died at Beaumont’s Baptist Hospital on July 24, 1986, at the age of 75. Artists who have covered his songs include Lonnie Brooks, Marcia Ball, Gary Primich, Johnny Winter and Mike Zito.
More info : http://www.kingbiscuitblues.com/bios/210/
Discography : http://wdd.mbnet.fi/clarencegarlow.htm
CD : Clarence Garlow 1949-1955 (JSP Records 4212B, UK). Released 2009. 25 tracks, including two by Boozoo Chavis. Liner notes by Neil Slaven.
Acknowledgements : Neil Slaven, John Broven, Wikipedia.
Dik, December 2016
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