NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Musician Stanley “Buckwheat” Dural Jr., who rose from a cotton-picking family in southwest Louisiana to introduce zydeco music to the world through his namesake band Buckwheat Zydeco, has died. He was 68.
His longtime manager Ted Fox told The Associated Press that Dural died Saturday. He had suffered from lung cancer.
Fox said the musician and accordionist died at 1:32 a.m. Louisiana time at Our Lady of Lourdes Regional Medical Center in Lafayette, Louisiana. He gained fame by introducing zydeco music of southwest Louisiana to the world.
“This is one of the world’s true genius musicians. A completely natural musician who could just fit in in any scenario,” Fox said.
As news of his death spread, friends from around the world paid their respects.
“Buckwheat Zydeco embodied a genre and represented a community with his signature playing style that brought distinctly creole zydeco music to fans across the globe,” said Neil Portnow, who heads The Recording Academy. “The world lost a music heavyweight today.”
Zydeco music was well known across southwest Louisiana where people would often drive for miles to small dancehalls where zydeco bands featuring an accordion and a washboard would rock the crowds for hours.
But Dural took zydeco music mainstream, launching a major-label album — the Grammy-nominated “On a Night Like This,” — with Island Records in 1987. He went on to jam with musical greats like Eric Clapton, play at former President Bill Clinton’s inauguration and perform at the 1996 Olympics closing ceremony in Atlanta.
He jammed with Jimmy Fallon on the final episode of “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.” Fallon played the guitar backed up by the Roots while Buckwheat Zydeco rocked the accordion.
“He brought zydeco to unprecedented new audiences,” said Ben Sandmel, a music historian who wrote a book titled “Zydeco!” about the music.
Dural earned his nickname because he had braided hair when he was younger that resembled Buckwheat from The Little Rascals television show. Born Nov. 14, 1947 in Lafayette, Louisiana, Dural was one of 13 children. His father played the accordion but the younger Dural preferred listening to and playing rhythm & blues and learned to play the organ, his obituary said.
Sandmel said while Dural was internationally famous for his zydeco music he was also an accomplished R&B artist and a diverse musician.
By the late 1950s he was backing up musicians and eventually formed his own band. In 1976 he joined legendary zydeco artist Clifton Chenier’s Red Hot Louisiana Band as an organist, launching an important musical turn in his career.
“I had so much fun playing that first night with Clifton. We played for four hours and I wasn’t ready to quit,” he said in comments quoted in his obituary.
In 1978 he took up the accordion so closely associated with zydeco music and later formed his own band called Buckwheat Zydeco, his obituary said.
It was the 1987 Island Records five-record deal that eventually brought Dural to a wider audience, and he went on to tour with Clapton, record with artists such as Ry Cooper, Paul Simon, Dwight Yoakam and Willie Nelson.
Fox called him an “old-fashioned showbiz professional” who was always focused on giving the audience — regardless of either they were eight or 80,000-strong — a good time.
Fox described one evening in 1987 where Dural took the stage during a concert where legends Clapton, Ringo Starr and Phil Collins were already jamming. Playing a Hammond B3 — a multi-tiered organ — Dural got into a back-and-forth jam with Clapton, who eventually turned around, stuck out his hand to Dural and said: “Hi! I’m Eric Clapton. Who are you?”
The two went on to tour together, including a 12-night gig at London’s Royal Albert Hall.
“He had this incredible charisma both onstage and personally,” Fox said. “To the end of his days with all the stuff that he’d done, all the awards, he was still the same Stanley Dural Jr. who was picking cotton when he was 5-years-old.”
Some people described Dural and his music as Cajun. The term generally refers to the French-speaking Catholics expelled from Nova Scotia by the British during the 1700’s who eventually settled southwest Louisiana, although it’s often used to refer more generically to French-speaking people in the area regardless of where they’re from.
But Fox said while Dural loved Cajun music and often performed with Cajun musicians, he was very clear that he and his music were Creole, to the point where Fox said he even included in contracts language explaining that he was not Cajun.
Fox says his daughter Tomorrow Dural has created a fundraising campaign to help with medical and other expenses.
Dural is survived by his wife, Bernite Dural, and his five children.