T.K. Hulin: The Bayou State Tearjerker

If most every great swamp pop song is about a man crying — and indeed they usually are —T.K. Hulin’s eternally epic South Louisiana smash I’m Not A Fool Anymore is a tear-shedding anthem. Backed by the mesmerizing simplicity of his band the Lonely Knights, Hulin delivers his lyrics in the key of heartbreak, just as he does on follow-up tearjerkers (As You Pass Me By) Graduation Night and That’s Why The End Must Begin. Hullin can also rock with the best of ‘em, as he proved with his first record “Little Bittie Boy” and his ‘80s coonass jukebox hit “Alligator Bayou.”

It just wouldn’t be a Ponderosa Stomp without a blast of swamp pop, that supremely atmospheric musical sub-genre that’s been brewing deep in the bayous and roadhouses of South Louisiana since the mid-1950s. During its initial heyday, young swamp pop singers Rod Bernard, Jivin’ Gene, and Joe Barry scored national hits with their enticing concoctions, bringing their innocently romantic ballads to a considerably more expansive stage than their own secluded stomping grounds. That music has yet to lose its enduring appeal, and it likely never will.

The first night of this year’s Stomp features a swamp pop revue starring three of the finest voices still proudly representing the idiom: T.K. Hulin, Warren Storm, and G.G. Shinn. Although Hulin’s not quite sold on the swamp pop term itself, dreamed up long after the music’s invention (“It’s okay, but not everybody lives in a swamp,” he good-naturedly points out), he’s been singing in the instantly identifiable style since he was 13 years old in 1956, when the sound was just beginning to coalesce as a blend of Cajun tradition and rhythm and blues invention.

BEGINNINGS

Alton James Hulin (pronounced Hue-lahn, with the ‘n’ all but silent) was born in St. Martinville, Louisiana and still lives there to this day. Like many of his contemporaries, English was not his first language. “When I went to school, I couldn’t hardly speak English,” says Hulin. “We spoke the Cajun French. I had to learn English. That was the good old days back then.”

Nicknames were a longstanding tradition in his large family. “All these Cajun people, they all have nicknames,” says Hulin. “My uncle was named Baboo. And then we had seven children, and he gave us all a nickname. I was T.K., My brother, the drummer, was B-Lou. My other brother was T-Sue, and my other brother was Kai-Ton. All nicknames. And it just stuck with me for the rest of my life, T.K.”

Music wafted through the Hulin household, located on a Cypress Island farm where the family grew corn, cotton, and cayenne pepper and raised livestock for food. “My daddy (Elie Hulin) was an accordion player and a harmonica player,” says T.K. “But he didn’t do it for a living. He just played it on the side. And then my brother Larry (B-Lou), he played drums for me for like 48 years.” His sister got in on the fun too. “Betty sang. She liked to sing that old Kitty Wells song, that country stuff back then. She was good. My sister was a good singer.”

Instead of citing the usual combination of bayou influences (traditionally a handful of Cajun greats and the ubiquitous Fats Domino), Hulin points to an array of soul greats as enduring inspirations. “Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, James Brown. I sang nothing but rhythm and blues when I started singing. I did a few swamp pop songs, but not as much as rhythm and blues. Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, and Percy Sledge, of course. So that was all my idols. But Otis Redding was my main man.”

THE LONELY KNIGHTS

13 was an uncommonly young age to take the plunge into the music business, but that’s when Hulin began singing professionally. “I started my band when I was in high school,” he says. “We started a band called T.K. and the Lonely Knights.” Who came up with their clever moniker? “I think it was the saxophone player that I hired,” he says. “We had different names, and he came up with T.K. Hulin and the Lonely Knights. I said, ‘That sounds good. Let’s use that!’”

Hulin also had someone to write him fresh, imaginative material from the very outset of his career. “All the hit songs I had, they were written by my high school teacher, Robert Thibodeaux. He’s the one that wrote all those hits that I had,” says Hulin. “I had my band at 13, and he knew I had a band. So what he did, he said, ‘Look, I’ve got some songs that I wrote. If you want to come try ‘em, we’ll record ‘em!’ I said, ‘Sure!’ I went to his house, and he had a bunch of songs. I went and I recorded ‘em, and we got together. He wrote a bunch of songs for me. He was amazing.”

FIRST RECORDINGS

That included both sides of Hulin’s debut single, cut at J.D. Miller’s famous studio in Crowley, where Lightnin’ Slim, Slim Harpo, and Lazy Lester waxed so many seminal blues sides for Excello. T.K.’s first 45 paired the archetypal swamp pop ballad “Many Nites” with a blazing rocker, “Little Bitty Boy,” the composition on both credited to Thibodeaux and Robert Webb. The Lonely Knights then consisted of guitarist Johnny Melancon, bassist Audie Roy, pianist Max Theriot, and drummer Al Babineaux, soon supplanted by T.K.’s brother B-Lou. Sax duties were handled by Roland and Teddy Babin. “Roland and Teddy, my double cousins,” says the singer. “Roland’s mama and my daddy were brother and sister, and Roland’s daddy and my mama were brother and sister. We’re double cousins!”

Elie Hulin helped his talented young son set up their own label, L.K. Records, which pressed up “Many Nites.” “That was a hit around the area where I live at,” says T.K., whose family-run imprint proceeded to press up the equally impressive followups “Told You Once, Told You Twice” b/w “Who Could It Be” (also waxed at Miller’s Crowley facilities) and then the romping “Baby Be My Steady,” attached to “If Just One Dream Came True.”

Local venues welcomed the talented youth to their bandstands. “My first gig that I worked, it was at a teenage center in St. Martinville,” says Hulin. “And then my second gig was at Cinderella’s, a club in St. Martinville, when I was 14. I played at Cinderella’s for years.”

“I’M NOT A FOOL ANYMORE”

In 1963, Thibodeaux wrote Hulin “I’m Not A Fool Anymore,” another archetypal swamp pop ballad (as noted previously, in South Louisiana, the genre never went out of style). T.K. and the Lonely Knights recorded this time at Thibodeaux’s own studio. “I recorded that song at a small, small studio, and we did it twice—two takes,” says Hulin. “That was good enough. They sent it off.” Robert’s similarly strong ballad “Teardrops, More Teardrops” sat on the B-side.

As soon as L.K. released the single, two generations of Hulins went to work to make it T.K.’s breakthrough hit. “When I recorded ‘I’m Not A Fool Anymore,’ me and my daddy took the 45 and we went on the road. We hit so many radio stations—oh, my God. Interviews with the deejays and on and on and on. We started from Lafayette to Crowley to Rayne to Lake Charles to Port Arthur,” says Hulin. “That’s where it hit, in Port Arthur. We went to Port Arthur with it, and they started putting it on radio, just local radio that I knew. Well, first thing you know, everybody was playing it.

“I had people calling me up, different record labels calling me up. And I didn’t know what to do. So I called Robert Thibodeaux. Robert said, ‘Well, don’t sign up with nobody.’ I had labels calling me up, all those big labels, the Chess label that Chuck Berry was on. And I would call Robert Thibodeaux, and Robert was friends with Huey Meaux. Then Huey called me up, and he drove in and I signed a contract with him. I don’t know if that was a good deal or not!”

Known as the Crazy Cajun, Huey P. Meaux, born in Kaplan, Louisiana and formerly a barber in Winnie, Texas, brought quite a track record to the proceedings, having produced hits by Jivin’ Gene and Barbara Lynn (he’d soon launch the Sir Douglas Quintet with “She’s About A Mover”). Huey set up a deal to lease “I’m Not A Fool Anymore” to Smash Records, a subsidiary of Chicago’s Mercury label, where T.K.’s labelmates included Bruce Channel, Matt Lucas, and Dickey Lee. With Mercury’s promotional muscle sitting foursquare behind it, “I’m Not A Fool Anymore” cracked the national pop charts for a couple of weeks during the late summer of ‘63. “On the station in Houston, KILT, it was number one for a month-and-a-half,” says Hulin.

Thibodeaux was still cranking out quality material for his protégé. Smash picked up Hulin’s next L.K. release, coupling yet another fine ballad, “I’m Ashamed Enough To Die,” with “Rain.” “The one I thought was going to do better than ‘I’m Not A Fool’ was the one right after ‘I’m Not A Fool,’ called ‘I’m Ashamed Enough To Die.’ That was a good song,” says Hulin. “I said, ‘Boy!’ But it never did nothing. I don’t know if they promoted it wrong or not, but I fell in love with that song. I said, ‘That song is going to do it more than “I’m Not A Fool.”’ But it didn’t. I don’t know why.”

ON THE ROAD

Thanks to Meaux, T.K. hit the road to promote his Smash output, touring with some of the biggest rock and roll stars in the business. “Jerry Lee and Roy Orbison, B.J. Thomas, Ray Stevens. It was an experience. That was Huey Meaux, that bus tour. He had a bunch of us. Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland was on the show too,” Hulin says.

“But when I got back from the road, my mama picked me up in Lake Charles. My last show was in Lake Charles. And I had lost about 10 pounds. I was young,” he continues. “I’d lost a lot of weight. My mama, in French, she started cursing. She said, ‘Never again! You’re not going on the road again! You’re staying over here and play!’ And I did. Mama was the backbone of the family. Everything she said, it went. No ifs or buts.”

That brought Hulin’s touring days to a quick end. “I’ve been playing around here locally for a long time,” he says. “Maybe it was meant to be for me not to go on the road.” There were plenty of nearby venues to perform at. “Cinderella’s was probably the best back in the ‘60s,” says T.K. “Cinderella’s Club in St. Martinville. We played there about 15 years. Mr. Slick had all the (stars)—that’s where I saw Otis Redding. I saw Ted Nugent play there. Percy Sledge. He had a bunch of bands that played there. But Otis Redding, he was fantastic. Right before he died, he played on a Wednesday night. The place was packed. Cinderella’s had the best sounding club around, but a low ceiling. White Trash played there, Edgar Winter played there, Fats Domino played there. It was a hell of a sound. Best-sounding club I played at.”

Smash didn’t pick up Hulin’s “So Darling (I’ll Dream Again),” a typically pungent Thibodeaux composition cut at Cosimo Matassa’s legendary New Orleans studio, with another of Robert’s creations, “On Lonely Street,” adorning the B-side. Meaux was now listed as T.K.’s producer (prior to that, Hulin had basically handled that duty himself).

“GRADUATION NIGHT”

Like  “I’m Not A Fool Anymore,” Hulin’s touching “As You Pass Me By (Graduation Night)”  proved another instant swamp pop classic upon its 1964 release on L. and K. (as it was now listed). “Everybody thinks ‘Graduation’ did bigger than ‘I’m Not A Fool,’” says T.K. “‘Graduation’ did good around Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, but not as big as ‘I’m Not A Fool Anymore.’ Robert Thibodeaux wrote the song.

“It was meant for another guy from New Iberia, which is about ten miles from St. Martinville, a guy named Ricky Boudreaux. He was a hell of a singer. And the song was meant for him. Robert Thibodeaux had called him up and said, ‘I got a song that I wrote for you. You have a good voice.’ But he kept putting Robert off. And Robert called me up, he said, ‘Look, I’ve been trying to get that guy to do that song for about a month. He’s not calling me back. You want to do it?’ I said, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ll do it!’ So that’s how that came about, because Ricky never called him back. I said, ‘Well, I’ll record it!’ And I recorded it, and it did good.” Freddy Fender, a red-hot entity on the country charts in 1978, included the timeless ballad on his album Swamp Gold, a heartfelt homage to the idiom produced by (you guessed it) the Crazy Cajun.

Future pop crooner Steve Tyrell joined Huey in the production booth for Hulin’s poetically titled L. and K. offering “Your Eyes Are The Windows To Your Heart,” listed as a Meaux composition (ditto the R&B-slanted flip, “You’re His Alone,” which later resurfaced on the Crazy Cajun’s American Playboy imprint). T.K. contributed a swamp pop theme to the ever-expanding Yuletide canon with “Tears For Christmas” before wrapping his yearning pipes around “I’m Not Free (I Never Want To Be).”

Meaux convinced T.K. to take his best shot at Hank Williams’ classic “Kaw-Liga,” proving country material certainly wasn’t beyond the young singer’s purview, and before long he’d turn in a remake of Hank’s immortal “I Can’t Help It” counted off at a deliciously slow tempo. There was also an L and K. coupling with authorship attributed to Huey of “All That’s Gone” and “Time” before the Hulins mothballed their firm. T.K. continued to record for Meaux for the rest of the decade, often utilizing the Crazy Cajun’s Sugar Hill Studios in Houston. He tried Doug Sahm’s “Revolutionary Ways” on for size as well as a surging dance workout called “The Monkey Song” and an intensely soulful take on Jim Reeves’ country chestnut “He’ll Have To Go,” but little came of his efforts.

“He made me what I am,” says Hulin of Meaux. “He got me to sign with Smash. I didn’t make nothing on the record, which didn’t bother me at all. I made a lot of money—Huey would never mess with my personal appearances, when I’d work at the gigs. He wouldn’t touch that. I made my money on the gigs. He made money on the records. But he never did touch me on my personal appearances.” Sidemen came and went. “Edgar Winter played in my band for a year,” says Hulin.

From 1967 on, that income was augmented by the nightly proceeds from T.K.’s Nightclub on Highway 31 in St. Martinville, which developed into a local hotspot until the joint was consumed by a fire in 1971. Hulin made the best of the conflagration. “I changed the name of the band when the club burned down to T.K. and Smoke,” the singer laughs. “I still use the name Smoke. I play at a casino next month, T.K. and Smoke, featuring G.G. Shinn and Steve Adams.”

After a few years’ absence from the recording studio, Hulin signed with V.J. “BooBoo” Boulet’s Booray label during the mid-‘70s. “That was my buddy,” says T.K. “I played at his club. He had a club in Breaux Bridge called BooBoo’s Nightclub. That’s why he called it the Booray label. I cut a song called ‘Alligator Bayou’ that Eddy Raven wrote.”

TODAY

Bar gigs don’t interest Hulin these days. “I love those festivals. I play a lot of festivals in October. I like to do those festivals and casinos. I don’t do clubs anymore. I haven’t played a club in four or five years. I just don’t do clubs anymore, because you get a certain age, and you’ve got to play three-and-a-half hours, four hours, and I can’t. There’s no way I can do it.  I used to do it when I was young,” he says. “And I can’t stand that smoke in the clubs. I never did smoke in my life. But I love to play at festivals.”

T.K.’s recent CDs Past & Present Simply T.K. and Larger Than Life are dotted with ‘60s soul covers—“Knock On Wood,” “Shake,” “Mr. Pitiful”—that testify to his ongoing love affair with R&B. But his latest recording venture, slated for release on September 9, takes Hulin all the way back to his roots. “Sammy Kershaw called me up. Sammy’s from around Louisiana. He lives in Lafayette,” T.K. says. “Sammy wanted to record a swamp pop album with all of us. There’s me and Warren Storm, Willie Tee, Tommy McLain, Don Rich, Joe Stampley, Eddy Raven. We each cut a song. My song is ‘I Got Loaded,’ by Little Bob and the Lollipops. It came out good, and the CD came out good.”

The longterm future of swamp pop concerns Hulin. “We’re getting to the age—me and Warren, Willie Tee and Tommy McLain, Johnny Allan—we’re getting to the age, after we pass, there’s nobody else to take our place. None. No swamp pop singers. We’re the only ones that are living, and nothing behind us. When we die, swamp pop is over with. I don’t know what’s going to happen then,” says T.K. “When we’re gone, swamp pop is gone. I hate to say that, but really and truly, there’s nobody behind us coming doing swamp pop music.”

All the more reason to enjoy this legend and his friends at this year’s Stomp. “I’m 74 and I started at 13, so I’ve been playing quite a few years. And I love it. I still love it. I love it. I sound better now,” he says. “I had some nodules removed about three or four years ago. I had nodules then. And I tell you what—that made it a hundred percent better. I sound better than ever. I really do. I hate to brag on myself, but my voice is—those nodules, I had it real bad. Real bad. But I’m sounding great. So as long as I sound good, I’m going to keep on doing it!”

–Bill Dahl

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