Louisiana bassist talks about his long tenure with Buckwheat Zydeco, extensive session work and new projects
Lee Allen Zeno grew up immersed in the Louisiana music scene. Having demonstrated a natural ability to cross the genres of blues, zydeco, gospel, country and soul music, Lee Allen became an in-demand bass player while still in his teens.
Perhaps best known for his long tenure as the bass player for the Buckwheat Zydeco band, Zeno has also worked extensively as a session player, having recorded with Dalton Reed, Charlie Rich, Guitar Shorty, Lil’ Brian Terry, Clarence “Frogman” Henry, Jean Knight, Major Handy, Archie Bell, Barbara Lynn, Bobby Allen, Willie Cobbs, Leon Sam, Henry Gray, Lazy Lester, Chick Willis and many others.
While not on tour with Buckwheat Zydeco, Lee can be found at various clubs, from Lafayette to New Orleans, laying down grooves with Roddie Romero, Rockin’ Dopsie Jr., Major Handy, Zydeco Ray & the Creole Knight Riders, Lil’ Buck Sinegal, Henry Gray & Carol Fran, as well as the Rue Boogaloo band, with Marty Christian.
FBPO: Tell me about your musical upbringing.
LAZ: I loved music since I was a child, listening to James Brown on the radio and older guys playing around the Lafayette area. Walking with my brother John to hear Lil’ Buck’s (Paul Sinegal) band practice at a club I was way too young to get into, we’d stand outside and peek in the window and watch them. I was about 6 and my brother about 8. I liked the way Lil’ Buck’s guitar sounded, and my cousin played, so he taught me.
FBPO: How did you become a bass player?
LAZ: I started out on the guitar, playing in a band with my brother John and my cousin, Harold Bruno, in a band called Clifton Zeno & the Hiphuggers. Our bass player didn’t show up for a gig one night, so Harold recruited me to play bass. That’s really where it started for me as a bass player, and I never looked back!
FBPO: Louisiana has such a rich musical heritage. How did growing up in that environment influence you musically?
LAZ: Music was all around me. My cousin and my brother played and, you’re right, a lot of the greats of our time were right here in Louisiana. The diversity of the players and their availability to us here made a big impact on me and still does.
FBPO: When did your bass-playing career really start to take off? Can you identify a defining moment when you realized it was for real?
LAZ: Well, it took off back with Buckwheat & the Hitchhikers. That’s where it all started for me. When I was playing enough to support myself is when it became real to me. In 1974, I recorded a single with Dennis Landry on the Soul Unlimited label called “Sing my Song.”
FBPO: How did the Buckwheat Zydeco gig come about?
LAZ: Back when Buckwheat was playing with Lil’ Buck & the Top Cats and I was playing with The Hiphuggers, I was around 11 or 12 years old, Buckwheat came to my house and asked my mom if I could play in his band, promising to have me home early enough to get sleep for school. He started the band Buckwheat & the Hitchhikers and I became his bass player.
In the early ’80s, the band became Buckwheat Zydeco & the Ils Sont Partis Band. Except for a time in the ’70s when Buckwheat played keyboard for Clifton Chenier, we’ve been playing together since the beginning.
FBPO: Having played in that band for so long must be a very special musical experience. Can you share one or two highlights of that part of your career?
LAZ: I guess I’d have to say the biggest highlight for me was playing President Bill Clinton’s inauguration and shaking hands with him and Al Gore. Touring around the world and playing festivals and venues in other countries is still the highlight of my career. There’s just something about European audiences!
FBPO: Tell me about your experience as a session player. Your playing ability covers such a wide genre of styles, it must have been plenty interesting!
LAZ: Looking back now to the recording sessions at Ultrasonic Studios, I know I was blessed to have that experience. Lots of those guys are gone now. Solomon Burke, Phillip Walker, Robert Ward, Charlie Rich and my friend Dalton Reed all left us too soon. I also did some stuff with Snooks Eaglin and Clarence Hollimon. The talent and diversity of those guys always kept me on my toes musically and I still cherish those memories and recordings. By the way, I play occasionally with Clarence Hollimon’s widow, Miss Carol Fran, around Louisiana whenever I can.
FBPO: What else is keeping you busy these days?
LAZ: Well, I’ve put together a four-band showcase called The Hidden Secrets of Louisiana to promote my new solo CD of the same name. Three bands featuring some great talent from Southwest Louisiana and a band I put together for the tour called the Zeno Project. We’re working on securing dates for the 2013 festival season. And the band I recorded a CD with earlier this year, Rue Boogaloo, plays in Lafayette quite a bit. Wrapping up the production on the new CD and backing up Lil’ Buck, Henry Gray and Carol Fran keep me on the go when I’m not on the road.
FBPO: How about the future? What else would you like to do that you haven’t already accomplished?
LAZ: I’d like to do a four-volume set of my Hidden Secrets CD. There is so much untapped talent in my part of the world and I’d like to bring some of those cats together in the studio who may not have ever played together and just let it flow. I have songs that I’ve written as well as covers I’d like to rework.
FBPO: What would you be if you weren’t a bass player?
LAZ: Wow, I know a lot of guys say this, but I can’t imagine doing anything else. I was so young when I got started. The music’s been a part of me for my whole life.