Oscar “Ric” Bernard is pictured as he adds his signature to the Wall of Fame inside the Louisiana Swamp Pop Museum. Bernard’s signature is next to that of his brother, Rod. (Gazette photo by Nancy Duplechain)
Oscar “Ric” Bernard, former musician with The Twisters and The Shondells, stopped by the Swamp Pop Museum on Friday, October 2. While touring the museum, he signed the Wall of Fame next to the signature of his big brother, Swamp Pop legend Rod Bernard.
Rod passed away in July of this year. Oscar recalled fond memories of playing with Rod and learning to play guitar just by watching his brother. Looking at Rod’s red-and-white striped shirt on the display stage with a caption that mentions The Blue Room Gang, Oscar told the story of he and his brother as young boys, when Rod was nine and Oscar was six. “When my brother was nine years old, he wanted to play guitar. We were poor and our parents couldn’t afford a guitar, but we lived in a house that had some big pecan trees in the backyard. My parents suggested I help my brother pick pecans to sell and make enough money for him to buy a guitar. That’s what we did. After we got the guitar, which was a mail order from Montgomery Ward’s, I think it was a Gene Autry model, there were two people in Opelousas that my parents knew who played guitar. One was a local Army recruiter, and the other one was one of my dad’s coworkers at the post office. They would come to the house now and then and teach my brother how to play. Now, I could sit and watch, but I was not allowed to touch the guitar. I learned how to play by watching them. At times when I didn’t think I’d get caught, I’d go get the guitar, and I’d practice, but every now and then I’d get caught and punished severely.”
Felix Dezauche, of Dezauche Feed Store, Inc. in Opelousas, came up with the idea of having a live broadcast on KSLO on Saturday mornings. Oscar said that was a novel idea back in 1949. The show became popular and Dezauche hired a local singer named Louis Noel. Dezauche would put up a pile of feed sacks in one corner of the store, and Noel would stand up on the sacks to perform. “We were there one Saturday, and my dad asked Louis Noel if my brother could get up there and play and sing, and ultimately that’s what happened,” said Oscar. “Mr. Dezauche asked us to come back the next Saturday, and we started doing it every Saturday. We’d go as a family, and Rod would stand up on these feed sacks with Louis Noel.”
Oscar said as the crowd grew and more young, aspiring musicians showed up and wanted to get up on the make-shift stage to play, there was not enough room for everybody. Dezauche decided to take a section of his warehouse, cleaned it up, built a stage on one end, painted the room blue and called it The Blue Room. This was a take on The Monteleone Hotel in New Orleans, which had a ballroom called The Blue Room. “More and more people came, and eventually Mr. Dezauche had to limit the number of performers coming, to maybe seven or eight,” said Oscar. “This went on every Saturday morning for a long, long time, until most of them got too old to do it anymore.”
Eventually, Oscar joined The Blue Room Gang, and Dezauche started doing the show from his office. “He’d have one or two of us go into his office and every now and then play and sing a song while he was reading advertisements,” said Oscar. “I don’t remember when it all ended, but I was in high school.”
The Bernard family moved to Angleton, Texas for a while, and Oscar forgot about playing the guitar until one day, “An old character knocked on the door. He was selling guitar lessons, so mom and dad asked me if I wanted to take guitar lessons, and I did. This guy quickly realized that I was not a beginner, so he offered me a deal where, if I would help him teach beginners, he would teach me how to play bass, which at the time was an old, upright bass.”
The family moved back to Opelousas after a while, and Rod and some of the other musicians who were in The Blue Room Gang started a band called The Twisters. The bass player was a year older than the rest of them, and he graduated from high school and went off to the military, so they were lacking a bass player. Rod asked Oscar if he wanted to play bass, and Oscar said yes. “I didn’t have a bass, so I went to Jake’s Music Store in Opelousas and bought an electric bass and an amplifier and started playing with the band,” said Oscar. “I was 13 or 14. That’s how my music career started.”
The Twisters fell apart the next year when the rest of the guys all graduated from high school, and Rod joined the Marine Corps Reserves for several months. Oscar said, “I played around with other bands and we tried to make something happen, but it didn’t happen. Rod came back from the Marines, and he joined up with Warren Storm and Skip Stewart, and they started the Shondells. I was not part of the Shondells, but after a while their guitar player went off to do something else and I was asked if I wanted to play guitar with the Shondells, and I did that for four or five years.”
Oscar’s stage name was Ric. He got the name when he and Skip Stewart were meeting up with some girls in Beaumont. Skip said, “You don’t want to tell them your name is Oscar, do you?” Oscar replied, “What else am I going to tell them?” Skip said, “We need to figure out a better name for you.” “It was Skip who decided to call me Ric,” said Oscar. “There’s still people today who only call me Ric.” He said he used to work with singer/songwriter Eddy Raven at a Magnavox dealership in Lafayette. “Eddy eventually went to Nashville to make it big, and he did. He still calls me Ric.”
Looking at the photos of all the local nightclubs on the museum wall, Oscar remembered playing with Rod and the Shondells at The Rendezvous Club, The Purple Peacock, and many times at The Lakeshore Club and Jay’s Lounge in Cankton. He said The Green Lantern and The Step-In Club, both in Lawtell, were right next to each other and held dances on Sunday nights. People would buy tickets to both and pop in and out throughout the night.
Oscar also played with The Shondells at The Evangeline Club, but his most interesting night there happened when he was still in The Twisters. “We had a dance job one night in Ville Platte at a high school. We rarely got to hear the Boogie Kings. We were going to finish playing at midnight, and they were going to play until 1:00 at The Evangeline Club. We decided to hurry and pack up and drive over there. I made my way up to the bandstand and said hello to the guys, all of whom I knew. I was just standing there on the bandstand, listening to them play. There was this girl who was there. When the band played the last song, she and I both turned around to go outside, and for some reason she said to me, ‘My parents are outside waiting for me.’ I told her, ‘It’s okay, I have to leave.’ She and I were walking along side the wall, and there was the sound of a fight breaking out--glass crashing, people screaming. I looked over towards the dance floor, and the crowd opened up like the Red Sea, and here’s this crazy guy running straight at me with a whisky bottle in his hand. That was his girlfriend he had just broken up with, and he thought she was with me, so he wanted to rearrange my face.”
At the time he played in The Shondells, Oscar was in college at U.L. Lafayette, studying to become an engineer. He recalled while he was studying physics at U.L., there was a guitar player named Doug Ardoin who was one year ahead of him, also studying physics. Doug Ardoin played with The Boogie Kings and graduated with a physics degree from U.L. and went on to work for NASA. “I was married and had a child before I graduated from college,” said Oscar. “What I learned playing in The Shondells was that the only time performers work is on nights and weekends and holidays, so there’s no time for family. No sick leave, no insurance, no IRA, no 401K. I made the very, very conscious decision when I graduated to hang that guitar up and be an engineer instead.”
Oscar smiled, looking at the picture of his brother, Rod, and the shirt he wore back when he was a young boy, performing at the feed store in their hometown. “He was a good person. We had a lot of fun.”