Cover Story

The House That Zydeco Built

by Nathan Stubbs

Following a family dispute that shut its doors in 2006, Richard’s Club re-opens under new management as the Zydeco Hall of Fame.

photo by Terri Fensel

A line of parked cars runs for more than a mile along each side of La. Hwy. 190. It’s a hot August night, and the shoulder of the road is muddy and slick. The clear, starry sky overhead does little to light the way for the groups of people stumbling through the darkness, making their way toward the glowing arrow sign that points to the Zydeco Hall of Fame dance club. Cars and trucks occasionally zip by on the road. Others cruise slowly up and down the highway; one white truck rolls by, windows down, with extra speakers propped up on the front dash, broadcasting the bass-heavy “Shake It, Don’t Break It.”

People of all ages, and from all across the country, hang out on tailgates in the parking lot and around the front step’s of the Zydeco Hall of Fame. A giant smoker churns out barbecue pork sandwiches, while a film crew from Denmark conducts interviews. About 40 people are lined up outside the front door waiting to get in, but the line doesn’t move. The doorman’s not letting anybody through. The club reached its capacity crowd of about 350 an hour ago. By night’s end, 620 people will have passed through the club’s front doors.

The Zydeco Hall of Fame’s owner, Michael DeClouet, is dressed in white pants and a black Hawaiian shirt. A diminutive man in his late 50s with glasses and a trim mustache, he speaks in stocatto bursts, often with a series of backlogged ideas, occasionally breaking off mid-sentence when he loses his train of thought. He has a wide grin and a powerful laugh that reels him back on his heels.

DeClouet explains to the people waiting in line that the club next door, Teddy’s Uptown (a club he also owns), has live zydeco music too, but he doesn’t find any takers. They’re here to see Chris Ardoin and NuStep, now more than an hour into their set, but also to be a part of the grand re-opening of one of zydeco’s most storied night clubs.

Before it was the Zydeco Hall of Fame, it was Richard’s Club, and most people here still refer to it that way. Built in the 1940s by Eddie Richard, the longtime family business became a regular stop for popular blues singers like B.B. King and John Lee Hooker traveling Hwy. 190 between Houston and New Orleans. It later helped launch and propel the emerging Creole zydeco music scene, popularizing acts like Clifton Chenier, Boozoo Chavis and Beau Jocque.

After 59 years as one of the most popular dance halls in Acadiana, Richard’s abruptly closed in 2006 due to a family dispute. Eddie’s daughter, Elsie Richard, shut down the business after reaching an impasse with her nephew, club manager Kermon Richard Jr., who says his aunt evicted him after she bought the club. Elsie says she closed Richard’s after her nephew stopped paying rent. Her decision to shutter the club also was due to the building falling into disrepair, making it impossible for her to buy adequate insurance. “Somebody could have gotten hurt, and I would have lost everything I had,” she says. “So I shut it down, plain and simple. It was just something that had to be done.”

DeClouet purchased Richard’s, along with the neighboring Teddy’s Uptown, from Elsie later that year. A native of southwest Louisiana who has lived for the past decade in San Diego, DeClouet has family and a number of real estate investments in the area and still frequents his home state.

photo by Terri Fensel

Re-opening the club hasn’t been easy. Once his plans became known, DeClouet was in the middle of the Richard family squabble. Still distressed over losing the business, Kermon Jr., who lives right behind the club, recently won a court case that successfully blocked DeClouet from using the Richard’s Club name. “My nephew was nowhere around when this club came into being,” Elsie Richard says. “And he never had ownership of the club. His dad lost the club. I don’t know why he had a right to copyright it. But we will fight it. We’ll appeal it in court. We will. In due time, it’ll be back,” she notes.

“I have no animosity to the new owners whatsoever,” Kermon Jr. says. “I’m just neutral. I wish them well, but you can’t duplicate what once was. You just can’t do it. There will never be another Richard’s Club. That’s a fact. That’s a once in a lifetime situation. It’s unfortunate, but that’s the way it is. That’s the way I feel about it.”

It wasn’t until after he purchased the building that DeClouet discovered the extent of the old building’s problems and was forced to invest more than $200,000 to get it in basic order and up to code. In patrons’ eyes, however, the changes have been minimal. The old dance hall maintains much of its original character — the low 7-foot high ceilings, the small wooden tables and 1970s bucket chairs, the well-worn uneven wooden floor, the screen windows with no glass. The bandstand is the same basic platform, one foot up from the dance floor. There are fans, but still no air conditioning.

The heat doesn’t deter anyone here tonight. “I just don’t want to have to turn anyone away,” DeClouet says, watching as the line out front grows longer. Throwing his hands up, he adds, “I don’t even know if I can get back in.”

Of course, DeClouet does get back in, through a handicap accessible side door. Through the night, people hover around outside the door, trying to get in. They name drop, offer money, or just try and slip in when the door opens; one man fans out a series of hundred dollar bills to try and boost his chances.

Inside, the music and dancing is in full swing. The further into the oven-hot house you go, the tighter the crowd gets. The club has a rich sound. In front of the stage, people hold their hands up, bouncing with the pulsating rhythm of Ardoin’s NuStep band. The floor feels like it’s moving, like there’s a subwoofer underneath the building, making waves with the supple wood under your feet. Chris Ardoin announces that the show is being recorded and urges everyone to let their voices be heard as he launches into his 2004 hit “I’m Not The Man.”

At the other end of the club, DeClouet finds little time to relax. The line to get a drink is at least three-people deep all around the bar, and DeClouet gets behind the bar to help out his bartenders. A kid in his early 20s with a black shirt and a baseball cap tilted to the side is waiting at the end of the bar. “Look, take a picture,” he says to a nearby photographer. “He’s working the bar in his own club. That’s how it should be.”

“I can’t lie though,” the kid adds. “I’d love to be him.”

It was 1946, and Eddie Richard was one of the largest Creole landowners in St. Landry Parish, having expanded his rural estate to some 20 acres around his family home on Hwy. 190 between Lawtell and Eunice. With six growing children, Richard decided one day the kids needed a dance hall.

Elsie Richard remembers: “I had three brothers much older than me. They were good-looking guys; girls and other guys would flock around the house. My parents had a record player with all the latest records, and they would end up dancing in our living room. We had a big living room with hardwood floors. All their friends would pile up in the house, and they would dance in the living room. So my dad said, ‘Y’all wanna dance, I’m gonna build y’all a club.’ And he did.”

Richard’s Club opened July 4, 1947. Conveniently located on Hwy. 190, Richard’s soon became a part of the Chitlin Circuit, the name given to the string of venues in the South welcoming black performers during the age of racial segregation that lasted through the 1960s. The roadhouse began booking traveling rhythm and blues acts of the time, such as Big Mama Thornton, Ben E. King and Fats Domino. Richard’s also hosted teen dances, movies and an occasional boxing match.

The business was a family affair. “We worked,” says Elsie Richard, who started at the club at the tender age of 10. “We cleaned it up every Sunday morning before church, and then we had to go in during the week and make sure that the tables were dusted and cleaned.” Eddie Richard also ran a gambling shack behind the club, but his rural business faced little scrutiny from his close friend, the legendary St. Landry Parish Sheriff D.J. “Cat” Doucet.

Opening night at the Zydeco Hall of Fame in Lawtell

photo by Terri Fensel

Well-respected in the community and known for helping others in need, Eddie Richard also was a sharp businessman. In addition to touring blues acts, he brought in local musicians playing what was then called French la-la music, which later evolved into zydeco. He first booked the king of zydeco Clifton Chenier before he was popular, mainly because Chenier’s $40 a night fee was lower than other acts. Chenier and the crowds he drew helped build the club as a zydeco hot spot.

Eddie Richard even had drivers to shuttle patrons to the club from neighboring towns. In the book Kingdom of Zydeco by Michael Tisserand, the late Kermon Richard Sr. described the scene this way: “School buses would leave from Church Point full of people for the dance. No one wanted to be the first one picked up. All the little old gals would have the new dresses, and they wanted to come in the club after the crowd had gotten kind of big. They would raise hell if there was nobody in the club, and they couldn’t make their grand appearance.”

While business was booming, it took its toll on the Richard family. Eddie eventually handed the business off to his son, Theo, a colorful character who had already opened St. Landry Parish’s first disco club next door to Richard’s — Disco 190. Theo’s growing success also accompanied his increasing paranoia. Urban legend has it that one night he took all his money to the well house and burned it after seeing the devil’s face in the bills. The true story is not quite as far-fetched: Elsie recalls that he once burned $1,500 on his kitchen floor.

“He had both of those clubs,” Elsie says, “big business; he was making a lot of money and he was beginning to spend a lot, and it was affecting him mentally. It was like he felt better when he really wasn’t making that much money. He said, ‘I can’t pull out of this. I’m in too deep and if I pull out, if something goes wrong, I’ll disappoint mother and father.’ And that really affected him.” Theo Richard died in 1996 from pneumonia-related health problems.

Kermon Richard Sr. picked up running the family business in the late 70s after moving back home from Texas. Dressed in black from head to toe, he was a quiet man known for driving a hard bargain with local bands. Richard’s dictated the local music scene; bands inevitably became popular after playing there, and the club hosted legendary double billings, known as zydeco battles. Kermon helped a number of popular acts get their start, including Zydeco Force and Beau Jocque. Richard’s Club also was where the great Boozoo Chavis revived his career after a long hiatus from music; Kermon welcomed Chavis back and helped to make him more popular than ever.

Richard’s was the first and last place another zydeco legend, John Delafose, played professionally. In September 1994, Delafose was part of a double billing at Richard’s when he suddenly felt tired and asked another accordion player to take his place on stage. Jeffrey Broussard, who fronts the band Creole Cowboys, remembers being at Richard’s that night. He says Delafose sat down and before anyone knew it was slumped over. “They called an ambulance,” he says, “but by the time the ambulance got there he was already dead. He died in that club.” The band played on as the ambulance took Delafose away.

As its legend grew, Richard’s became known worldwide. Several celebrities have joined in the parties at Richard’s, including Dusty Baker and Robert Duval. Time magazine, CBS and NPR have all profiled the club, which at its 50th anniversary was dubbed “the Grand Ole Opry of Zydeco.”

“I would say that’s the home base of zydeco,” says Broussard, whose former band Zydeco Force was a regular at Richard’s. “I wouldn’t know any other way to put it.”

“As far as clubs in Louisiana,” he adds, “I would say that’s one of the best sounding clubs that we have. The sound is perfect in there; it’s just the atmosphere. That’s one of the main places I can say I’ve really felt comfortable playing. As far as the acoustics in there and the sound — it just has that raw sound, man. I’ve played a bunch of places but I’ve never, ever gotten a sound from anywhere else like I got in that place.”

Some notable live albums have been recorded at Richard’s, by Boozoo Chavis, Nathan Williams and John Delafose. Beau Jocque recorded the song “Richard’s Club,” with the refrain: We are going to Richard’s Club/ that’s the place that the people love/ That’s where they all like to go/ Listen to Beau Jocque zydeco.

“Richard’s was a special place,” says Paul Scott, a longtime local zydeco concert promoter. “We’re talking about a place with no air conditioning, low ceiling, window fans, probably 110 degrees in the front. As a musician you had to have a fan on you because it was too hot. And people still crammed in there. Many a nights you left Richard’s Club soaking wet. But you went outside, cooled off and came right back in.”

Business remained steady, but Elsie Richard says Kermon Sr. had financial problems and lost ownership of the club to local investor James Vautrot. Kermon Sr. died in 2004. By this time, Kermon Jr. had already begun managing the club but never could afford to buy it.

Wanting to return the club to the family, Elsie bought it back from Vautrot and allowed Kermon Jr. to manage it. Eventually, the two got in a dispute over finances. “He was having good business, club was overflowing,” Elsie says. “He decided one day he wasn’t going to pay me rent.” Kermon Jr. tells a different story. “While I was in the process of trying to get the club back, my aunt and her son went and got the club behind my back,” he says. “They never came and talked to me about it.”

Kermon Jr. declines to go into specifics about the club’s closing. “I took the high road then, and I’m taking the high road now,” he says. “I don’t want to stir up old dirt, but eventually she evicted us from the club.”

The dispute has divided the family. Elsie lives in a family home next to the former Richard’s Club. Her sister-in-law Ann Marie, Kermon Sr.’s widow, lives on one side of her. Just past the club is Kermon Jr.’s house.

“It’s very difficult for me,” Elsie Richard says. “I’m right in between people that hate me. It has been difficult, but I’m a Christian, and God keeps me strong. I just go on about my business.”

“I did what I wanted to do,” she adds. “I wanted to sell it because I don’t ever intend to run it. I don’t ever intend to run a club. I don’t do clubs, not anymore.”

The sun sets over Hwy. 190, and Michael DeClouet is surveying his new business, just days before its scheduled opening. “It’s been a long journey,” he says. DeClouet originally planned to open the Zydeco Hall of Fame in December of last year, but there were setbacks.

There was the legal dispute over the name Richard’s Club, which he and Elsie are still considering appealing. There were issues with getting the building up to fire code, and Richard family property disputes continue to this day. Two painted white lines over the Zydeco Hall of Fame’s front driveway mark where Kermon Jr. recently threatened to build a fence. Through it all, however, DeClouet has remained persistent.

Dustin Cravin (left) and Michael DeClouet, partners in the Zydeco Hall of Fame

photo by Terri Fensel

“I felt so strongly about it [that] I knew I couldn’t be wrong,” he says. Raised outside of nearby Lawtell and in Lake Charles, DeClouet grew up frequenting Richard’s Club. After college, he moved around frequently with his wife, who was a property executive for Conoco. DeClouet worked in human resources and now calls himself semi-retired.

Eventually settling in San Diego, DeClouet’s memories of Richard’s stuck with him, especially as he began to see zydeco music emerging in California. DeClouet himself plays rubboard in a San Diego-based zydeco outfit, Pappion Louisiana Band.

“Now that I’m getting to be an old man I started thinking about what do I really want to do in life,” he says. DeClouet’s never owned a nightclub before, but after hearing about Richard’s closing, he inquired about buying the business. “It was just pure opportunity in my mind,” he says. “Opportunity to perpetuate the culture and as a sound business. It being a club is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s about what this place means to me and to a whole population of people.”

Rehabbing the building turned into a major project. DeClouet replaced the roof along with each of the building’s side walls, which he said had sagged down to where they were practically being propped up by trees. The plumbing had to be completely replaced. Despite the hardships, DeClouet’s drive to re-open Richard’s was continually re-enforced by the local people he encountered. “The support and gratitude that the community has shown me is just overwhelming,” he says. “Every single day that I’ve ever been here I’ve had at least one person stop and tell me a story about something that happened to them in there: how they met their wife, where they used to sit, where they used to dance, who said what at the bar. It’s just story after story.”

The club’s re-opening took off after DeClouet met Dustin Cravins. The two had lunch, and by the end of it were partners. Cravins owns a minority interest in Zydeco Hall of Fame and, with DeClouet planning to remain in California, will be its local manager.

The 27-year-old son of Opelousas Mayor Don Cravins and the special events and entertainment manager at Evangeline Downs, Dustin is an emerging zydeco music promoter — a tradition that runs deep in his family. His father and his uncle, Charles Cravins, started the annual Zydeco Extravaganza Music Festival, an event Dustin now runs, while also hosting The Squeeze Box zydeco music show on KDCG TV.

Both Dustin and DeClouet say zydeco is experiencing another renaissance. Just as Zydeco Force and Beau Jocque helped revive the music 20 years ago, Dustin says younger acts like Keith Frank and Chris Ardoin are turning on a whole new generation to zydeco.

“My generation has embraced the whole culture,” he says. “They’ve really come back to it.”

In addition to carrying on the club’s standard weekend gigs, the partners also see the Zydeco Hall of Fame club as a venue for lectures, forums and music workshops. The club’s opening weekend also included a Sunday all-star jam, featuring Roy Carrier, Willis Prudhomme, Lawrence “Black” Ardoin, Preston Frank, Nathan Williams and other statesmen of the zydeco scene.

Standing out on the front porch of the Zydeco Hall of Fame, Dustin says he wants the club to continue to break new acts, while showcasing zydeco veterans. “We want to say thank you for the road that was paved,” he says, “to pay homage to the older guys that are still a part of all this. It’s a welcome home kind of thing. This is the house that they built. I mean, this is zydeco music right here.”