The King of Zydeco Music, Clifton Chenier, played his first live gigs in Houston at the Silver Slipper, working the club for seven years. Clifton’s cousin, Lightnin’ Hopkins, the bluesman cited as the poet laureate of Texas, did an extended Sunday afternoon residency as well.
Curley, 73, was raised to run the place. “We lived across the street,” he says. “The old man believed in everyone working. Sunday mornings, you mopped and cleaned up. I enjoyed it just like he did. He always felt like somebody in the family should run this place, and since I was so close to him, he decided, ‘I’m going to run with this guy. I think he’ll do it and keep it respectable.’ After the old man put it in my blood, I had to run it.”
“It’s culture and history and masterful performances and really good people.”
Curley met Dorothy, his bride of 47 years, at a Sunday zydeco dance at Alfred’s. In 1973, the couple took over the business from Curley’s sister, who had renamed it the Silver Slipper.
Dorothy and Curley made changes. Boudin balls, made from Cajun blood sausage, came off the menu. Curley’s father used to make 300 boudin in one day, Dorothy says. “And they got me into it. When his daddy passed on, I said, ‘No more boudin.’ It was too much.”
Zydeco is no longer featured at the club. While Houston claims more zydeco bands than anywhere in the world today, the modern players who infuse hip-hop into their “la-la” music, as zydeco is sometimes called, don’t much appeal to Curley. He’d rather hear the kind of blues and R&B popular throughout the black South—singers from the 1970s and ’80s like Tyrone Davis and Johnnie Taylor, working a danceable, up-tempo kind of shuffle.
And he’d rather be the one playing.
Curley picked up guitar after he heard John Lee Hooker as a boy and has continued playing while raising a family and holding down day jobs (he’s a “Senior Helping Seniors” for Meals on Wheels). He worked in bands backing up touring stars such as Johnnie Taylor, Etta James, BB King, and Ike and Tina Turner, and as a session guitarist for producer Huey P. Meaux. After surviving a simultaneous heart attack and stroke, Curley had renewed appreciation for the Silver Slipper house gig. “It’s my own spot,” he says. “I don’t have to wait for a phone call. Ain’t nobody gonna fire me from here.”
At midnight, Curley calls up Joe Hill, the featured singer. Hill looks sharp in a snap-brim cap and tinted glasses, his substantial frame draped in a loose, open-collar black shirt with a gold cross dangling around his neck and gray slacks. He cradles the portable mic in his left hand like an old friend and clutches a towel in his right hand to mop the sweat from his brow. He’s been working the Slipper for 23 years. He knows what’s going to happen.
Curley silently cues the musicians as Hill sings, croons, and growls his way through medium and slow-tempo rhythm and blues. The dance floor fills again, with King Marcus and his wife gyrating next to a lanky man in overalls moving with a svelte woman in a hot-pink pantsuit.
The buzz of conversation grows with each song, with sharp laughs and shouts of joy punctuating the ambient noise. Hands wave in the air in time to the music. Veronica Galentine, the door lady, is swaying back and forth to the beats.