Text and Photos by Larry Benicewicz
Beloved Cajun songwriter and singer, Bobby Charles, who authored some of New Orleans’ most indelible compositions, died this past January 14 of complications from diabetes at his home in Abbeville, LA. He was 71.
What was perhaps most amazing about Charles’ enormous creative output was that fact that he could neither read music nor play an instrument. And he considered the telephone answering machine a godsend, and one of society’s greatest inventions. Often inspired while away from home, he used it as a handy mnemonic device, leaving his smoky baritone on the tape, until one of his loyal musician friends could transcribe it. As a result, Charles’ recording sessions had been variously described by studio members as “off the cuff,” “a challenge” and “unorthodox,” but no one ever denied that the finished product was not worth the collective effort.
Charles, who became a recluse for the latter part of his life, explained his choice of a solitary existence. “It’s not that I despise humanity. It’s just that I don’t have a lot in common with other people. And if I did try to talk to them, they wouldn’t believe half the things that happened to me,” he was wont to say. And he indeed would have had quite an incredible tale to tell.
Robert Charles Guidry was born in Abbeville, LA, on February 21, 1938. Being musically predisposed at an early age, he was recruited as a vocalist by a combo of older players, the Cardinals, who specialized in New Orleans R&B and who played teen dances at Charles’ alma mater, Mount Carmel High. After Charles’ novelty number, “Later Alligator,” started making some noise in the region, Charles “Dago” Redlich, a Crowley record store proprietor and sometime talent scout/liaison for Chess Records of Chicago had Charles sing the tune over the phone to Leonard Chess, head honcho of the famed independent race label, who was duly impressed as to its commercial potential. But assuming that Charles was black, he dispatched him to Cosimo Matassa’s studio in New Orleans in order to receive a full R&B treatment of his number from pianist Paul Gayten’s powerhouse outfit. In short, Charles wouldn’t record without being backed by the Cardinals, and Leonard Chess, sensing a major hit within his grasp, relented. But when Chess suggested that he shorten his name, Charles acquiesced.
“Later Alligator” in late 1955 immediately began ascending the R&B charts and by the time Chess discovered that his new find was actually white, contracts had already been signed and the mechanism was already in place for Charles to tour in company with other Chess artists on the so-called “Chitlin’ Circuit” of black theatres (including the Apollo) in order to promote his record, a practice which hitherto was unheard of during that Jim Crow era. And Charles’ life, especially in the Deep South, was in danger on many occasions, being menaced and threatened by the strict segregationists who wished to exact retribution for this “abominable crime” of mingling the races.
As was the custom of the day before the proliferation of black R&B radio stations, white performers like Pat Boone would attempt watered down “cover” versions of race records for the consumption of the white market and Bill Haley in like manner soon appropriated Charles’ song, converting it into a 1956 million seller, and thereby taking a lot of wind out of Charles’ sails. But instead of jettisoning Charles after his hit ran its course, the Chess brothers, Leonard and Phil, decided that the seventeen-year-old Charles with his dark hair, good looks, and spit curl just might be their answer to Elvis Presley, a white boy who could sing R&B. So, they had Charles record with black session men both in Chicago and New Orleans hoping to duplicate the success of Presley. But after a half-dozen subsequent singles, Charles’ expected widespread popular acceptance never materialized.
In 1958, Charles signed with Imperial records, a West Coast mostly R&B concern run by Lew Chudd. But Imperial with trumpeter Dave Bartholomew acting as arranger, producer, talent scout, and A&R man, had a huge presence in the Crescent City with artists on the roster, such as Smiley Lewis, Chris Kenner, Roy Brown, the Spiders, Bobby Mitchell, the Barons, and, last but not least, Fats Domino. Bartholomew as Chudd’s right hand man, assumed the role of recording director for many of Charles’ singles and although Charles himself could not duplicate the triumph of “Later Alligator” during his Imperial tenure, he really blossomed as a composer, augmenting the repertoires of both Fats Domino and Clarence “Frogman” Henry with substantial smashes, including respectively the million sellers, “Walking To New Orleans” and “But I Do.”
After Lew Chudd sold Imperial to Liberty in 1962, Charles became a free agent and returned to the Lafayette area. There he formed his own label, Hub City, a moniker for the Cajun town. But since Charles had no reliable distribution network, his two releases on this short lived enterprise withered on the vine. In 1964, Charles thought he found his salvation in former Chess A&R man, Stan Lewis, who was about to launch his own label, Jewel/Paula, in Shreveport, LA. Charles entered into an agreement with Lewis whereby he would own half the label in return for his services as singer and songwriter. And in the mid-60s, Lewis issued several moderately performing 45 rpms with Charles experimenting in both C&W and soul orientations. But when it came to collecting his royalties, Charles discovered that Lewis had surreptitiously rewritten the contract, leaving him nothing. It was most certainly not the first and the last time that Charles would be manipulated by an unscrupulous record producer.
After this unfortunate turn of events, Charles, now thoroughly disenchanted with the music business, took a temporary hiatus from recording and later relocated to Nashville in quest of new opportunities. In the summer of 1972, on the lam from a minor drug possession charge and traveling under an alias, Charles found himself in the unlikely locale of Woodstock, NY. Seeking a hideout/retreat in the mountains, Charles had a real estate agent direct him to a possible refuge whose tenant just happened to be noted bassist, Jim Colegrove. It was Colegrove who introduced Charles to all the musicians living there (to whom Charles would forge lifelong bonds) like Paul Butterfield with his Better Days sidekicks, guitarists Geoff Muldaur and Amos Garrett. And just down the road in Saugerties, the Band was still ensconced in its venerable rock and roll shrine, Big Pink. Moreover, Colegrove arranged to have Charles meet record mogul, Albert Grossman, who had parlayed his formidable earnings as “uberagent” (Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkle, etc.) into a studio and new label, Bearsville, named for a hamlet just a rock’s throw away. After Charles “made himself handy” in the recording facility there, Grossman suggested that he create an album of his own in exchange for Grossman relieving him of his legal difficulties. The result of this negotiation was the 1972 LP of original compositions, Bobby Charles (BR 2104), which was co-produced by Rick Danko and featured Dr.John, David Sanborn, Ben Keith, Garrett, Muldaur, and other members of the Band. Although far from being the anticipated blockbuster, it nonetheless received much critical acclaim. But evidently Grossman was sufficiently satisfied with the outcome and wanted a follow up. However, it wasn’t long before Charles realized that he was being held virtually as hostage, just as long as Grossman acted as mediator for his precarious position with the court system. Escaping Grossman through a loophole in the “conveniently redrawn” contract, Charles returned to Louisiana a sadder but wiser man. Nevertheless, Charles still cherished his relationship with the Woodstock community and in fact was invited back to participate in the Band’s farewell concert in November, 1976, a star-studded affair which later evolved into a 1978 Martin Scorsese documentary, The Last Waltz.
Following his final relocation to Louisiana, Charles sought to at last found a label in which he had total artistic control, which meant including material that furthered his environmental agenda. And by the late 70s, he copyrighted the Rice ‘N’ Gravy (his favorite Cajun dish) trademark. After finding a manager and producer, Jim Bateman, in whom he could rely implicitly, Charles inaugurated his logo by releasing a handful of 80s singles, including “Clean Water.” By 1995, he issued his first CD on Rice ‘N’ Gravy, Wish You Were Here Right Now, followed by Secrets of the Heart in 1998 (both picked up by the Canadian roots label, Stony Plain) In 2003 came the magnificent double CD, Last Train to Memphis, and Homemade Songs, his penultimate venture, appeared in 2008.
In the thread of the years, Bobby Charles, with such an immense oeuvre of memorable classics to his credit, could not help but be “discovered,” both by other artists wanting to interpret his compositions or by Hollywood directors wishing to utilize them as backdrops to their cinematic releases. Among the notable versions of his tunes by other singers is Joe Cocker’s 1976 take on “The Jealous Kind,” Kris Kristofferson’s reading of the haunting and wistful, “Tennessee Blues” (from the Bearsville album), Muddy Waters’ inimitable, bluesy rendition of “Why Are People Like That,” and UB40’s reggae “spin” on his “Groovin’ Out on Love” from the 1989 multi-platinum CD, Labour of Love 2. And a song like Frogman Henry’s “But I Do” made its way on the 1994 Forrest Gump soundtrack; whereas one of Charles’ Chess singles, “You Can Suit Yourself,” can be heard in the background of the 2004 film, Miracle on Ice.
As time goes by, Bobby Charles will undoubtedly be more and more acknowledged and appreciated for his enduring contributions to the Great American Songbook. Keith Spera in his thoughtful obituary of Charles in The Times-Picayune included a quote so typical of his: “I never wanted to be a star. If I could just make it writing, I’d be happy. Thank God I’ve been lucky enough to have a lot of people do my songs.” But actually it is we that are truly the lucky ones. Although this American original is gone, we’ll always be able to share the treasures that Bobby Charles left behind for us.
Larry Benicewicz, Baltimore Blues Society
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