Bobby Charles: The In-A-While Crocodile
Robert Charles Guidry was leaving a diner in his native Louisiana when he heard the words that would forever make him Bobby Charles. “See you later, alligator,” the 17-year-old jive-talked to a friend, only to hear, like a gospel call-and-response, “In a while, crocodile” from a neighboring patron.
He had been playing teen soirees with a combo called the Cardinals (no relation to the r&b vocal group of the same name) in the small town of Abbeville, Louisiana. He took the phrases, pinned them together, and found himself with a song. It was heard by a record store owner named Charles Redlich, who acted as a talent scout for Chess Records in Chicago. Leonard Chess had Robert sing it over the phone to him, and soon “Bobby Charles” was recording his first single for one of the most bedrock labels of its era. That Bobby was white came as quite a surprise to Chess – especially when Charles traveled north to join one of the r&b chitlin ‘circuit caravans. But with rock and roll percolating in 1956, his color was less important than the gumbo that was New Orleans rock and roll, in which Charles would soon become a storied-ville figure.
Bobby’s song would be covered by Bill Haley and become a national hit, perhaps robbing him of imminent glory, and it prophesied that his greatest fame would be as a songwriter as opposed to the laconic singer and somewhat hermetic figure he would become. In the combine of Cajun and country and rhythm and blues that has come to be known as the sound of New Orleans, Charles’s contributions loom large. His recent passing, on January 14, 2010, at the age of 71, brings into relief a career that embodies the sound of a city which combines linguals like no other in America: the soft and sensual vowels of the French Quarter, the drenching humidity that loosens the limbs, the crossroads of Congo Square as it mixes with the Mardi Gras yah-yah, and a Creole culture which moves its hips to the most sensual of beats.
It was a music that slipped and slid irresistibly across the country, heard in the earliest rockers from Little Richard to Fats Domino, lineaged from the “parade” bands and an element that drummer Earl Palmer called “funk,” that “second line” of percussion which added an extra beat to the underlying rhythm, extending the Dixieland elements so that there was an extra twitch in the groove. Early Jamaican Island Music captures how the sound influenced the earliest ska, where snatches were heard over Gulf Coast radio and translated into island patois. There, at track 16, is one Bobby Charles, singing “Yea, Yea, Yea,” standing at the crossroads of New Orleans ‘many musics.
Despite a Haley-emulating spit-curl, Charles found little success at Chess, and after a dispute about royalties, or lack thereof (he would often find co-writers appended to his songs), he began a diaspora that took him through labels like Imperial and Paula/Jade. His biggest success came in the summer of 1960, when Dave Bartholomew, arranger and producer for Fats Domino, added the violin section of the New Orleans Symphony to Fats ‘version of Bobby’s “Walkin ‘to New Orleans” and took it into the top 10. A year later, Clarence “Frogman” Henry had a hit with Charles ‘composition of “(I Don’t know Why I Love You) But I Do.” Again, the seamier side of the music intruded, and Bobby soon became disenchanted with his recompense and renown.
He would record steadily until the mid ’60s, and Walking To New Orleans: The Jewel and Paula Recordings 1965-1965, captures him right before he decided it wasn’t worth it. He had been offered half of Jewel in return for his “services as a singer and songwriter,” and tracks like “Everybody Knows,” “The Walk,” “One More Glass of Wine” and “I Hope,” surely show he held up his end of the bargain. But label owner Stan Lewis reneged on the deal, and Bobby retreated from the music business for a time. “The Jealous Kind,” covered by such as Joe Cocker, show that this, his more country leanings, had much potential, but by then Charles had enough.
He was lured out of his semi-retirement by the Band. In 1972, he was living in Woodstock, and found that the former Hawks had absorbed much of Bobby’s relaxed behind-the-beat delivery and sense of down-home bonhomie. The self-titled Bobby Charles record they made is surely a classic, perhaps the best capturing of Charles in a sympathetic setting. “I Must Be in a Good Place Now,” or the groovesque “Small Town Talk,” allows his laidback sense of self to tell his tale, without bells or whistles, and the album has since become a much-revered cult classic. He also joined Paul Butterfield on his Better Days album, and made a non-appearance in the Band’s Last Waltz film, unfortunately left on the cutting room floor. By then, he was ready to retreat back to Louisiana, and so he did.
It was a quiet life there, and over the years he would surface to make the occasional album, often turning up in the studio to find instrumentalists like Neil Young, Delbert McClinton, Willie Nelson, Maria Muldaur or even Fats himself waiting to help pay musical respect to him, as in 2003′s Last Train To Memphis. That album, part retrospective (a bonus disc that nibbles from previous ’90s albums like Wish You Were Here Right Now) and introspective (15 newer recordings, put together over a 20-year span), has a consistency that shows how Charles never changed his approach much over the decades. He pays tribute to his Cajun roots with “The Legend of Jolie Blonde,” embraces the New Orleans marching stroll in “Don’t Make A Fool Of Yourself,” and two-steps “Full Moon on the Bayou.” Of especial note is Sonny Landreth‘s Delta slide on “Goin ‘Fishing,” and a big band revisit of “See You Later, Alligator.”
You can hear the original Bobby in full innocence on Only Time Will Tell, along with a selection of his earliest “hits,” like “Take It Easy Greasy” and “No Use Knockin’,” which capture the swampy feel of those who would follow in his wake, from Rod Bernard to Creedence Clearwater. Home Made Songs, from 2008, rambles along the long road he took to return back to where he started, a man seemingly at peace with himself, content to ride out storms (his “coon-ass Riviera” home on the Gulf of Mexico was washed away by Hurricane Rita a few years back) and bask, like a sunning gator, in the simple joys of his music.
Too under-the-weather to attend a tribute show in 2007 at the Fais-Do-Do club, he listened over the phone as Marcia Ball sang his song “The Only Thing Missing Is You.” Dr. John added piano, and would doff his hat in further homage when he produced Bobby’s upcoming Timeless album, currently scheduled for release in February 2010; the album is dedicated to Fats Domino, and hails the Crescent City that gave him so much nurture. Bobby Charles might not have lived to see the Saints affirm New Orleans ‘character or resilience, but in a career that stretched over more than half a century, he was surely sanctified.