NEW ORLEANS (AP) — D.L. Menard, the Cajun musician whose song "The Back Door" became an anthem for his culture and carried him to 38 countries on State Department tours, has died at the age of 85.
Menard died Thursday at the home where he lived with his granddaughter Nelda Menard in Scott, Louisiana, a funeral home said.
Including covers by other artists, the Cajun French song has sold more than 1 million copies over the decades, according to Floyd Solieau, whose Swallow Record Co. released "La Porte en Arriere" as a single in July 1962.
Menard became a goodwill ambassador for Cajun music and culture, the heritage of people who settled in the bayou country of south Louisiana after being expelled from Acadia in French Canada 250 years ago. Speaking with The Associated Press in late June, he said the resurgence of Cajun culture in the last few decades made him feel "terrific. Because that was us. It was us."
"The Back Door " is a jaunty ditty about a man who gets so drunk he sneaks home through the back door.
During a July 2 tribute to Menard and the song's 55th anniversary, folklorist and retired French professor Barry Jean Ancelet said "La Porte en Arriere," not "Jolie Blon'" should be considered the Cajun national anthem.
"'Jolie Blon' is a song about a girl who went to Texas. 'La Porte' is about a guy who slips back in at home through the back door," he said. "Now I ask you — which one best describes us Cajuns?"
Moreover, he said, nearly every youngster who wants to play Cajun music learns "The Back Door."
Menard wrote that song between pumping gas and filling tires at a gas station, and for much of his life, music was a part-time gig. It became full time after his chair-making business burned down in the 1990s, but he was already well-known by then.
"DL was a cultural icon," said Ann Allen Savoy, a musician, author of "Cajun Music: a Reflection of a People," and wife of accordion player Marc Savoy. "We traveled with him all over America when my husband Marc was in his band The Louisiana Aces. He was a rock-solid guitar player, a comedian. A very un-conceited person, very humble." And, she recalled, "He had a smile that filled his whole face."
Menard even had to be told he'd written a hit: He told The Associated Press that after "The Back Door" came out, he was grousing that he had to sing it five or six times a night.
"My wife sat me down and made it straight to me I had a hit," he said. "I didn't know. I had no idea."
Menard performed for the last time in public at that July 2 tribute in Erath, his home town. Though he had to be helped across the stage and he performed from a wheelchair, his voice was still firm and strong as he sang "The Back Door" and many other songs. The crowd included two of Menard's great-granddaughters, who clearly enjoyed the spins and twirls of Cajun dancing.
Although Menard wrote "The Back Door" in the Cajun French he grew up speaking, he used English phonics because when he was a boy, teachers punished students for speaking the dialect at school, rather than teach them how to read and write French.
"Sometimes you were paddled. You were whipped," Menard said. "Oh, yeah. You had to speak English."
Menard was sometimes called the Cajun Hank Williams, and the country singer was among his heroes. He spoke briefly with Williams once at a performance in New Iberia.
"He told me, 'when you write a song, you pretend it's happening to you.' ... And the next record I done that. And I'll be darned if he wasn't right," Menard said.
Menard's albums were twice nominated for Grammy Awards. "Le Trio Cadien," which he recorded with Eddie LeJeune and Ken Smith, was nominated for best traditional folk album in 1993. His "Happy Go Lucky," with songs including "Les Fous de la Campagne" (The Crazy People of the Country) and "La Lumiere Dans du Cimetiere" (The Light in the Graveyard), was nominated for best Zydeco or Cajun album in 2010.
He's in the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame and the Cajun Music Hall of Fame, and in 1994 he was named a national heritage fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts.
The Louisiana Funeral Services and Crematory in Broussard said Menard's funeral will be Monday afternoon at Family Life Church in Lafayette, with visitation there Sunday and Monday morning.
Menard married Lou Ella Abshire in 1951; she died in 2001. Their survivors include seven children, 17 grandchildren, 27 great-grandchildren, four step-grandchildren and six step-great-grandchildren.