Bobby Charles remembered
Robert (Bobby) Charles Guidry
February 21, 1938 – January 15, 2010
Each of us has special artists we squirrel away as our musical ‘private property’. Often they’re those highly adoptable, smaller acts who have simply fallen between the cracks of the more mainstream flow of music, becoming that intensely personal, select group of artists we’d, truth be told, rather keep secret from the rest of the world so we can keep them all to ourselves. Bobby Charles would fall into this category.
One of the most unorthodox songwriters to hail from Louisiana – he neither played an instrument nor could he write or read music – he nevertheless survived the music business by penning songs picked up by such artists as Clarence ‘Frogman’ Henry (“ But I Do“), Bill Haley & His Comets (“See you Later, Alligator “), Fats Domino (“ Walking to New Orleans“), Joe Cocker (“The Jealous Kind”), Johnny Adams (“Tennessee Blues”) and Muddy Waters (“Why Are People Like That”).
Charles grew up in a poor Cajun family in Abbeville and, at 14 years of age, joined a band called The Cardinals, despite protests from his family. Laidback, unpretentious but increasingly reclusive, Charles chanced to pen “See You Later, Alligator” and was signed – sight unseen – by Chess Records after singing it on a phone audition. When the plane arrived, Chess realized for the first time that Charles was white – a realization that took its toll as Charles took to the road as part of Chess’ R&B tours, the only white face on the bus. Death threats and racist abuse ensued, partially leading to Charles’ preference for lying low and sticking to home.That, coupled with the usual theft of publishing rights and songwriting credits eventually forced Charles to trust very few, living alone, often isolating himself from an uncaring world.
His writing gift, however, attracted the attention of some of the world’s greatest performers and the income gleaned from their use of his songs afforded Charles his privacy. Haley turned Charles’ teen idol “Alligator” into a giant pop hit just one year after he had launched it with Chess while Fats Domino scored a bullet hit with “Walking to New Orleans” in ’60. Frogman Henry hit the heights with Charles’ “I Don’t Know Why I Love You” while the likes of Ray Charles, Etta James, members of The Band, Delbert McClinton, Dr. John, Sonny Landreth, Tab Benoit, Paul Butterfield and Gatemouth Brown sang his lyrics and his praises.
Yet, Charles’ preference was to keep well out of the limelight, releasing the very occasional album to keep himself afloat, often supported by his more famous friends. It was in these studios that Charles felt most alive – a truth that remains audible in many of his small scale, observational classics about real-world, regular people and everyday happenings.
Like most of our personal, private pet artists, we know so little about them beyond the music they’ve given us – until it’s too late. Charles’ had had his demons and been subjected to many more of them. Run-ins with the law, a bad marriage and drug excesses combined with personal nightmares stemming from a devastating house fire, two homes lost to Hurricanes Rita and Katrina, plus bouts with cancer, diabetes and a bad fall took their toll as Charles collapsed in his home in Abbeville, aged 71. Sadly, he had just completed a new record – the aptly titled Timeless – that will be released in late February, not that you’d ever see him touring the new release.
So what is it about Charles that places him in this special category? You could say it’s the fact that he was less popular than his songs, yet his very personal approach to his recordings would always hit their mark on a one-to-one basis. His relaxed vocals were nothing special, sounding not unlike Randy Newman’s, but with a definitive Cajun, swamp pop twist and a memorable warmth that remains to this day. His ability to match lyrics to melodies – given birth directly into his answering machine – continue to attract more gifted singers like moths to a flame.
Yet it’s that flame that will continue to burn brightly. And, now that he’s gone, he’ll turn over more fans as they discover his talents – making some of us sorry we’ve kept him so secret for so long. Radically underappreciated, here’s hoping Charles will now become the household word he’d always dreaded he might. His talent and enduring charm dictates nothing less.
Look for his double ‘best of’ double CD release on his own Rice’n’Gravy Records called “Last Train To Memphis” or seek out his self-titled album, released by Bearsville in ’72 (subsequently released by Stony Plain) and lovingly produced by Rick Danko.
But whatever you do, make time for Bobby Charles. If you don’t know him, there’s much you have missed.