HURRICANE BOBBY Bobby Charles

The New Orleans legend wants you to know that the
truth will set you free.

BY ALEX RAWLS

The brass alligator that serves as a grip on his cane-a gift
from a friend-reminds you where you know Bobby Charles from. Chess Records had
a hit in 1956 with the Abbeville, Louisiana native’s “See You Later, Alligator,”
which was later a smash for Bill Haley and the Comets. Charles was only 15, and
Chess signed him sight unseen. According to Charles, now 70, Phil Chess met him
at the airport with a pretty young blonde girl when he flew to Chicago.

“After everybody had left, Phil Chess came up and said, ‘You
can’t be Bobby Charles.’ I said yeah,” Charles recalls. “He said, ‘motherfucker.’
First time I’d ever heard that in my life. He dropped me and the girl off at a
hotel and gave me $200 and said, ‘Have a good time.’ That’s the way it was.
They weren’t going to bring a black girl for a black guy. They knew what he
wanted.”

His days touring as part of Chess package tours were intense.
He was the only white man on tours that included Chuck Berry and Frankie Lymon
and the Teenagers. He was still a teenager, but he played black clubs, stayed
at black hotels, and was turned away from white restaurants that saw him get
off the musicians’ bus. “I thought I was going to get hung trying to buy 50
hamburgers,” he says. When Charles effectively retired from performing after a
few Chess tours, he started doing promotions work for the label. Once, while
promoting an Etta James record in a southern city, a station manager asked, “Hey
man, want to come to a hanging? They’re going to hang this black dude.”

Experiences like those and various rip-offs made Bobby
Charles a reluctant member of the music business. He recorded sporadically and,
as is the case with his new album, Homemade Songs, released music on his
own schedule. When he works, it’s out of friendship, as is the case with the
six songs he co-wrote or contributed to Dr. John’s recent City That Care
Forgot
, or because ideas come to him whether he wants them or not. “When I
write, I write,” he says. “I can’t help that.”

***

Shucks in Abbeville is a non-descript room of mid-’80s
vintage except for the small, glassed-in room in the corner with “Whole lotta
shuckin’ goin’ on” painted in script on the window. The seafood restaurant
specializes in oysters, and Bobby Charles has his table at the back of the
room, where he sits three to four days a week-“sometimes more,” he says with a
conspiratorial grin-and staff and regulars alike pass by to say hi. It serves
as his unofficial office, and when singer Shannon McNally was in Abbeville to
record an album of Bobby Charles covers late last year, he’d often take her to
Shucks. “He’d come round me up around noon every day and want me to sit there
until two or three in the afternoon,” she remembers, laughing. “He sits down
there and has his sautéed oysters or fried oysters and his martinis and holds
court.”

Dr. John-Mac Rebennack-produced the McNally album (which is
currently in need of a label), and it’s a project she had long wanted to do.
Ever since her husband gave her Bobby Charles, the album he recorded in
1972 in Woodstock
with co-producer Rick Danko, she has wanted to re-record that album. “That Bobby Charles record he did is one of the best records ever made,” she
says. “It should be as important to the alt-country world as Grievous Angel.
It’s one of the top five records of an entire genre. It’s overlooked because it’s
not really available.”

The album is now downloadable as an mp3 at Amazon.com, and
it shows how much the Band vibe was in the Woodstock air. The songs groove
loosely, and Charles’ songs have the sly wisdom of the country bumpkin who
slowly lets on that he knows more than he seems. It’s in his voice, and it’s in
the songs, which are written in the common tongue to such a degree that they
seem artless. “There’s something very Gump about him, and I mean that in the
best way,” McNally says. “He’s a very simple person, but in the highest form of
simple. It’s no small thing to get Mac’s attention, but when Mac talks about
him, Mac would shake his head and say, ‘Dat muddafucka can write. He just
couldn’t go wrong.'”

That was his musical life, though. Charles gets vague when
he talks about dates and places because he has spent some time on the lam. He
ended up in Woodstock after a pot bust, and when he arrived, no one knew who he
was because he used an assumed name. He quickly fell in with neighbor Paul
Butterfield and a houseful of musicians including Amos Garrett who introduced
him to Bob Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman. Charles was suspicious of Grossman
from the start, but he signed with him to deal with his legal issues. According
to Charles, Grossman heard his songs and asked, “‘Why don’t you make a record
for me?’ I said, ‘Why don’t you get me out of the trouble I’m in and maybe I
might?'”

The album’s high point is “Tennessee Blues,” the song that
convinced Grossman he wanted to manage Charles. It’s a sweet, wistful song of
longing:

If I had my way, I’d leave here today.

I’d move in a hurry.

I’d find me a place where I could stay,

not have to worry.

A place I’d feel loose.

Some place I could lose

these Tennessee Blues.

His simple, quiet hope for a home was also a comment on
being on the run from the charges hanging over him, which were filed in
Nashville. “It’s like living in jail in your mind.”

After he found a loophole in Grossman’s management contract,
Charles said, “See you later, alligator”–literally–and set out for more
adventure. He spent time in Arizona, California and Tennessee, but he’s fuzzy
on where, how long and why. At some point–likely in the 1980s–he returned to
Abbeville, and in the early 1990s, he started recording one-off sessions at
Dockside Studios in Vermillion Parish with guitarist Sonny Landreth leading the
band.

“For me, he’s the quintessential South Louisiana
singer/songwriter,” Landreth says. He’s also a challenge to work with because
Charles writes only the words and the melody, often by singing them into a
recorder. When he has ideas and a recorder isn’t at hand, he sings them into
answering machines. It falls to Landreth or guitarist Sam Broussard to figure
out chords and an arrangement. Once, Charles told Landreth he had the song
written out. “He brings in one sheet of ‘String of Hearts’ but it was in a
picture frame,” Landreth says. “Here’s our chart, so we had to wing that. That’s
classic Bobby Charles.

“Working with him is a creative circus that shows up in the
town, and you don’t want to miss it. It’s
chaotic and we’re making all this stuff on the spot. The thing about him is,
when he’s excited about the song and has that feeling, that’s what you want to
get. When he starts trying to polish it, that’s not what he’s about and you
lose that magic. Sometimes he’ll start singing and we’re still tuning up and we
haven’t got that far with the song, but that’s part of the ride. It wouldn’t be
as special if it were any other way.”

While the return to Acadiana was good for Charles
creatively, he suffered more setbacks in his personal life. His house burned
down in 1996, he was treated for cancer (currently in remission), and in 2005,
his home at Holly Beach on Gulf of Mexico was wiped away along with the rest of
the community by Hurricane Rita. Back and dental problems have slowed him down
and limited his mobility. He canceled a scheduled appearance at the 2004
Ponderosa Stomp, and he surprised everybody when he agreed to perform at the
New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 2006. Sonny Landreth was the
bandleader, and Marcia Ball, Dr. John and Shannon McNally were invited to help
carry the load. To no one’s surprise, Charles backed out of the show and at the
last minute, it became a tribute to him. It was one of the highlights of Jazz
Fest, particularly McNally’s segment, as she approached the plaintive,
unassuming quality of Charles’ voice, but the set was more spontaneous than the
audience realized. “I was finishing up the set list as they were calling my
name onstage,” Landreth says.

Missing recent shows doesn’t stop Charles from making plans
to perform, though. “Bobby called me up and said, ‘Man, I want to go to Europe.
Let’s get your guys and go to Europe,'” Landreth recalls, laughing. “I said, ‘How
about we try one closer to home first?'”

Like 2004’s Last Train to Memphis, Homemade Songs is a collection of new songs, new recordings of old songs, and recordings that
were never released. The title track was demo’ed for Bobby Charles, but
this version was recorded in Nashville
in 1975 with a band that includes Willie Nelson’s harmonica player, Mickey
Raphael. “Here I Go Again” has already been recorded by Paul Butterfield and
Gatemouth Brown, but the album also includes “The Truth Will Set You Free
(Promises, Promises),” which reflects his general hostility toward politicians.
He started co-writing the song with Willie Nelson when he commiserated with
Nelson on his tour bus. “‘The road to the White House is paved with lies,’ I
said. He said, ‘Write that down right now.'” When Nelson suggested the next
line–“the truth will set you free”–the collaboration was underway.

Charles’ political concerns find fuller expression in his
collaborations on Dr. John’s new album. For Rebennack’s lacerating look at the
world that abandoned New Orleans, he contributed “The Truth Will Set You Free,”
and collaborated on a number of songs including “Time for a Change.” Though its
subject matter is pointed–politicians selling their asses to Big Oil–it came
out of good times. “We were just talking on the phone, sitting right here,”
Charles says, pointing to his table at Shucks. As they traded lines, each
nudged the other into places they might not go on their own, resulting in
commonplace anthems that forego Dr. John’s hoodoo so that no one misses the
point. “Mac’s a lot of fun to work with, a good friend. Once I get the right
inspiration, it doesn’t take me 10 or 15 minutes.”

While Rebennack takes on greedheads of all stripes, the
songs he co-wrote with Charles focus on the environment, particularly the
Louisiana wetlands, a pet concern for both. An ongoing frustration for Charles
is Louisiana politicians’ unwillingness to take him up on the “Solution to
Pollution” song and book he wrote with school age children in mind. “The
government’s not much of a government these days,” he says.

And as happens in every barroom in America, one complaint
about the government begets a dozen more. “We’re going to have another civil
war. Looks like they’re sure trying to start one,” he says. “We’re lucky we
lived in the times that we do. I don’t know if I want to be around in 10 years.”
He likes Obama, has no love for McCain, but he’s interested in the ideas in T.
Boone Pickens’ ads on television. But as befits someone who has found his
identity in his songs whether he wanted to or not, talk of Washington circles
back to “The Truth Will Set You Free.”

“I’m glad I wrote it,” Charles says. “I tried to do
something right. I feel good about that. I feel a lot better than a lot of
other people walking around, people who still have Bush and Cheney stickers on
their cars. I can’t handle that.”

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