IRENE’S CAFÉ. Irene’s Café, a restaurant and bar located in Houston’s Sixth Ward, was the first venue where zydeco music was performed publicly. Zydeco, a style of music that blends French melodies with Caribbean-influenced music and the blues, often featuring the accordion, washboard, and guitar, had been popular at house parties of Houston, particularly in a Fifth Ward neighborhood known as Frenchtown. The first performance of the music occurred at Irene’s Café the day before Christmas, 1949. As L. C. Donatto, an accordionist who was accustomed to playing zydeco at house parties, would later recount, he and Willie Green were driving around, drinking, and playing the accordion, when a stranger playing a guitar on a porch stopped them. The men began playing and soon attracted a large audience, including a woman by the name of Irene who invited them to play in her nearby café.
Irene’s Café hosted zydeco one or two nights a week but other nights featured jazz, blues, or solo artists. Chris Strachwitz, founder of Arhoolie Records, recorded some of the earliest zydeco at Irene’s in 1961. The album Zydeco Vol. 1 – The Early Years: 1961-62 includes three songs by Willie Green, who continued playing at the café until his death in the late 1960s. Although Irene’s Café did not last, the success of zydeco gave way to other venues, mainly the Silver Slipper Lounge and the now defunct Continental Zydeco Ballroom, which have helped make zydeco a part of Creole culture in Southeast Texas.
Lawrence Clayton and Joe W. Specht, eds., The Roots of Texas Music (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2003). John Minton, “Houston Creoles and Zydeco: The Emergence of an African American Urban Popular Style,” American Music, Volume 14 (Winter 1996). Roger Wood, Texas Zydeco (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006).