HARRY CHOATES (1922-1951)
Harry Choates’ musical career differs somewhat from most Cajun artists of the period due to his varied styles, notably that of Western swing and Honky tonk. All of his music was professionnally driven by a smooth fiddle (borrowed and never returned!) that cut through a unique musical home-grown output that is today highly sought after by collectors and listeners alike, who seek to find the music behind one of the originators of modern-day Cajun music.
Sadly, all of this talent was a far cry from a life of hard living and alcoholism that would eventually led to his untimely death at the age of 29, in a Austin, Texas jail.
Harry H. Choates was born in either Rayne or New Iberia, Louisiana, the day after Christmas day 1922, and in the 1930s he moved with his mother to Port Arthur, Texas. Due to his lack of education, the young Harry was left to roam the streets and juke joints of the area at a very young age. He was a very small boy and would slip into and out of these establishments almost undetected.
It was into this hard poverty stricken life that he learnt to play the fiddle and began playing for tips around the Port Arthur barbershops. Milton Bellot, a Port Arthur barber, had vivid recollections of the 12-years old Harry: when he would hit the high notes, he would rise to his toes much to the delight of the listeners who would pitch nickels, dimes and quarters to this budding musical genius.
By the late ’30s he started playing with Leo Soileau’s Aces and then with Papa Cairo. He apparently made his first recordings as the fiddler for « Happy Fats » and the Rayne-Bo Ramblers in Dallas (the same outfit that Al Terry cut his first records with). French music was confined mostly to family gatherings, small honky-tonks and dance halls. During the late ’20s, Joe Falcon had recorded his music, which was confined mostly to South West Louisiana. After WWII however Cajun music began to move into Texas blending with the Western swing music. In 1946 Choates formed the ‘Melody Boys’ and rewrote a Cajun standard named ‘Jolie Blonde’ and renamed it « Jole Blon ». The same year he recorded the song for Bill Quinn’s Gold Star record label in Houston, Texas. Quinn had trouble getting the record played until a Houston D.J. finally put it on the air and from then on it was an instant success, especially with the Cajun people along the Gulf Coast.
Harry began to receive fan mail, none of which he never answered. He had a naive innocence about himself and said he was only interested in making people happy. In order to get Harry to come back to the Houston studio to record more tunes, Bill Quinn had to promise him a studio full of people ready to enjoy his music.
Although the following year Moon Mullican made a bigger hit out of the song, « Jole Blon » would become a Cajun standard that is today probably the most well-known of the genre. Sadly Choates sold the song for $ 100 and a bottle of whiskey! Which was a very nice price then..
During WWII, Harry had briefly served in the U.S. Army, but was soon discharged for his alcoholism. He then went to work in a wartime shipyard in Orange, Texas, where he met his future wife, Helen. Two children later, they divorced in 1950. Harry’s health began to fail, despite his « crying fiddle » being highly popular in Texas.
During his brief career, Choates recorded for several labels, including Cajun Classics, Macy’s and Humming Bird. He was arrested for non-payment of alimony, and no one knows exactly the way he died. He was just found dead in his cell, on July 17, 1951. His family had even not the money to get back his body to Port Arthur, until several personalities could give him a decent burial later.
Harry Choates is today recognised as the Godfather of Cajun music, due to his « Eh…ah…ah » and « Aaiie » vocal cries and for alternating his singing between French and English whilst playing a rich mixture of Cajun blended Western swing, Jazz and Blues.