s some people in southwest Louisiana will tell you, Lionel Cormier wanted to die while playing the accordion.

If the stories are accurate, his wish came true on June 5, 1971, at the Bamboo Club in Lake Charles. The occasion was the city's annual Cajun Day, one of several events that "coonasses" hold each year to celebrate their Cajun-ness with hours of non-stop French music and hundreds of cases of beer. According to the stories Mr. Cormier and his band, the Sundown Playboys, were in the middle of La Dernière Valse (The Last Waltz) when his time came.

For the most part the stories are accurate: Cormier, a 58 year-old Cajun who spoke little English, had two great loves in his later years, gardening and music, and according to his family he often wished that he could depart with either a hoe or an accordion in his hands. Contrary to the sometimes-encountered belief, however, he was not in the middle of La Dernière Valse, but had just finished pumping out the Church Point Two-Step when he had his heart attack.

The Sundown Playboys

 LYRICS and TRANSLATION
Cypress Inn Special

ver the years after Lionel Cormier's

death on the bandstand the Playboys have been an active band playing weekly dances and frequent benefits. The Saturday after Cajun Day, Pat Savant, a sophomore at a Lake Charles Catholic high school, was given a chance to fill Cormier's shoes; while he was a novice in the frenzied atmosphere of Cajun dance halls, he became, at the age of 15, a Sundown Playboy. In the middle-aged and sometimes geriatric world of Cajun music, he is something of a novelty: at a recent affair similar to Cajun Day, the m.c. joked about Savant, saying that "in ten years he'll be just like the rest of us, with a wife and four kids, and he'll just be too tired to play like that."

ithout a wife and four kids, Savant is indeed enthusiastic about his music. When Swallow Records released the first record he made with the Sundown Playboys in 1972, he sent the 45 and a fan letter to "The Beatles, London, England." The outcome, worthy of a bad movie script, was a return letter two weeks later from Apple's head A&R man asking about the band's availability to sign a contract.

In the summer of '72 Apple released the same recordings that Swallow had already pressed The Saturday Night Special and La Valse de Soleil Couché (The Sundown Waltz) in both the U.S. and Europe. Though Apple bought a full back page ad in Billboard, the record did not receive the wide airplay that it reportedly has in Europe.

The Circle Club

esa Cormier, who joined his father, Lionel, as a drum mer in 1948, is now the leader of the Sundown Playboys. Every other Saturday (on alternate Saturdays they play at the Sparkle Paradise Club in Bridge City, Texas) the Playboys set up onstage at the Circle Club, an enormous aluminum building next to Interstate 10 at Toomey, La., near the Texas border. The dance hall's partially burnt out neon sign gives the place an unintentionally French name, "le Club."

The crowd is sparse and the air is cold when the band churns out its first two-step of the evening at 8:30, but within an hour le club is jumping, and the giant Fedders in the corner struggles to refrigerate the smoky air. Lead singer and rhythm guitarist Darryl Higgenbotham speaks to the audience between numbers, acknowledging requests and greeting couples who have come from as far away as Baton Rouge to meet friends and relatives at the dance. He repeats an obviously well-worn joke: "Well, here we are, the Sundown, but mostly Rundown Playboys." After four and a half hours, the six Rundown Playboys collect their $160.

ith the exception of their teenage

accordion player, the Sundown Playboys are the same band that played with Lionel Cormier. Cormier, the band’s strongest link to old-time Cajun music, started playing accordion at the age of twelve in 1925, and as is usually the case with Cajun musicians, he learned from a relative. The musical relative was his father, Arvelian Cormier, a farmer who lived near Bosco, about 100 miles east of Lake Charles. At the age of fourteen or fifteen Lionel began playing weekend dances at neighbors' houses in the country. Most of his attention, however, was devoted to his occupation as a sawmill worker, first around Bosco, then near Elton, a town halfway between Bosco and Lake Charles. Lionel Cormier left the sawmills in 1963, but to his death he was a construction laborer in the industrial city of Lake Charles.

From the bandstand

oung Pat Savant, while he plays the same tunes that Lionel Cormier played for the same audiences in the same halls, comes from a background with few similarities to "the old man's" past. The first French music that Pat Savant heard was on television; when he was five or six he used to watch the Aldus Roger Show, not exactly the way most of' his older colleagues heard their first waltzes and two-steps. Born and raised in suburban Lake Charles, Savant says that he "picked it (the accordion) up from my grandfather, or that’s where they say I got it from." Actually, he never knew that his grandfather played music at all until after the man's death. Pat met Lionel Cormier only twenty minutes before the veteran played his last Church Paint Two-Step.

One of the main reasons that Savant got the idea to send his band's 45 to Apple Records was that the local top-40 disc jockeys refused to play anything that wasn't on a major label. When the Swallow recordings appeared on a major label and became "respectable," the Lake Charles stations played it, raising considerably Savant's status as a St. Louis High senior. And when he told the girls that George Harrison had called him on the phone to talk business, he says that he even eclipsed some of the school's more important football heroes. Without a doubt, the newest Sundown Playboy is worlds different from Lionel Cormier, who neither knew nor probably cared anything about George Harrison.

LYRICS and TRANSLATION
"Cypress Inn Special"

avant knows of the life of Lionel Cormier

and other musicians of that generation only from the childhood memories of the older members of the Sundown Playboys. He is far from the long hours in the rice and cotton fields and the sawmills and the long hours of fiddle and accordion music at night for the families who spoke only French. But Pat Savant, who speaks barely enough French to get along with his grandparents, gets behind his accordion every Saturday, pumps out the old waltzes and two-steps, and strangely seems more like old man Lionel than one would ever suspect.

Pat Savant

 

copyright 1974 and 1999
Ron and Fay Stanford

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