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Gene Terry: Texas Cajun’s Ragged-But-Right Goldband Rockers Put the “Swamp” in Swamp Pop

WRITTEN BY BILL DAHL

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Most young singers dream night and day of nailing a major hit record. Not swamp-pop pioneer Gene Terry. Honing his stage presentation with his rocking band, the Down Beats, was his top priority during the late ‘50s. As far as Terry was concerned, his output for Eddie Shuler’s Lake Charles, La.-based Goldband Records, splendid though it was, came in second, as did the entire studio experience.

“I really never cared much for the recordings,” says Terry. “I wanted to have the sound. Totally, totally, I achieved that. I achieved what I wanted. I had one of the top bands to ever get on a bandstand. That was my goal. I didn’t care about records, this and that. So ergo, I didn’t care about promoting ‘em.”

Nonetheless, Gene’s Goldband singles are true classics of the south Louisiana swamp-pop movement. He’ll happily revisit some of them on the first night of the Ponderosa Stomp as co-headliner of an all-star swamp-pop revue along with his contemporaries Rod Bernard and Tommy McLain. They’ll all be backed by the Mama Mama Mamas, a bopping bayou band anchored by C.C. Adcock that’ll feature Steve Riley, Pat Breaux, and Dickie Landry.

Gene Terry, Warren Storm, and Johnnie Allan, 2004 Stomp.
Gene Terry, Warren Storm, and Johnnie Allan, 2004 Stomp.

The swamp-pop movement took root during the late ‘50s, when young Cajun and Creole musicians across south Louisiana grabbed hold of New Orleans R&B and interpreted it in their own energetic way. “We were just some old Cajun boys, just young and playing the music making us feel good. I was married to my first wife, and she’d always ask me to dance. And I’d always say, ‘I don’t like to dance. I like to make the music to make the people dance!’” says Terry. “When I finally stopped playing, I was in Bossier City, and I had one of the best bands that ever came out of south Louisiana. But I built ‘em up. I started with three or four pieces and built it up where I had like eight or nine at times. And we had a sound. It would send chills up and down my spine when I’d do a really nice Fats Domino number with a lot of horn intro and stuff.”

“WHITE BOYS PLAYING BLACK MUSIC”
Like fellow swamp-popper Warren Storm, Terry is quick to cite the enduring influence of the Fat Man on his own musical maturation. “He was our sound. A lot of us mimicked a lot of Fats Domino’s stuff,” he says. “They asked me what swamp-pop music was, and I told ‘em, ‘It’s white boys playing black music damned good!’ That interviewer said, ‘That’s a perfect answer! It’s perfect!’ I really believe that. We could do Domino, like ‘Before I Grow Too Old.’ I was working four horns at the time. When they would do the bridge, the hair on the back of my neck would stand up. It really would. We had a sound!”

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Born Terry Gene DeRouen on Jan. 7, 1940, in Lafayette, La., Gene moved with his family to Port Arthur, Texas, when he was 2. That’s where he would grow up, though he spent part of each summer in Lake Charles with his grandparents. “We went to the ‘Louisiana Hayride’ in Shreveport one time,” says Terry. “My dad and mom, they loved music. Dad played guitar and things like that. We’re from a very musical family. My granddad, my dad’s dad, played fiddle, barn dances and stuff. So I always had an interest. We would go to a barn dance when I would go visit there (in Lake Charles) for two weeks every summer. You know, I liked to listen to it. My uncle (R.C. DeRouen) played in a French band.

“We went and heard Elvis Presley. He came on the ‘Hayride,’ and I was just so in awe of that guy. I came back home and learned how to play the guitar, basic guitar stuff, in a month. Found out in front of a mirror that I had a pretty good voice. I could sing, and I mimicked a lot of Elvis stuff. And I was singing a lot of country and western stuff back then. And I got a little band. I was playing Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. It paid me $8 a night. I thought I was rich. ‘$24, oh my God, I am rich!’

Gene Terry at Stomp event, Rock 'N' Bowl, circa 2003
Gene Terry at Stomp event, Rock ‘N’ Bowl, circa 2003

“We started adding this guy, adding this guy, getting this guy. Then we started listening to KTRM, the Big Bopper. He was in Beaumont here, playing Fats Domino, Little Richard. I started singing that stuff. We played in a club, this guy came in and he said, ‘Man, I play saxophone! Can I sit in with you?’ ‘Yeah, you can sit in with us!’ There was only four of us, and then he was the fifth. So he said, ‘Man, I’d like to play with you.’ I said, ‘Well, I can’t pay you nothin’, but you can play for the kitty.’ They had a kitty back in those days. So that was my first sax player.” That tenor saxman, Doug Dean, would stick with the Down Beats throughout their Goldband tenure. “Then I said, ‘Well, let me get another one!’” says Terry. “So I got two.”

TEXAS’ FERTILE GOLDEN TRIANGLE
Port Arthur was then a swinging destination. “It was a hotbed,” says Terry. “It really was.” Jivin’ Gene, whose swamp-pop classic “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” was a national hit on Mercury in 1959, hailed from there as well. “He’s a great guy. We graduated together, went to school together for 12 years,” says Terry. “We’re still really good friends.” Mercury star Johnny Preston, who paced the pop charts that same year with his Big Bopper-penned “Running Bear” and followed it up with more huge sellers (“Cradle Of Love,” “Feel So Fine”), was another Port Arthur native. “He graduated the year before Gene and I did,” notes Terry.

Port Arthur was the site of Terry’s first recording session as a leader in early 1957 for the local Rock-It logo. At that point Gene only had three pieces. They were billed as the Kool Kats; uncle R.C. was on drums. He’d jettisoned the family surname by then. “Gene’s my middle name,” he explains. “So rather than Terry Gene DeRouen, I said, ‘Well, let’s just switch it around and put Gene in front of Terry, kind of shorten it up.’ So that was it.”

“The Woman I Love,” the A-side of Terry’s debut platter, was sizzling rockabilly rather than indicative of what Terry would wax later on. “That first one was made in the living room of a house,” he says. “This guy heard us. He said, ‘I wrote a song. I’d like you to sing it. I’d like to record you!’ On a little old two-bit tape machine. So he gave me the words and everything, and he said, ‘This is the way it goes, kind of like this.’ Well, you know, every song that I ever did, I kind of put my twist to it. My own twist.”

Kid Murdock had penned “The Woman I Love” with Lila Hargiss. The same pair also supplied the bluesier flip, “Tip, Tap And Tell Me.” “That was like in the vein of Gene Vincent’s ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula,’” says Gene. “We pressed I think 250 of ‘em, and the guy that wrote the song, Kid Murdock, said, ‘Why don’t you put it on the Rock-It label?’” Many moons later, Stomp honchos Dr. Ike and Michael Hurtt requested that Terry reprise “The Woman I Love.” “When I first did the Stomp, I said, ‘I can’t believe people remember that song.’ Because I almost didn’t!’” laughs Terry. “I said, ‘God, I ain’t played that since I was like 16 years old!’

LOUISIANA: “THE SOUND WAS REALLY, REALLY, REALLY GOOD”
“I moved into Lake Charles after I graduated high school,” says Gene. “Moved into Lake Charles, and one of my sax players got drafted. Well, I couldn’t find another sax player, so my uncle said, ‘I’ve got somebody else that can play an instrument.’ I said, ‘What is it?’ He said, ‘Piano!’ I said, ‘Well, let’s give him a try.’ So we hired this piano player. Well, I found out the stuff I was doing on the rhythm guitar, he could do on the piano. I said, ‘Well, the rhythm guitar’s kind of heavy. I’ll just sing, put the guitar up.’”

Danny McKinley was the pianist. “He was one of the best rock and roll piano players ever,” says Gene. “So in the meantime, we got another saxophone player. Found one in Lake Charles. We let one go, and then hired one, then hired another one. Changed drummers, hired a trumpet, hired a baritone. And I said, ‘Let’s boogie!’”

The move to Louisiana and a shift to R&B-slanted material inspired a new band moniker. “We got rid of the Kool Kats when we moved into Louisiana, playing at the Big Oaks nightclub, making about $20 a night. That was really a lot of money,” says Terry. “I said, ‘Man, let’s go! We’re gonna be Down Beats! We’re getting into it now!’ So we became the Down Beats. No more Kool Kats. We were cool in the Texas days, but when we moved into Louisiana, where the sound was really, really, really good … they had some great bands back then. John Fred and the Playboys. Rod Bernard and the Twisters. Jimmy Clanton and his band. We did a lot of Clanton’s stuff. We did a lot of everybody. We did popular stuff. We really did.”

Goldband Studio, Lake Charles, La.
Goldband Studio, Lake Charles, La.

The Down Beats were firing on all cylinders when Goldband Records boss Eddie Shuler caught their high-energy act at their regular haunt in Vinton, La. “He came and heard me at the Big Oaks nightclub one night,” says Terry. “I was doing ‘Cindy Lou,’ which was written by Cookie and the Cupcakes.” The infectious call-and-response rocker was penned and first waxed during the mid-‘50s by Lake Charles R&B singer/saxist Shelton Dunaway, when Huey “Cookie” Thierry’s Cupcakes, his backing band, was still billed as the Boogie Ramblers. Dunaway’s rendition just happened to have been released on Goldband, so Shuler knew the tune intimately.

“ONE MICROPHONE AND JUST JAMMED”
“I was doing another version,” says Gene. “My cousin took me to this little old Catholic hall dance around Lake Charles one time, and this guy (Preston Vanicor, better known as Van Preston) sang ‘Cindy Lou.’ And I liked the way that he sang it. And it’s one of those songs that, there ain’t a lot to the lyrics and stuff. I probably heard it one time and then I sang it my way. The guys, we learned it. ‘There ain’t nothin’ to learn, let’s just learn it.’ I got the words down, nothin’ to it. It was like a jam session when we recorded it. One microphone and just jammed, you know.”

With lead guitarist Butch Menard and tenor saxist Doug Dean handling the solos and upright bassist Patrick “Pee Wee” Higginbotham laying down a supple bottom, Gene and his Down Beats sailed through “Cindy Lou,” which Shuler pressed up on Goldband in the spring of 1958. The B-side was the doo-wop-drenched ballad “Teardrops In My Eyes,” released a few months earlier on Don Robey’s Houston-based Back Beat logo by its composer Bill Bodaford and his group, the Rockets, as “Teardrops.” “I heard it on WLAC, Nashville, Tenn., coming back from a dance one night,” says Gene. The strong vocal group backing on Terry’s remake was unusual for swamp pop.

“My horns, when they’d put their horns down, they sang background. Nobody did that. I did Little Anthony’s ‘Tears On My Pillow,’ well, the guys would sing background, and nobody had ever done that before.” On “Teardrops,” the Down Beats were augmented by bass singer Charles “Dago” Redlich, owner of the Viking label in Crowley, La. “I wasn’t crazy about that, but they supposedly knew more than I did,” says Terry. “I was just a kid.”

Along the way, the Down Beats changed personnel. “There was this guy that not a lot of people remember, Frankie Lowery, and he had the Golden Rockets,” says Gene. “He played around, and he had a guitar player, a bass player, and a drummer. The guitar player and the bass player were Bill and Jack Hall. When I moved into Lake Charles, my guitar player quit. I let Pee Wee Higginbotham go, and hired Jack and Bill Hall. They stayed with me until I quit.

“We started kind of reaching out, going further and further from Lake Charles,” says Gene. “And the guy that played guitar (Menard) kind of wanted to stay closer to home. He didn’t want to do all that traveling and stuff, so we made the change.”

“ONE OF THE BEST THINGS I EVER DID”
Terry wrote “No Mail Today,” the rocking side of his Goldband encore. It hit Louisiana record shops just before the close of ’58; this time the Down Beats rated co-billing on the label. “We were rehearsing right outside of Lake Charles at my grandparents’ farm,” Gene says. “They had one of those big front porches. We had everything set up. We were rehearsing new songs and stuff, and I had to get a song to put on a record. And they had an old dirt road that ran in front of the house.

“The mail guy would come — you know how they do, on the wrong side of the car, and they drop the mail in the mailbox. Well, the guy came down one time, we were all on the front porch playing, learning new stuff and all, and he slowed down to put the mail. And he slowed down, he got to the mailbox, and then he sped up. He didn’t have any mail today. So I said, ‘No mail today!’ I wrote that song in five minutes!” Jack Hall was by then the lead guitarist; Dean remained on sax.

Whoever collaborated on writing the lovely ballad flip side “Never Let Her Go” with Shuler is only listed at BMI as “Graves,” so we may never know his full identity. “That was a guitar intro. That’s me on the big guitar,” says Gene, who once again had vocal group backing. “That song, when he gave it to me, sounded nothing like that. Nothing. I totally, totally changed it. I thought it was one of the best things I ever did.”

The iconic photo of a smiling Gene holding a mic while decked out in his snappiest stage attire was taken at saxist Dean’s home. “His mom and dad lived here in Nederland, Texas. And we started kind of getting popular. We wanted to take some pictures, so his mom and dad, they had put a backdrop at one of the rooms in their house,” says Terry. “They got a photographer and they said, ‘Let’s take a couple of pictures. We’ll put ‘em on a poster, and that’ll be our advertisement for people coming in to see us play or hear us play, and they’ll see this poster here.’ Three or four pictures on it, Gene Terry and the Down Beats.

“THE RHINESTONES AND SEQUINS AND ALL THAT STUFF”
“My mom made all my costumes and stuff, changes, which I still have. Thirty-four changes, with the rhinestones and sequins and all that stuff. So we take the pictures. We got some mileage out of that thing.” Indeed he has — it’s the dazzling cover photo of Shane Bernard’s excellent 1996 book “Swamp Pop: Cajun and Creole Rhythm and Blues,” which contains an in-depth interview with Terry as well as many of his contemporaries.

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Instead of putting Terry’s “Fine – Fine” out on Goldband, Shuler set up a one-off deal in early 1959 with Herman Lubinsky’s Newark, N.J.-based Savoy Records to issue the self-penned rocker. It sported roaring saxes and a first stanza partly based on Big Joe Turner’s ‘53 smash “Honey Hush,” but Terry remembers little about it.

“I don’t even know where that came from,” he says. “Me and Gene talk about that. He said, ‘You remember when you made that ‘Fine – Fine?’ I said, ‘Gene, I do not remember making that song!’ No, I don’t. I don’t know if we were just jamming, and he recorded it. I don’t know. I really don’t know. I like Joe Turner. I really, really do. But I had no intention of going anywhere with that.”

Shuler probably intended “Fine – Fine” as little more than a convenient plattermate for a quickie cover of Rod Bernard’s fast-breaking swamp-pop smash “This Should Go On Forever” sung by one Ronnie Dee that adorned the other side of the Savoy 45. It billed “Fine – Fine” as by Gene Terry and his Down Beats, while “Forever” was by Ronnie Dee and the Down Beats. Terry has no idea who the mysterious Dee was.

“That’s my band,” he says. “That’s the Down Beats without me. So I don’t know. Shuler, he was kind of like that. You know what I mean?” It’s unlikely that Dee’s soundalike cover did much to damage the surging momentum of Bernard’s national hit, itself a cover of Guitar Gable’s J.D. Miller-produced original, cut for Excello in Crowley, La., with the song’s writer, Bernard “King Karl” Jolivette, on vocals.

ONE LAST JEWEL FOR GOLDBAND
Gene was back on Goldband in the summer of ‘59 for one last storming rocker. The authorship of “Cinderella Cinderella” is now credited to Shuler and Herman Lawrence, who waxed some late ‘50s rockabilly sizzlers for Goldband under the name of Larry Hart, including “I’m Just A Mender” (the original 45 credited Lawrence and William Willdridge as writers). Dean was back with another wailing sax solo; strong 88s work on the intro and outro was ostensibly the work of McKinley. Its lovely flip “Guy With A Million Dreams” came from Shuler and Willdridge.

“‘Guy With A Million Dreams,’ that was the prettiest song that I ever made,” says Gene. “The band was really, really, really getting polished then. ‘Guy With A Million Dreams’ was very slow and haunting.”

“COOKIE BEAT ME TO IT!”
Terry good-naturedly laments one recording opportunity that slipped away. “I was recording in Goldband one time,” he says. “We had done a session and were fixing to go eat lunch. We walk out and here’s this guy with this old beat-up hat on and a more beat-up guitar, standing against the wall. He said, ‘Man, I want to do a song. Can you guys back me up?’ I said, ‘Let me tell you something. We’re gonna go eat lunch. We’re gonna come right back. We’ll back you up! We’ve got the instruments. If you need backgrounds, we’ll sing backgrounds — whatever!’ He said, ‘Man, I appreciate it!’

Eddie Shuler, George Khoury, and Phil Phillips
Eddie Shuler, George Khoury, and Phil Phillips

“So we went and ate, came back. And in the interim, Cookie’s band got there, and this guy talked to Cookie and they went and recorded. It was ‘Sea Of Love!’” Of course, the hopeful singer was Lake Charles resident Phil Phillips. “I could have had the guys on a million-selling record, and Cookie beat me to it!” laughs Gene.

Despite his band’s regional popularity and super-tight horn-leavened attack, Terry’s recording career faded away after “Cinderella Cinderella.” “Me and Eddie Shuler kind of crossed paths and stuff. I didn’t want to record for him anymore,” he says. “He was a bad recording engineer. I wanted the J.D. Miller sound, (or) Jin Records. And Eddie Shuler could not give me that. I tried to get out of that contract, but I was hung up — so many records in so many years. By the time the contract was up, I wanted to come back to Texas and get a real job.” At the end of 1960, Terry’s reign as the Down Beats’ leader was history.

“I HAD TO GIVE SOMETHING UP”
“I did come back to Texas and went to work for the city of Port Arthur,” says Gene. “I got another band, I really did. As far as recording, though, I just wanted to play and make a little extra money and play around here. I still had a name and everything, and we got to be pretty darned good. Then I went to work on the police department. They started me on the evening shift. Well, there ain’t a hell of a lot of music you can play working three to 11. So I had to give something up.”

More than a decade after Terry left Goldband, Shuler tried re-releasing his classic “Cindy Lou” with an overdubbed duet vocal by Jenny Scroggins, who had her own Goldband 45, “Cut Off Jeans,” at right around the same time. The results, as you might expect, were less than satisfying. “Somebody told me, ‘Who’s that girl singing?’” he says. “I said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about!’ They said, ‘Well, it’s out now, and there’s a girl singing on it!’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’” The extremely belated 45 unearthed a previously unheard late ‘50s Terry track, “What Can I Do I Still Love You,” as its B-side.

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“I kind of did it the way I wanted, and I guess they cut it one time,” he says of the song. “I don’t remember much about that. That was my winding-down days, you know what I mean? I was fixing to give it up.” An alternate take of the up-tempo charmer can be found on Ace’s invaluable “Swamp Pop By The Bayou” CD series, with no sign of Scroggins to be found.

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“IT WAS FRIENDLY COMPETITION”
In 1969, Terry landed a job at the local Du Pont chemical plant. “In Lafayette, they keep that music going around there, Lake Charles, and other places,” he says. “I was in Texas, you know. Had to go to work, make a living, got two kids, you know, support your kids and try to live a good life, you know? I didn’t need to play music.” He’s been with Du Pont ever since. “I just got through with a job over there just recently,” he reports.

A recent reunion at Ville Platte's Swamp Pop Museum, featuring a who's who of the originators.
A recent reunion at Ville Platte’s Swamp Pop Museum, featuring a who’s who of the originators.

The camaraderie among veteran swamp-pop performers has only grown sweeter with time. “Back in the day that was competition. T.K. Hulin, Rod Bernard, Johnnie Allan. We grew up musically together. We were competition, but it was friendly competition. And now we’re totally, really good friends. That’s the beauty,” says Terry. “We were competition. Now we’re just best buds.” Rejoining their ranks in recent years has brought Terry back into circulation. “When I went to work at Du Pont, I did shift work. I couldn’t play music,” he says. “These guys never stopped.”

SWAMP POP: “IT’S NEVER GONNA DIE”
Swamp pop’s regional following remains as rabid as ever, bypassing generational boundaries. “The younger generation, especially around Louisiana, Lafayette, they grow up listening to that music. Some of them tend to become musicians,” says Terry. “It’s never gonna die. That’s part of the culture.”

Open-heart surgery earlier this summer temporarily placed Gene in recuperation mode. But he promises to cut loose at the Stomp like he’s 18 and back at the Big Oaks. “I’ve got a 30-minute set to do,” says Gene. “I used to do ‘em for four hours. I guess I can do a 30-minute set!”

He promises, “We’re gonna have a blast over there!”