C’est Vrai: Happy Fats heard nationwide
By: Jim Bradshaw
Louisiana French music began to get a wide national audience in the 1970s after masters of the craft like Bois Sec Ardoin and Canray Fontenot, the Balfa Brothers, Nathan Abshire, and others were invited to the stages of prestigious music festivals in the Northeast. But that wasn’t the music’s first national exposure.
Records had been available regionally since the late 1920s and a few of them got played elsewhere from time to time, but it was in 1939 that Leroy (Happy Fats) LeBlanc and the Rayne-Bo Ramblers became the first band from south Louisiana to play on a radio show broadcast nationally over the CBS network.
Old-timers will recall that Fats and his band were regular performers at the OST Club in Rayne and Tee Maurice Club near Vatican and, Marinè show on KLFY television with a new band called the Bayou Buckeroos in the 1960s.
Fats was reared on a rice farm near Rayne and got his first guitar by trading a sack of rice for it. He was working in a rice mill for $1.50 a day when he started his band as a way to earn a little bit of money during the Depression.
“We’d play dances for 10 dollars for the whole band,” he said in an interview some years ago. “That was two dollars apiece and two dollars for traveling expenses.”
When he and his band cut their first record in 1936 for the Bluebird label, which was an affiliate of RCA records, they were paid $25 for the whole band, and, Fats said, “all the drinking whiskey we needed.” That was it. There was no such thing as royalties for performers in those days. The records did help bands get dance club gigs, and that was important.
“Back then there was no television and very little radio. Dances were the opportunity to let off steam, and down here in Rayne there were three big dance halls. On Friday, Saturday and Sunday they had dancing and they’d all be full. They’d bring people in school buses from the country. They’d dance all night long. We’d just start playing and they’d start dancing.”
Fats did well as a self-taught guitar player. He played for a while with Leo Soileau and the Four Aces, often at the Silver Star Club on U.S. 90 between Lake Charles and Sulphur, and also with Harry Choates in Lake Charles. After World War II he toured the South with cowboy singer and movie star Tex Ritter and was part of his backup group in Hollywood for a short while.
When he came back to Louisiana, he teamed up with fiddler Doc Guidry, who’d gained a reputation playing with the singing governor Jimmie Davis, and they became regulars on the Louisiana Hayride radio show broadcast to about a quarter over a network of 25 radio stations that were linked with KWKH in Shreveport for the broadcasts.
The Bayou Buckeroos had a memorable cast of characters including “Uncle” Ambroise Thibodeax, Dalton Delcambre, George Belote, Ralph Boutte, and Alex Broussard, who always appeared sans shoes as “the barefoot Cajun.”
You can contact Jim Bradshaw at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.