Bobby Charles (Born 21/02/1938)
|Far more successful as a songwriter than a recording artist, Bobby's relatively rare forays into the recording studio are still excellent examples of the New Orleans / Louisiana take on R&B and swamp pop. He was born Robert Charles Guidry in the country town of Abbeville and grew up listening first to traditional Cajun music and then R&B and very early rock'n'roll.
As a teenager, Charles began singing with a band called the Cardinals. Only around fourteen years old at the time and performing at Mount Carmel High School dances, he wrote 'See You Later Alligator', which eventually came to the attention of Leonard Chess around the time that the Chicago label was beginning to make an impression on the national charts. Chess arranged for Charles to record the song in New Orleans, released the single in 1955 and signed him sight unseen - creating the Bobby Charles moniker at the same time. The song has of course gone on to be recorded by many others, selling millions along the way. Bobby had some limited success as an artist with Chess, recording a number of R&B tracks that were already beginning to show a strong Cajun influence in their writing.
It was as a songwriter however that he increasingly began to find a degree of consistent success. The most obvious examples of this early work include the Fats Domino hit 'Walkin' To New Orleans' and Clarence 'Gatemouth' Henry's 'But I Do'. Charles was still recording in the 60s, albeit sporadically, and was already beginning to experiment, adding a country influence to the basic cajun flavoured R&B mix.
After that his material continued to be recorded by a wide range of artists, but Charles himself kept a relatively low profile. He appeared with his friends the Band at their "Last Waltz" extravaganza (performing the infectious 'Way Down Yonder In New Orleans') and he produced the album "Clean Water" in 1986, which I believe was a Europe only release. In 1995 he put together "Wish You Were Here Right Now", which the Primer thought was excellent but which again didn't really sell in the numbers it deserved. It consisted largely of material he recorded in 1992 and 1993 and included contributions from Neil Young, Fats Domino and the great slide player Sonny Landreth. A follow up ("Secrets Of The Heart") was released in 1998.
The album to get, however, if you are knew to Charles as a recording artist, is the 2004 release "Last Train To Memphis". A 2CD set, the first pulls together unreleased material from the 70s, 80s and 90s and includes a great cajun version of 'See You Later Alligator'. The second, bonus CD includes material from previous albums such as "Wish You Were Here Right Now" and others. Together, they showcase not only what a great writer Charles is, but also how effortlessly he puts together the wonderful, relaxed sound of New Orleans. As one reviewer put it, all the good things about roots Americana are here - an encyclopaedia of modern American music and universal and timeless as a result. For those who thought Americana took hold in the early 90s, think again!
Charles' songs have been recorded by the likes of Ray Charles, Etta James, Lou Rawls, Junior Wells, Joe Cocker, Muddy Waters, Delbert McClinton, Amos Garrett, Wilson Pickett and Paul Butterfield. Many of them have been wonderful recordings of great material, but there's nothing to beat the original - accept no substitute. Bobby's interpretations of his own material are unique, and yet they feel like songs you've been listening to all your life.