Jo-El Sonnier, the Grammy-winning artist from Louisiana who performed Cajun and country music, has died at age 77.
Sonnier passed away while on tour, Texas country music promoter Tracy Pitcox stated in a post on his Facebook account Sunday (Jan. 14).
He died after suffering cardiac arrest following a show at the Llano Country Opry in Llano, Texas, where he had played for over an hour and received a standing ovation as he ended his performance with his signature “Tear Stained Letter” and an encore of “Jambalaya.” Pitcox says the singer-songwriter “was air flighted to Austin where he was pronounced deceased.”
“It is never easy to lose a legend,” Pitcox said, “but he truly spent his final day doing what he loved — entertaining his fans with his loving wife, Bobbye, by his side.”
Sonnier was born in 1946 to a French-speaking family in Rayne, Louisiana, where he showed an interest in music early on. At the age of three he began to play the accordion, and by age 11 was making his first music recordings. He recorded several songs and albums independently as a teen.
In the 1970s, he signed as a country artist with Mercury Nashville, but made the shift to independent label Rounder Records when he began recording Cajun music.
Sonnier returned to country in the 1980s, signing with RCA. He charted with singles including 1988’s “No More One More Time” and “Tear Stained Letter,” a track originally recorded by Richard Thompson. Actor Judge Reinhold (Beverly Hills Cop, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Santa Clause films) starred in the music video for “Tear Stained Letter.”
Sonnier moved to Capitol Records in the 1990s before making the return to Cajun music at Rounder Records.
Sonnier won a Grammy Award for best regional roots album, for The Legacy, in 2015. It was his first Grammy win, but fifth time being nominated.
In 2017, Sonnier and his sister-in-law Shirley Strange-Allen released a children’s book titled The Little Boy Under the Wagon, based on the struggles Sonnier faced growing up autistic in the 1950s in South Louisiana. According to an interview with The Associated Press, he hoped that sharing his story would communicate an important message: “They need to know it’s OK to be different.”
“Once he figured it out and had a diagnosis, he saw ‘This is why the way I thought the way I did. This is why I didn’t fit in. This is why I focused on music 100 percent. This is why I don’t like crowds outside of music,’” said Sonnier’s wife, Bobbye.
“You want to leave something good behind and let somebody embrace that,” Sonnier said to the publication. “When you’re gone, that’s it. One day, we won’t be here. While we are here, let’s try to do the good.”