Under a canopy of black and silver balloons, Wayne Cloukey celebrates his 60th birthday and retirement party at the Prunedale American Legion Post 593. After opening an avalanche of gifts, including a small white cloth that has the words “After Sex Towel” printed on it, Cloukey announces it’s time for the evening’s featured performers: Alligator and the Bayou Boogie.
Alligator, who has been a recognizable figure around Monterey for years, walks up on the stage in front of a table covered with slabs of birthday cake on paper plates. Wearing a black hat adorned with fake coyote bones and a Southwestern shirt, Alligator dedicates the evening’s first song to Texas music legend Freddy Fender. A few seconds into Fender’s “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights,” Gator abandons the stage and walks through the crowd to the birthday boy while soloing on his wireless guitar.
After a run-through of a zydeco-drenched take on the traditional number “Corrina, Corrina” and a loose-limbed, funky version of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me,” which includes Gator playing a guitar solo with his teeth, the 64-year-old musician summons his son, 9-year-old “Cowboy” Dhani, to the stage. Wearing a hat similar to his father’s, the fourth-grade sensation picks up a guitar and leads the band through a blues number titled “Tooth Fairy Blues,” which was penned by Gator after Dhani complained to him that the tooth fairy doesn’t leave him enough money in exchange for his teeth. After some solid playing and his own walk through the crowd, Dhani completes the tune by singing: “I put my teeth in a plastic cup/ gonna put them under my pillow/ when the price goes up.”
Dhani does one more number, Sydney Simien’s playful zydeco song “Don’t Mess with My Toot Toot,” before calling his father back up front. “If you get sick of my dad, call me,” he jokes as Gator pulls a fiddle out of a case.
“I’d like to do a tribute to the Armed Forces,” Gator says into the microphone as the crowd claps enthusiastically. “I dedicate this song to all my fallen comrades. Ladies and gentleman, ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’—Alligator style.”
While Gator strolls between tables, which are covered in paper tablecloths that read “Happy Birthday—Keep It Wild,” he saws away at the fiddle with the ease of someone who has been playing the instrument his whole life. In fact, the longtime musician says he started playing music professionally when he was just 3 years old.
Alligator, who grew up on the Choctaw Reservation that straddles the Louisiana/Texas border, says his middle name is “Sularski,” the Choctaw word for Alligator. He says he got the appellation because a gator crawled up on his parent’s front porch the night he was born.
Though Cajun and blues music was everywhere on the reservation, Gator says, the cowboy crooner Gene Autry was his biggest influence as a child. “I was sort of an enigma, because I was the cowboy and the Indian,” he jokes.
Following stints as a traveling bull rider and a couple of tours of duty as a soldier during the Vietnam War, Gator ended up in Monterey in 1990. Back then, he decided to hit the local music scene hard and spent evenings playing clubs like the Monterey Brewing Company and a then-new blues venue called Sly McFly’s.
For the past few years, Gator’s local performances have been few and far between, but he hopes to change all of that beginning with Thursday’s show at Monterey Live, which will be recorded for a local cable-TV show and later be sold at the musician’s club dates.
ALLIGATOR AND THE BAYOU BOOGIE play Thursday at 9pm at Monterey Live, 414 Alvarado St., Monterey. No cover. 646-1415.