With a fresh reissue of a key musical artifact newly available, let’s pay our respects to the late swamp-pop godfather.
BY ALEX RAWLS
Ed. note: Back in our third issue (September ’08) we profiled swamp-pop godfather Bobby Charles, born Robert Charles Guidry, whose roots stretch back to the ‘50s and Chess Records. Many fans know him from his association with The Band (whose Rick Danko produced 1972’s Bobby Charles) and his appearance at the Last Waltz. Though known to be reclusive and not one to seek the spotlight, he recorded hits for numerous other musicians, and his solo albums, though few and far between, consistently got the ears of critics and lovers of Americana music alike. Charles died unexpectedly on January 14, 2010, at the age of 71, just a month before his latest album, the Dr. John-produced Timeless, was released. More recently, in February the estimable Light In The Attic label reissued the Charles debut as a gorgeously remastered (from the original tapes, no less) 180 gram LP in a gatefold tip-on sleeves. The music is timeless, so now feels like the right time to republish New Orleans journalist Alex Rawls’ 2008 interview with Charles. Enjoy!—FM
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.”
Bobby Charles Wikipedia page can be found here.
There’s also a good discography located at this fan site.