Rod Bernard, who died on July 12th, was a leading exponent of swamp pop. While the term was coined by English writer Bill Millar in the ‘70s, it refers to a style of music that grew out of South Louisiana and East Texas and is a mixture of rock’n’roll, R&B, country, New Orleans and French Louisiana influences, in the ‘50s and early ‘60s. For a short time there were a number of breakout hits on the US national charts, including the million selling Phil Phillips’ ‘Sea of Love’ and Cookie and His Cupcakes’ ‘Mathilda’. The leading exponents were Rod Bernard, Warren Storm, Tommy McClain, Clint West and the “King of Swamp Pop” Johnny Allan. It has been called a musical gumbo or jambalaya, and is a regional music genre. It is closely related to zydeco and Cajun music but hasn’t had the same recognition from a wider public as its more renowned cousins. The great writer and broadcaster Charlie Gillett helped give the genre a European push when he released ‘Another Saturday Night’ on his Oval label in 1974, which compiled various tracks from small Louisiana record labels sequenced to feel like a typical Cajun night out.
Rod Bernard was born on August 12, 1940, in Opelousas, Louisiana to bilingual parents. His grandfather owned a dance hall in Point Barre on the banks of the Bayou Teche and this gave him his first taste of live music. Bernard has said ”It was a French night-club where bands like Aidus Roger and Papa Cairo played. We used to go over there and I would just hang on the bandstand and watch the musicians.”. These experiences inspired Bernard and his brother to play guitar and by the age of 12 he had his own half-hour show on a local radio station. He was a big Hank Williams fan and actually meet his idol when he played the local high school. He continued to play music when his family moved to Winnie, Texas. By the time he was 16 he was a DJ back in Opelousas playing black R&B records alongside early rock’n’roll and country tracks. He formed a band, The Twisters, with his brother and some friends and they had a local hit with ’This Should Go Forever’. The song was picked up by Leonard Chess in Chicago for his Argo label and it became a top twenty hit. Bernard then toured America with B.B. King, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison.
This early momentum was interrupted when his second single failed to chart. When he moved labels to Mercury they tried to make him a teen idol and it was only when he joined Hall Way in Texas that he was able to return to his own sound. He recorded several swamp pop classics in Texas, sometimes backed by Johnny and Edgar Winter. In 1962 he formed the Shondells with Warren Storm and Skip Stewart. The Shondells released several singles and the album ‘The Shondells at the Saturday Hop’ for LA Louisianne Records based in Lafayette. At the same time, Bernard continued to release solo singles such as ‘Congratulations To You Darling’ and ‘Papa Thibodeaux’ on a variety of labels.
In 1965 Bernard became an ad salesman for KLFY-TV in Lafayette, and did little recording or touring releasing only a few country albums in the ‘70s, until 1976’s ‘Boogie In Black and White’, with zydeco star Clifton Chenier. The album is considered a masterpiece by those in the know due to its mix of black and white musical traditions. He released his final album, ‘The Louisiana Tradition’, which stayed true to his Cajun, country and R&B roots in 1999.
Bernard continued to tour periodically, playing to his home audience who consider him a legend of Cajun music as he was one of the few musicians who was able to achieve national success with a very regional sound. If any reader wants to explore Rod Bernard’s music further, his songs can be found on various Cajun compilations and Ace Records have released ‘Swamp Rock’n’Roller’ with sleeve notes by Bernard’s son.