American Routes Shortcuts: Lil' Buck Sinegal
We don't associate the music of rural French Louisiana so much with the guitar–it tends to play second fiddle to the accordion and to the fiddle. But the late Buck Sinegal made a name for himself as a rhythm & lead guitarist for zydeco, blues, and rhythm & blues music in his hometown of Lafayette. As a high school student in the 50s, Buck played in a series of R & B bands before reconnecting to his French roots with zydeco king Clifton Chenier. Buck told us about growing up in a French Creole household.
Buck Sinegal: My grandmother couldn’t speak nothing but French.
Nick Spitzer: How about the playing of the guitar, are you playing in Creole French or in English? BS: I might be doing it in English but I know in French what it is too, you know.
NS: So what was the name of the first band?
BS: The Jive Five.
NS: Would you call it zydeco or blues or soul?
BS: No in them times they would play rhythm and blues. We did a lot of Fats Domino stuff.
NS: So after the Jive Five, where does the band thing go for you? BS: After the Jive Five, we got us some horn players, you know, from school.
NS: This is like a what, about a fifteen-piece band? BS: Fifteen-piece band, man, that’s the band that was Lil’ Buck and the Top Cats.
NS: With Lil’ Buck Sinegal at the guitar.
BS: Lil’ Buck at the control.
NS: Now here you are as a bandleader, but you spent also some of your life playing in the rhythm section and also playing leads with Clifton Chenier.
BS: Yeah fourteen years.
NS: With Clifton.
NS: Clifton Chenier the great zydeco accordion king. How did you meet Clifton? BS: I was working at the cleaners, so my cousin was working there too. He said, “Let’s go by Uncle Claude at the Blue Angel.”
NS: The Blue Angel nightclub.
BS: And I see this big tall man with a three-piece suit. In the process, I say, “Who’s that?” “That’s Clifton Chenier. He came by the table and said, “You the Lil’ Buck, huh?” And I said, “Oh you that Clifton Chenier?” He said, “Yeah, you right.” So he said, “What you doing tonight?” I said, “Nothing.” He said, “Because my guitar player is stranded in Houston, and I got to play here at the Blue Angel.” So I said, “I’ll come. I’ll play.” After the gig he told the driver, said, “Pick him up, we’re going to Houston for the weekend.” I didn’t tell him I was going to play regular, but I played fourteen years.
BS: I had to learn zydeco. I had to learn it then, and I could feel it. Like, some people say, like Clifton say, and his band today members say, “If you want to play guitar, zydeco guitar, you got to learn what Buck did.” I put that foundation there for it to go.
BS: So Clifton came by me about a year or two after I played, and he said, “You ever listen to blues?” I said, “No.” He said, “You ever hear B.B. King?” I said, “Who is that?” He said, “Well you need to listen to some if you want to play with me.” I bought “Sweet Sixteen” and a bunch of stuff by B.B. King.NS: Clifton sent you to school.
BS: Yeah exactly right. So two or three days later we played. He turned around and said, “That’s what I’m talking about! Now you’re playing the blues.” Yeah. It made me feel good. He told the people, “Give him a big hand.” He said, “Now you’re playing that guitar now.”
NS: You got a favorite waltz? BS: Well Clifton, he would just make up a waltz, you know. He’d just get up there and just start counting. Bum, bum, boom, bum, bum, and we all fall in, you know. There’s nothing practiced with him.
NS: That’s the old style Creole stuff.
BS: That’s it, I mean I did maybe fifteen CDs with Clifton and never rehearsed one day.
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