Harry H. Choates, Cajun musician, was born in either Rayne or New Iberia, Louisiana, on December 26, 1922. He moved with his mother, Tave Manard, to Port Arthur, Texas, during the 1930s. Choates apparently received little formal education and spent much of his childhood in local bars, where he listened to jukebox music.
By the time he reached the age of twelve he had learned to play a fiddle and performed for tips in Port Arthur barbershops. As early as 1940 he was playing in Cajun music bands for such entertainers as Leo Soileau and Leroy "Happy Fats" LeBlanc. Choates, who also played accordion, standard guitar, and steel guitar, preferred to play on borrowed instruments and may never have owned a musical instrument of his own.
Around 1946 he organized a band that he called the Melody Boys. Perhaps in honor of his daughter, Linda, he rewrote an old Cajun waltz, "Jolie Blonde" (Pretty Blonde). He recorded the song in Houston in 1946 for the Gold Star label, owned by Bill Quinn, who mistakenly spelled the title "Jole Blon." "Jole Blon" became a favorite in the field of country music and a standard number in Texas and Louisiana clubs and dance halls. It marked Gold Star's first national success and the only Cajun song to reach Billboard's Top 5 in any category. A year after Choates's recording, Moon Mullican, a Texas-born singer and piano player, made an even bigger hit with the song. "Jole Blon," which Choates performed in the key of A instead of the traditional G, featured slurred fiddle notes and has been sung with both Cajun French and English romantic lyrics as well as nonsense lyrics with references to the "dirty rice" and "filé gumbo" of Cajun cuisine. Choates, who suffered from chronic alcoholism, sold "Jole Blon" for $100 and a bottle of whiskey.
He and his Melody Boys recorded more than forty songs for Gold Star in 1946 and 1947, including "Basile Waltz," "Allans a Lafayette," "Lawtell Waltz," "Bayou Pon Pon," and "Poor Hobo," but none of those records earned Choates the success he achieved with "Jole Blon." He also recorded for the Mary, DeLuxe, D, O.T., Allied, Cajun Classics, and Humming Bird labels during his brief career. His recordings have been preserved on Jole Blon, an album by D Records of Houston that contains the Gold Star issues, and The Fiddle King of Cajun Swing, a compilation of Choates's works released by Arhoolie Records of El Cerrito, California, in 1982. Rufus Thibodeaux, a well-known Cajun fiddler, recorded an album entitled A Tribute to Harry Choates in the mid-1960s on the Tribute label. Choates remained popular fare on Cajun French radio stations in Jennings, Crowley, and Ville Platte, Louisiana.
Choates, who could sing in French or English, became famous for his "Eh...ha, ha!" and "aaiee" vocal cries. A real crowd pleaser, he frequently played his amplified fiddle while dancing on the floor with his audience and stood on tiptoe while reaching for high notes. He merged traditional French Cajun music with the western swing music pioneered by such musicians as Bob Wills. He played jazz and blues as well as country music, including instrumental tunes like "Rubber Dolly," "Louisiana Boogie," "Draggin the Bow," and "Harry Choates Blues." As songwriter, instrumentalist, singer, and bandleader he raised Cajun music to national prominence.
One observer has characterized Choates as "a Cajun Janis Joplin." Like her, he achieved a great deal of notoriety for his raucous lifestyle. Often performing while intoxicated and oblivious of his personal appearance, he wore a formerly white hat which, according to one of his band members, "looked like a hundred horses had stomped on it and then it had been stuck in a grease barrel." Choates was virtually illiterate and incurred the ire of musicians' union locals for ignoring contracts. Consequently, after the union in San Antonio blacklisted him and forced a cancellation of his bookings, his band broke up.
By 1951 Choates had moved to Austin where he appeared with Jessie James and His Gang, a band at radio station KTBC. His estranged wife, Helen (Daenen), whom he had married in 1945, filed charges against Choates for failing to make support payments of twenty dollars a week for his son and daughter. Authorities in Austin jailed him pursuant to an order from a Jefferson County judge who found Choates in contempt of court. After three days in jail, Choates, unable to obtain liquor and completely delirious, beat his head against the cell bars, fell into a coma, and died, on July 17, 1951, at the age of twenty-eight. Although some of his fans believe his jailers may have killed him while attempting to calm him, Travis County health officer Dr. H. M. Williams determined that liver and kidney ailments caused his death. The James band played a benefit to raise money for Choates's casket, and Beaumont disk jockey Gordon Baxter secured funds to bury him in Calvary Cemetery, a Catholic cemetery in Port Arthur. Baxter and music historian Tim Knight of Groves raised money in 1979 and 1980 to purchase a granite grave marker with the inscription in Cajun French and English: "Parrain de la Musique Cajun"-"The Godfather of Cajun Music." In 1997 Choates was inducted into the Cajun French Music Association Hall of Fame. He is also honored as a music legend in the Museum of the Gulf Coast's Music Hall of Fame in Port Arthur. A Texas Historical Marker was dedicated in his honor at Calvary Cemetery in 2007.