ARTICLES & ESSAYS
J. D. Miller and Floyd Soileau: A Comparison of Two Small Town Recordmen of Acadiana
By Shane Bernard
The South Louisiana region known as Acadiana—a twenty-two parish area recognized by the state for its large Cajun population—is renowned for its ethnic musical tradition; Cajun, zydeco, and swamp pop originated in this region, which also fostered a number of great rhythm & blues musicians.1 South Louisiana music has influenced, and continues to influence, American pop music (though it is actually more popular in Europe than in the United States). The credit for recording, preserving, and promoting South Louisiana music belongs to a handful of producers who have operated for almost a half-century between New Orleans and Houston, including several in smaller cities like Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Lake Charles, and Beaumont. But the most dynamic producers of Cajun, zydeco, swamp pop, and to a lesser extent, rhythm & blues music are the small-town producers who have operated their studios in, and promoted their labels from, the heart of the Acadiana region. Jake Graffagnino's short-lived, often overlooked studio and record labels (Carl, High-Up, and Jag) provided a springboard for several Opelousas area artists, including rhythm-and-blues/zydeco musician Rockin' Sidney and swamp pop musician Rod Bernard (Graffagnino). Lee Lavergne's obscure Lanor label had regional hits with Cajun musicians Shirley Bergeron ("J'ai Fait Mon Idée") and Bill Matte ("Parlez-Vous L'Francais") and swamp pop musician Charles Mann ("Keep Your Arms Around Me"and "Red Red Wine"). Lavergne even had a national hit with black swamp pop musician Elton Anderson ("Life Problem") (Lavergne). 2 (2) J.D. "Jay" Miller of Crowley and Floyd Soileau of Ville Platte, however, are the most successful by far of these small-town producers.
Miller's studio has attracted such mainstream American artists as Paul Simon and John Fogerty, but it is best known for its Cajun and swamp pop releases and its recording of Louisiana blues artists for the Nashville-based Excello label. Soileau's Jin, Swallow, and Maison de Soul labels are the home of numerous Cajun, zydeco, and swamp pop artists, and his famous Floyd's Record Shop brings in visitors and mail-order business from around the world. These two business-wise producers were among the pioneers of the Louisiana recording industry and were instrumental in marketing and preserving South Louisiana's ethnic music tradition. Although they resided in towns several miles apart, a number of similarities can be identified through a comparison of these small-town producers.
Miller, born in Iota, Louisiana, in 1922, and Soileau, born in Grand Prairie, Louisiana in 1938, were both interested in music as children and wanted to play and sing in Cajun and country music bands. Miller's parents were supportive: they bought an eight dollar guitar and a twenty-nine cent Gene Autry songbook from Sears-Roebuck for him (Broven 37). As soon as the thirteen year old Miller had learned enough chords to perform in public, his parents entered him in a talent contest sponsored by the Dairyland Ice Cream Company of Lake Charles. (Oddly, the contest was held in Bat Gormley's Nightclub near Lake Charles, where the Miller family had relocated in 1933 after about a ten-year sojourn in El Campo, Texas. Miller performed Huey P. Long's anthem, "Every Man A King." I won," says Miller, "not because I was that good, but because the competition was so bad" (Miller). The prize was a fifteen-minute radio broadcast each Saturday morning at eleven o'clock. Miller strummed his guitar and sang cowboy tunes like "Red River Valley" and Strawberry Rum."
Miller notes that he also made five dollars per show, a sizable amount of money for a teenager at the time. He was inspired by this early success, and when his family settled in Crowley in 1937, Miller began to play professionally in local groups. He played his first dance with Joseph Falcon and his Silver Bell Band which was playing at the Cow Island nightclub that lacked an electrified sound system. Although the group was billed as "string" band, Miller recalls that it featured the Breaux Brothers, traditional Cajun musicians. "I'd never seen an accordion before," admits Miller. "When [Amidie Breaux] pulled that thing out of the box, I didn't know what I'd gotten into!" (Miller). Miller went from one band to another over the next few years—the Four Aces, the Rice City Ramblers, the Daylight Creepers. However, he stopped playing the night before his marriage to Georgia Sonnier, daughter of accordionist Lee Sonnier (of Lee Sonnier and the Acadian Stars) (Broven 36-38).
Soileau was not so fortunate with his wish to be a musician. Surprisingly, Soileau, who spoke only French until the age of six, when he entered school, came from a family of traditional Cajun musicians. "My dad played the fiddle," says Soileau, "and my grandfather—his father—played the fiddle, and his father before him played the fiddle. My brother . . . played the fiddle and accordion." Soileau appreciated Cajun and country music, however, and finally became professionally involved in music when he graduated from high school in 1956. At this time, he began to work as a part-time disc jockey at KVPI, a local pop-oriented radio station, which, operating at a mere 250 watts, stopped broadcasting at nightfall because of interference with stronger stations (Broven 193).
When the station manager suggested that Soileau find a second job, possibly in record sales, to supplement his income as a deejay, Soileau went to his parents, who approved the idea. With a loan of 500 dollars, Soileau traveled to New Orleans where he spent 50 dollars on a phonograph and 300 on records. He also rented a one-room office on the first floor of the old bank building in Ville Platte, just below KVPI's second-floor offices. As word began to spread about Soileau's new business, he became accustomed to running up and down the stairs between the station and his record shop, which had turned out to be a modest success. However, when Soileau, in his haste to return to the busy shop, mistakenly played a 15-minute Christmas program in the middle of summer, he was told by his manager to give up the business or quit the station. Soileau chose to keep his record shop, and as he noticed the local demand for Cajun records, which were always in short supply, he considered becoming a producer (Broven 193).
Miller entered the record business for a similar reason. Traveling around the country with his father, he worked as an electrician at several defense plans. When war broke out in 1941, Miller, a pilot, was drafted into the navy as an aviator. His company had already received their uniforms when they were transferred into the army without explanation. Due to a recurring bout with malaria, however, Miller never went overseas, but served at Forts Walter and Hood as a communications instructor in a tank destroyer unit (Miller). When he returned from the Army, Miller and his father opened the M&S Electric Company at 218 North Parkerson Avenue in Crowley. They did extremely well wiring the local rice dryers and mills which were just beginning to convert to electricity. According to Miller, M&S had no local competitors with the amount of experience or expertise, so the income was steady and very good; but Miller did not like the work. In 1946, he decided to open a small record shop in a corner of the M&S building. "Had a building and didn't have much money to put stock in there," he says, "so I diversified a little bit."
Just as Soileau would discover ten years later in Ville Platte, Miller's customers wanted Cajun records, which were not as readily available as they had been years before. "Well, at that time, we had hardly anything," he explains. "Harry Choates had 'Jole Blond' and three and four others out. . . . So they kept wanting them and we could only order the same thing over and over, so I said, 'Heck with it, I'm gonna make some!'" Miller learned that the only recording studio in Louisiana belonged to producer Cosimo Matassa of New Orleans. Recording Happy Fats, Doc Guidry, and the Boys at Matassa's studio in June, 1946, Miller released the cuts on his own 78 RPM label, Fais Do-Do (Broven 38-39).
The songs were a mixture of Cajun and country: "Colinda" and "Chere Cherie" were accompanied by songs like "My Sweetheart's My Buddy's Wife" and Miller's own "Don't Hang Around." They were followed by cuts like "Fais Do-Do Breakdown," New Jolie Blond," "La Valse de Hadacol," and "Crowley Two-Step" (Broven 39). The response from Crowley consumers was positive, and by October of that year, Miller had opened his own studio, first located in his house and later in the M&S building. "I went to Gates' Electric [i.e., Gates' Radio Supply] in Houston and they had just received three Magnacorders . . . I think it was [Model] P-56, a little portable player, and that's what we started with" (Miller). Miller notes that these were some of the earliest tape recorders available to the public and that his studio was the first in the state to use the devices.
About a dozen Fais Do-Do 78s were released before Miller replaced this label with the new Feature label, which was also issued in a 78 RPM format (Miller). A few of the artists recorded by Miller for Feature were Amidie Breaux, Jimmie Choates, Chuck Guillory, Austin Pete (Pitre), and Happy, Doc, and the Boys. Miller's father-in-law, Lee Sonnier, and his Acadian Stars also recorded for Feature, yielding Miller's biggest success of the period, "The War Widow Waltz." Miller also released a number of country and hillbilly tunes on Feature, such as Bill Hutto's "Some of these Days, "Lou Millet's That's Me Without You," and (female vocalist) Al Montgomery's "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels," which was written by Miller. The later two were respectively covered by Webb Pierce and Kitty Wells and both went to number one on the country charts, which "improved Jay Miller's status with the Nashville country music hierarchy . . . [and] led to a song writing contract with influential music publishers Acuff-Rose-and a firm friendship with co-owner Fred Rose" (Broven 61).
Like Miller, Soileau began with a short-lived Cajun-oriented label and then began to break out quickly with new labels that were directed toward wider audiences. Soileau's first label, Big Mamou, was formed in partnership with Ed Manuel, a Mamou, Louisiana, jukebox operator, nightclub owner, and regular customer of Floyd's Record Shop, who had the financial backing to assist the young entrepreneur. Manuel had also taped Cajun musicians Milton Molitor and Austin Pete at a party where they performed "Manuel Bar Waltz" and Midway Two-Step." Although these songs were recorded merely to advertise a couple of Manuel's nightclubs, Soileau shipped the masters to Don Pierce's Starday Records in Nashville (Broven 193-94). During his days at KVPI, Soileau had often run across promotional fliers from Starday, which read "If you've got a tape, we can press a record for you." The Big Mamou releases sold encouragingly and began to revive interest in Cajun music around Ville Platte. "We put our first record out and started selling it," says Soileau.
Several local artists began to ask Soileau to release their work. Among these were Lawrence Walker and Aldus Roger. In fact, Walker offered to sell Soileau four taped songs; Soileau bought two for 60 dollars and optioned the others for 40. However, when he told his Mamou partner Ed Manuel the news, Manuel stated that he was no longer interested in the record business. Manuel offered to back Soileau with loans, but the records business, he said, would belong entirely to Soileau (Soileau).
Now on his own, Soileau changed Big Mamou to Vee-Pee (i.e., Ville Platte) label and founded two new labels, Jin, named after his wife Jinver, and Swallow, a play on the pronunciation of his name as well as on RCA's popular Bluebird label. "I knew damn well I couldn't put S-O-I-L-E-A-U on there," he says. "They wouldn't be able to pronounce it in most places out of here." Soileau's father, however, was not pleased with the spelling of the label's name. "When my dad saw that, he said [with a thick Cajun accent] 'What's the matter! You 'shame of your name?' I said 'It's not gonna fit. . . . Besides, that's the bird, . . . it's not necessarily my name." And he had a hard time—I don't know if he ever bought that entirely" (Soileau).
A few Cajun songs were released on Jin before Soileau decided to reserve the label entirely for pop music; on the other hand, he reserved the Swallow label for Cajun music. Soileau segregated the labels because he suspected that his pop releases were discriminated against by consumers and promoters who disliked Cajun music.
At that time Cajun was not cool. . . . You had those who liked it and thought it was okay and you had those who thought it stunk and they wouldn't get within ten feet of it. So I started figuring out, I thought I maybe was having trouble getting anything on my label. . . . Maybe it was just crazy, but I decided maybe it might be a good idea to sorta split that, segregate that music and keep the English stuff on Jin, have the French stuff with the Swallow logo (Soileau).
In 1957, Floyd Soileau rented Miller's studio to record Roger's "The Cajun Special" and continued to use the Crowley studio (and Miller's skill as a producer) when he recorded the swamp pop group Doug Ardoin and Boogie Kings in 1958. Their song "Southland"3 was closely followed by "This Should Go on Forever" by Rod Bernard and the Twisters. This recording reached number 20 on the Billboard Hot 100 in March, 1959, and became the first national hit released by Soileau. (The record was first put out on Jin and then leased to Leonard Chess' Argo label of Chicago, which could better distribute it nationally.) In 1959, Soileau recorded Jivin' Gene's "Breaking Up Is Hard To Do" (leased to Mercury) and Johnnie Allan's "Lonely Days and Lonely Nights" (leased to MGM), both of which became swamp pop classics (Broven 195-96,213-14).
Around this time, Soileau and Miller had a "falling out," and, as a result, Soileau set up his own studio equipped with a single-track Magnacoder unit in a small one-room building next to the old Platte Theater. The earliest notable song cut in this studio was Rockin' Sidney's "No Good Woman," which was followed by a few successful Cajun records by various artists. When Soileau's five-year lease expired, he moved his studio to a new building that also accommodated his record shop, music store, offices, and warehouse (Soileau). Although he had purchased an Ampex two-track unit for this studio, Soileau decided to use Matassa's studio in New Orleans to records Joe Barry's "I'm a Fool To Care," which, leased to the new Smash label, a division of Mercury, reached number 24 on the Billboard Hot 100 in April 1961. He later recorded Tommy McLain's "Sweet Dreams," which climbed to number 15 in June, 1966 (Broven 217-18, 335-36, 228).
Expanding his business into electronics sales and wholesale distribution, Soileau lost interest in recording in the late 1960s and converted his studio into office and warehouse space. He opened another studio in the early seventies, however, which, in an unusual arrangement was connected to a men's private health club."These guys would come in at all hours to sweat out a drunk or whatever," says Soileau. "But we had [the building] well insulated enough to where we didn't hear their racket and they didn't bother us at all." This studio shut down in 1975, and Soileau sold its contents to New Orleans jazz musician Ronnie Kole, who started his own small-town studio (The Studio) in Slidell, Louisiana, near New Orleans (Soileau).
In addition to the Big Mamou, Vee-Pee, Jin, and Swallow Labels, Soileau founded several other labels, including Fame, which was used exclusively for Rockin' Sidney's releases, but was discontinued to prevent confusion with the renown Fame studio of Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Sidney and Cajun musicians Gene Rodrigue and Nathan Menard each recorded at least one 45 for the short-lived Rod label, which was named for swamp pop musician Rod Bernard. Soileau canceled this label because he was dissatisfied with the logo art work (Soileau). Another short-lived label was MSL, representing a partnership between Soileau, Houston-based producer Huey Meaux, and Harold Lipsius of Philadelphia's Jamie records which handled the nationwide release of McLain's "Sweet Dreams" and an unsuccessful follow-up (Soileau, Broven 228-31). More successful labels, however, were Kom-a-day (a play on the pronunciation of the French word comédie), reserved for Cajun humorists like Dave Petitjean, and Maison de Soul, reserved for zydeco artists like Clifton Chenier and Rockin' Sidney (Soileau).
J.D. Miller also issued a number of labels. In addition to Fais Do-Do and Feature, he put out Rocko (originally Rocket), which was reserved for rock'n'roll, as well as Zynn (a name chosen by Miller to assure that it would fall last in the phone book) and Showtime, which featured a variety of artists and musical styles (miller). In the mid-1960s, Miller issued the Rebel label, which specialized in anti-desegregation and anti-Lyndon B. Johnson political humor (Broven 43,252-53). He also issued the Kajun, Cajun Classics, and Blues Unlimited labels, as well as several short-lived labels (such as the Swade label) (Miller). Besides recording several Louisiana bluesmen (Lazy Lester, Lightnin' Slim, and Slim Harpo) for the Excello label of Nashville, Miller also recorded Warren Storm's "Prisoner's Song," which, released on Nasco, Excello's sister label, reached number 81 on the Billboard Hot 100 in August, 1958 Broven 337).
Soileau, on the other hand, never opened another studio although he admits that he has "itchy fingers" for yet another one. "I'd like it as my hobby, just to work on my own projects, experiment with some group that's coming around, maybe have a song idea or something they'd like to piddle around with." Occasionally, he still produces an album using local studios like Carol Rachou's La Louisianne Studio of Lafayette. Encouraged by such musicians as the Balfa Brothers and Clifton, Soileau attempts to salvage and preserve traditional Cajun, zydeco, and swamp pop music. Soileau recently purchased tapes of Rockin' Sidney's misplaced Fame releases from a European record collector (Soileau). He also salvaged three Boogie King albums originally released on S.J. Montalbano's Montel label of Baton Rouge. According to Soileau, Montalbano had completely misplaced the Boogie King masters. "I had to salvage the sound and those album jackets from several collectors," he says.
One collector had a jacket that was in mint condition on the front but the back was bad, so I had to borrow a jacket from another person to get the back photographed. The records, one collector might have had a pretty good record except the last two cuts had a big scratch on it, on one side. So we'd get another record and pick up the next two cuts. And we salvaged those three albums from record collectors in the best shape we could get them in. Other than that, there would be none of that Boogie King stuff out right now (Soileau).
Soileau points out that he does not own the salvaged Boogie King albums but that he merely leases the distribution rights from Montalbano. Soileau has also leased music from other South Louisiana labels, such as George Khoury's Lyric and Khoury labels. [Soileau has since purchased Khoury's catalog of recordings.] These acquisitions, however, excluded titles assigned to other labels already, such as Phil Phillips' swamp pop classic, "Sea of Love," which is leased by Mercury (currently a division of Polygram). Soileau did manage to lease the rights to Cookie and the Cupcakes' "Mathilda," recorded by Khoury in 1958; many fans and artists still consider this song the undisputed anthem of swamp pop. Soileau is also slowly transferring his musical catalog to compact disc (CD) to help ensure preservation of South Louisiana music (Soileau).4
Miller is also releasing music on CD. "Zydecajun" musician Wayne Toups, managed and produced by Miller and his son Mark, enjoys impressive CD sales. Miller has also invested a small fortune in his present studio, possibly the most technologically advanced in Louisiana. Established in 1967 at a cost of 300,000 dollars, the Master-Trak Studio of Crowley has been upgraded several times and currently possesses 24-track analogue and digital capabilities. Miller also stores his masters on digital audio tape (DAT) cassettes (Miller). Despite the technological advances in production, Miller misses the days when four microphones, a two-track recorder, and an echo room were sufficient to produce a best-selling record. In fact, he openly scoffs at the gadgets and techniques used by today's producers, even those used by his son who now operates the Master-Trak studio. Miller explains: "The norm way back there even in Nashville or anywhere you went . . . you were shooting for at least four songs in a three-hour session. Now maybe they work for a couple days on one song to get it down. . . . You may get a better product, but you take a lot of the purity out of it, believe me. . . . Hell, they've got 11 mikes on the damn drum over there . . . to me that's the most ridiculous thing."
Today, J.D. Miller owns the rights to an impressive repertoire of music produced in his studio over the last 45 years. Much of this music has been leased to the Flyright label of England (Miller).5 During the day and late into the night, musicians record in his state-of-the-art Master-Trak studio, adding to his enormous library of masters, which, stored on the DAT cassettes, occupy a fraction of the spaced used by old masters. Indeed, Miller appears to find a degree of amusement in the present state of his archaic reel-to-reel library consisting of thousands of tapes stored on the floor. (Miller, however, is currently reorganizing the entire reel-to-reel library, which he has moved to a newly renovated storeroom on the second floor of his studio.) Miller also owns the Jamil and Whitewing music publishing companies. He named Whitewing for legendary steel guitarist Pee Wee Whitewing (Miller).6 Miller also operated the Modern Music Record Shop and Music Store, which adjoins his studio on North Parkerson Avenue in Crowley (Miller).
Soileau, on the other hand, continues to thrive mainly on the reissue of Jin, Swallow, and Maison de Soul records; these form the core of the extensive stock of records marketed through the storefront and mail-order facilities of Floyd's Record Shop. His record pressing plant, print shop, publishing, and distribution companies work to spread his musical products world-wide. Soileau's various labels and companies, now organized under the corporate umbrella of the Flat Town Music Company (Soileau), will, like Miller's, no doubt continue to prosper as long as the demand exists for South Louisiana music.
The comparison of recordmen J.D. Miller of Crowley and Floyd Soileau of Ville Platte reveals a number of similarities; indeed, their careers seem to have followed almost the same pattern. Both chose to remain in the small Louisiana towns near which they were born. Both wanted to play Cajun or country music as children and finally entered the music business because of their love for music. They both began by selling records and soon after established their own labels in response to a local demand for recorded Cajun music. They opened recording studios in their hometown, and they operated these studios in conjunction with record and music stores and other music-oriented businesses. Then branching out into other forms of South Louisiana music, Soileau and Miller began to establish new labels to promote zydeco, blues, and swamp pop music.
A few obvious differences, however, do separate the two small-town producers. Miller has focused more on production, while Soileau on marketing his diverse music-oriented products. In addition, Miller is best known for his recording of blues musicians for the Excello label of Nashville; Soileau, on the other hand, is noted for his recording of Cajun, zydeco, and swamp pop musicians for his own labels.
These minor differences aside, Miller and Soileau are both extremely successful small-town businessmen with almost legendary reputations for the distinctive sound of their recordings. In fact, they have each received numerous awards and citations in recognition of their over 75 years of combined experience in the field. Miller has both a gold record and a platinum record for his contributions to Paul Simon's acclaimed Graceland album. He has also received nine BMI awards (presented by Broadcast Music, Incorporated, a professional song writers' organization). Soileau has received one BMI award, but in 1985 three of his artists, Rockin' Sidney, Cajun fiddler Dewey Balfa, and the Cajun group Beausoleil, were nominated for Grammy awards. Unfortunately these nominations were confined to the same category (Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording), so, at most, only one of his artists could walk away with an award. (Sidney won for his zydeco hit, "My Toot Toot") (Soileau).7 While these two small-town producers are certainly interested in profit, they have also exhibited a concern for the preservation of South Louisiana' ethic musical tradition. Without their efforts, this music might not have been heard beyond the nightclubs and dance halls of the Acadiana region.
Broven, John. South to Louisiana: The Music of the Cajun Bayous. Gretna, La.: Pelican, 1983.
Graffagnino, Jake. Interview by author, 5 February 1991, Opelousas, Louisiana. Tape recording. Acadian and Creole Folklore and Folklife Collection, University of Southwestern Louisiana, Lafayette, Louisiana. Cited as Graffagnino.
Lavergne, Lee. Interview by author, 30 January 1991, Church Point, Louisiana. Tape recording. Acadian and Creole Folklore and Folklife Collection, University of Southwestern Louisiana, Lafayette, Louisiana. Cited as Lavergne.
Miller, J.D. Interview by author, 21 February 1991. Crowley Louisiana. Tape recording. Acadian and Creole Folklore and Folklife Collection, University of Southwestern Louisiana, Lafayette, Louisiana. Cited as Miller.
Soileau, Floyd. Interview by author, 15 February 1991. Ville Platte, Louisiana Tape recording. Acadian and Creole Folklore and Folklife Collection, University of Southwestern Louisiana, Lafayette, Louisiana. Cited as Soileau.
1. In discussions of South Louisiana music, Cajun is generally used to describe traditional, white French music played by descendants of the original Acadians who immigrated to Louisiana. Zydeco music is a hybrid form played with a heavy blues beat. This music first gained popularity in the Creole community on the Southwest Louisiana prairies and is usually associated with Clifton Chenier, now deceased. Swamp Pop describes French music heavily influenced somewhat by Elvis Presley and the rock & roll sound of the 1950s, but more so by the sounds and innovations of Fats Domino. (Editor's Note)
2. "Life Problem" was written and originally recorded by South Louisiana rhythm-and-blues artist Bernard "King Karl" Jolivette, who also wrote and recorded the classic swamp pop hit "This Should Go On Forever."
3. This song is mistakenly referred to in Broven's South to Louisiana as "Southland Blues;" it is in fact an extremely upbeat rockabilly tune.
4. Soileau's most recent and perhaps most ambitious CD release is the two-volume swamp pop anthology, Swamp Gold, which contains 32 songs by various South Louisiana artists.
5. The Rhino label recently issued 18 Miller-produced songs on its CD anthology, South of the Swamp: The Best of Excello Records, Volume One. Rhino has also released a single track produced by Miller on its CD entitled Hellooo Baby! The Best of the Big Bopper, 1954-1959; this previously unreleased production—the ad-libbed "Bopper's Boogie Woogie"—is the earliest known recording of J. P. Richardson as the legendary Big Bopper.
6. Miller wrote numerous songs for his blues artists; however, these were published by Miller under the pseudonym "Jay West" because many black deejays refused to play anything written by a white songwriter.
7. Soileau can also boast of leasing the Sundown Playboys' "Saturday Night Special" to the Beatles' Apple label in 1972; he still proudly bears the contract signed by George Harrison and himself.