by Michael D. Wynne
Everyone can be interesting, if you are just willing to listen to their life’s story.
But there are a few, just a very few, people whose lives are so fascinating, that it is a privilege just to meet them and hear their story. The individual that I will briefly highlight here today, I can honestly say it has been a great honor not to just know them, but to be considered their friend. Jay Chevalier’s life could fill a book, and it did.
Jay, a native of Forest Hill, was reared in Midway located just south of Alexandria. He claims to have grown up “poor and naked in the piney wood hills along the banks of Bayou Boeuf.”
In 1954, Chevalier enlisted in the United States Marine Corps where he formed his first band which appeared in 1957 on Jimmy Dean’s national day-time television program.
Upon his discharge from the military, Chevalier recorded his first record, “Rockin Roll Angel.”
In 1959, Louisiana Governor Earl K. Long , who was barred by the state constitution from succeeding himself, ran for lieutenant governor on an intra-party ticket headed by another former governor, James A. Noe . Intrigued by the flamboyant character, Chevalier composed and recorded “The Ballad of Earl K. Long” which was initially banned from radio play because it was suspected to be a political ploy though Chevalier had not personally met Long. Within a short time, the song found its way onto the airways and was enthusiastically received. It sold more than 100,000 copies in the state. Jay later traveled and entertained the crowds for Long in his last campaign in 1960.
Jay released “The Ballard of Billy Cannon,” a rollicking tribute to LSU’s first Heisman Trophy winner, Billy Cannon, who led the LSU Tigers to win the 1958 national championship. Jay attended the winning game with Governor Long and witnessed the pandemonium of the Tiger Stadium crowd after the touchdown. That lead him to write the song that night. A record was released within days and Jay became a household word from Shreveport to New Orleans.
By 1962, Jay began performing an extended engagement at the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas , Nevada . In 1963, a homesick Chevalier recorded another regional hit, “Come Back to Louisiana.” The song was revived when it was featured in the 1996 movie, Blaze, in which Paul Newman played Earl Long. Chevalier was a consultant for the movie and played the role of Senator Paul Braden.
“Come Back to Louisiana” was re-recorded in 2006 to encourage victims of Hurricane Katrina to return home to rebuild. The Louisiana State Legislature soon adopted “Come Back to Louisiana” as the third state song.
In the 1970s, Chevalier returned to Louisiana from appearances in Las Vegas, to manage a number of political campaigns. In October 1991, Chevalier ran unsuccessfully for the Louisiana State Senate . In 1995, Chevalier made an unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor to succeed Melinda Schwegmann .
Jay is a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. He was inducted into the Louisiana Political Museum and Hall of Fame in 2003 and in 2008, he was named to the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame . He was also designated “Official State Troubadour” by an act of the Louisiana Legislature in 2006. (Jay Chevalier, my friend, passed away on March 28, 2019.)
Until his death, Jay performed several times a year including at international festivals. He passed away at his home in Kenner on March30, 2019 and is buried in his hometown in Forest Hill. He is missed by all who knew him, including this columnist.