Bobby Charles died on 14th January 2010 at the age of 71. He was famed as the writer of ’See You Later, Alligator’, ’Walking To New Orleans’, ’But I Do’ and ‘The Jealous Kind’. Stories concerning Cajun-born Bobby abounded: ”…he is a hermit…”; ”…he talks to no-one…” etc., etc.. Indeed, in 1986 swamp pop singer Johnnie Allan told me he was ”…very much a hermit. He still lives in the same place, in his little shack in the woods between Lafayette and Abbeville and still refuses to talk to anybody”. However, Bobby Charles has been interviewed. In 1987 Johnnie took John Broven to that same ‘little shack’ and I am indebted to John for use of that interview in this article. All uncredited quotes are Bobby’s own words. Johnnie also took me there in 1989, and that was some experience! So here is the tale of an enigma – a precocious teenage prodigy who turned into a shy and rather bitter introvert – yet he continued to write (and record) marvellous songs. Read on!
SEE YOU LATER, ALLIGATOR
”I just had the saying ’See you later, alligator’ and I had been singing with this little band in Abbeville and I was walking out one night after we had finished playing, we had all stopped and eaten at the Old Midway …and I was leaving and my piano player was sittin’ on the last booth, and I turned around and I said, ’See you later, alligator’ and they had two other couples that was sittin’ on the booth in front of him and they were both really wiped out, man, and one of the girls as I was walkin’ out the door (this all happened like that [snaps fingers]), said something as the door was closing. I stopped in my tracks and I was going to meet these guys that were giving me a ride home. I said, ’Wait a minute man, I’ll be right back’. I ran back in there and I asked the girl, ’What did you just say?’. She said, ’After a while, crocodile’. I said, ’That’s it! I love you’ and I went home and I wrote it in about fifteen minutes. The night that I wrote the song I knew, I could feel it, I went to sleep with a smile on my face. I could hear people all over the world saying it – it was really strange, but it’s true, it was just one of those feelings that you get when you do something.”
Bobby first offered the song to his hero Fats Domino when Fats played Robinson’s Recreation Center in Abbeville. After Bobby clambered on the bandstand, Fats “looked at me like I was crazy and said, ‘I don’t know about alligators and stuff like that’ and passed on the song”. In 1955, the opportunity arose for Bobby to record the number himself and, of course, it was soon covered, first by Roy Hall and then by Bill Haley who had a massive smash hit which became his third million seller.
”I WAS BORN LOVING MUSIC”
Bobby’s musical interests had begun back in the bayous around Abbeville, Louisiana, where he was born Robert Charles Guidry into a Cajun family on 21st February 1938. He dropped his surname for professional purposes.
”I come from a very poor family, we didn’t have anything. My daddy was a real hard-working man, he delivered oil and gas to the farmers in the area. He worked like a dog all his life. He had no help, I was his real helper. He worked for some people who had a Texaco bulk plant. He didn’t work for Texaco itself, he worked for some people who were distributing their product. Back then it was pretty hard! Since I can remember as a child, before I was in school, my brother and sister would come home with song books, they were in the chorus, and I just looked through the song book and I couldn’t read anything but if they told me it was a song book, I’d just start singing, making up my own stuff as I went along. I’m still doin’ the same thing. I was born loving music.
Among his influences, Bobby listed Hank Williams, Fats Domino, Ray Charles, Percy Mayfield and “a lot of French music,” especially ‘Jole Blon’ by Harry Choates. Bobby’s parents listened to French programmes on the radio but he soon found hillbilly and rhythm & blues stations on the dial.
When Bobby had inspiration he composed songs quickly, wrote down the lyrics and retained the melody in his head until he could get it down on tape. Alternatively, if he was away from home, he would telephone his home number and sing the song into his answering machine pending a musician friend transcribing it at a later date. At school he found himself in the company of drummer and vocalist, Warren Storm (who is nowadays dubbed the Godfather of Swamp Pop).
”We used to make demos in the bathroom, in the bath tub, so we could get an echo – our echo chamber. I’d get an idea for a new song, I’d call Warren, I’d say, ’Man, you gotta come and play drums’. He’d say, ’I don’t have no drums’. I say, ‘That’s alright, we gonna hit on a can in the bath tub!’. [Warren] was born with talent.” As Warren told writer Shane K. Bernard, “I had a tape recorder and he didn’t have one. We’d go to his house and he’d hum the melody and I’d strum the chords”. At this time Bobby “wrote songs as a hobby but didn’t take it seriously because it was so easy”.
”NOT ’LATER ’GATOR’, MAN!”
In due course, Bobby joined a local band from Abbeville called The Cardinals which, due to duplication of name with another vocal group, was subsequently re-christened The Clippers. They asked me if I would sing with ’em ’cause I used to always walk around singin’ to myself. I just loved the music, I lived in a world of music.” The lineup was Rauol Prado, Carlo Marino, Harry Simoneaux (tenor saxophones), Larry Guidry (guitar), Ed Leblanc (piano) and Kenneth Theriot (drums).
Bobby’s first recording session came after a gig ”in Crowley, Louisiana one night, a high school graduation. As elsewhere, the audience kept requesting ‘See You Later, Alligator.’ After the show, Charles ‘Dago’ Redlich, of Dago’s Record Shop of Crowley, told Bobby that Leonard Chess of Chess Records had invited Redlich to contact him if he ran into any interesting artist or song.
“Dago told me that he had never called him but that he would like to call him if I would go over to his record shop the next day because he really liked the song said Bobby”
Following a telephone audition, Chess arranged for an immediate recording session at Cosimo Matassa’s J. & M. Studios in New Orleans. After driving there one night after a gig “man, we were just wiped out when we got there, but we went into the studio and we put down four or five sides and mailed them to Chess”. It is said that there were twenty five attempts at ’See You Later, Alligator’. When the record was released, Bobby was distraught at seeing the title shortened to plain ‘Later Alligator.’ As he told Leonard Chess, the whole point of the song’s great catchphrase was lost, “It’s not ‘Later ‘Gator’ man. So he changed the label and he put the right title on it. But he listened to me, to a young kid. I made sense to him.” Bobby felt the recording would have been better (and more successful) if it had been cut with Cosimo’s expert studio band, rather than The Clippers – a fact agreed by sax soloist Harry Simoneaux. Despite Bobby’s comment, ‘Alligator’ did reach number 14 on the Billboard R&B chart, while his third release, ‘Time Will Tell’, went even higher to number 11.
Included in the Fats’ / Cosimo studio band at the time were Lee Allen, Alvin ’Red’ Tyler and Charles ’Hungry’ Williams.
”I loved ‘Hungry’, man, he was great. He and I were really close, big friends. I loved his drumming. He and Earl Palmer were the two best drummers. Earl played on some of my sessions, Huey ’Piano’ Smith, Allen Toussaint, just a lot of good people, all my favourite people -how lucky can you get? You can’t put a price on something like that.
”I met Paul Gayten in New Orleans, he was producing the session. Paul and I got on pretty good for a while. You always run into problems when the songwriting comes in and people want to change a couple of lines and all of a sudden they think that they own part of the songwriting. And I didn’t want to change a line, I want the song the way that I wrote it because I wrote it for myself. I didn’t write it for anybody else. If I didn’t have to eat I wouldn’t sing my songs to anybody else, I’d keep ’em to myself, that’s how personal they are to me. To me they’re not songs, it’s my feelings that come out and they’re expressing with a melody – some people call ’em songs.”
The importance of Charles’ recording of ’On Bended Knee’, the flipside of ’See You Later, Alligator’, should not be underestimated. Johnnie Allan:
”It was probably the forerunner [of swamp pop] because he released it in 1955 and that’s really what started it. None of the others had recorded anything, there were no swamp pop songs recorded before that. So he was the front runner so far as swamp pop music was concerned.” Rod Bernard: ”Bobby Charles really had so much to do with swamp pop. ’On Bended Knee’ was a typical South Louisiana ballad. It was just a typical, beautiful South Louisiana song. And a lot of those things we did are based on the same tune, you could take that same music track and sing maybe a hundred South Louisiana songs. You had the same type of music, the piano triplets… it’s almost identical, the phrasing, the structure of the song. Musically they’re almost all identical, and the melodies are a little different to each one.”
So, with other swamp pop ballads like ’Why Did You Leave’ and ’Why Can’t You’ inspiring young South Louisiana musicians such as Johnnie Allan, Rod Bernard, Jimmy Clanton, Phil Phillips and Warren Storm, and New Orleans R&B rockers like ’Laura Lee’ and ’One Eyed Jack’ opening doors for youthful New Orleans artists such as Frankie Ford, Dr. John and Jerry Byrne, the significance and status of Bobby Charles in the history of music can be recognised.
”HE WAS WAITIN’ FOR ME TO CHANGE COLOUR”
In due course Leonard Chess decided to record Bobby in Chicago so a plane ticket was sent. ”All this time that we’d been talking on the telephone he thought I was a black guy. I’d never been on an airplane before in my life, and I got over there and it was really funny, they had this one guy waitin’ around for about an hour, and they kept lookin’ for a black guy. I kept seein’ this one guy over there with this good lookin’ little blonde headed girl and I said, ’Wow, man, I wonder who that was’. And after everybody else had left, that guy comes up to me, says, ’You couldn’t be Bobby Charles by any chance?’ and I said, ’Yeah’. This was Phil Chess, Leonard’s brother. He says,
’Good God! Leonard’s gonna’ have a heart attack, he’s never gonna believe this’.
It was a Friday night. He gave me a couple of 100 dollar bills, got us a room and says,
’Look, have a nice weekend, enjoy yourself and I’ll see you in the office Monday morning’.
And when I walked into that office, Leonard Chess just kept lookin’ at me like he was waitin’ for me to change colour!
He says, ’You’re not black’, I said, ’No, but I’m Cajun though – is that close enough?”.
So Bobby Charles became the first white artist to be signed by Chess even if it was a total mistake, and before Dale Hawkins with ‘Susie-Q’. Backing musicians on Bobby’s Chicago recordings included members of the Muddy Waters and Little Walter bands.
There were tours with fellow Chess artists such as Chuck Berry, including one where Bobby shared Chuck’s car. This led to inter-racial confrontations where the two barely escaped with their lives in Texas and Mississippi. Ironically,
”a lot of the white girls just liked Chuck. He’d get up there on the stage, man, and he’d just turn them on and some of those white cowboys didn’t go for that. So we had to hurry up and get out of town, man, before the show was over. They were still hangin’ ’em back then – they still give you 2,000 years in Texas, you know, they do, it’s the truth! They got some people, man, in prison right now, serving over 2,000 years for smokin’ a joint!” (laughter).
In another incident at the University of Mississippi Chuck and some band members rescued Bobby from some Ole Miss footballers who resented the fact that Bobby was appearing with Chuck.
In his biography, Chuck recalls a Harlem Apollo audience giving Bobby Charles (the only white artist on the bill) the bird throughout his performance. However, this may not have been a racial response as similar treatment was awarded to any black performer who failed to please the critical Apollo crowd.
On the rock n roll package tours, Bobby appeared with many acts, including The Platters, Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers, Shirley & Lee, The Cleftones and Little Richard. He also worked with Dick Clark.
”I met Dick Clark before he had his TV show, ’Bandstand’.” One of the songs he sang on that programme was ’One Eyed Jack’. ”My mother woke me up one morning and I’d got a telegram from Colonel Tom Parker who was Elvis Presley’s manager, and he asked me for some songs for Elvis’ next session and I called him and told him, ’I got a couple of songs that maybe might work, that you might do’.” However, Leonard Chess intervened, saying, ‘If you feel the songs are that good, why don’t you go in and record them?’
So I went in and I recorded them and he never did send them to the Colonel, he says, ’To hell with Elvis and the Colonel’. I couldn’t believe it ’cause I’d met Elvis in Memphis and he told me that he liked my music and he asked me to send him some stuff.” Hence ’One Eyed Jack’ was fated not to appear on the RCA label.
Bobby’s Chess recordings have recently been collated on a Bear Family CD. Included are such great titles as ’See You Later, Alligator’, ’Watch It Sprocket’ and ’Take It Easy Greasy’, descriptive phrases that create images of the period.
”THE STARVING ARTIST WAS THE BEST ARTIST”
Despite a very close (father/son) relationship with Leonard Chess, Bobby was not paid all his dues. Asked about royalties from ’See You Later, Alligator’, he replies,
”I’m still gettin’ paid on it. I just wished I would have known the collection agencies that I have now, back then. Probably I’d be a lot better off. But it takes time, they try to hide all that from you, they don’t want you to know. Leonard Chess was convinced that the starving artist was the best artist, then you’d produce your best material. He really felt that way. He didn’t believe in spoiling his artist ’cause he didn’t wanna lose that thing that they had, that hungry feeling that they had – that’s what Leonard used to tell me. He said, ’Man, everybody I know does that best when they’re hungry, and you do too, you’re no different, you do your best work when you’re hungry!’ I said, ’Great man. Now can you loan me ten dollars for a hamburger or sumpin’. Then I’ll starve myself… I’ve gotta’ eat if I’m gonna do another one’.”
In 1958, after cutting a dozen or so sides for J.D. Miller in Crowley (which were initially unreleased with the exception of a couple of tracks included on a Flyright compilation album), Bobby was approached by Imperial Records.
”After I wrote ’Walking To New Orleans’ for Fats *, Lew Chudd wanted me to go over to Imperial because they smelled that publishing money and they thought that when somebody sings and writes his own material it’s a lot better for a record company than an artist that doesn’t write his own and he has to depend on someone else for the material, ’cause that’s like two in one I guess.”
Bobby recorded songs like ’Those Eyes’, ’What A Party’ and ’Four Winds’ but is unsure how sales went: ”I never got paid for any. I wouldn’t know.” His songwriting deal at Imperial was similarly disastrous – it was ”a bad one! I’d write the songs and they’d take ’em. I’d write the songs and everybody’d get a piece of it and they’d all get the publishing. I didn’t like my songwriting deal with Imperial too much at all”.
Whilst at Imperial, Bobby was produced by Dave Bartholomew.
”It was strange for Dave ’cause I don’t think he had ever worked with too many white boys before and that was kinda funny. I told him that if he didn’t behave he was gonna have to come on the road with me and do it in public. I said, ’If you don’t start treatin’ me nice, man, I’m gonna make you come and sing with me on the road’. He laughed. Me and Dave got along good. He’s a smart business man – made a lot of money back then.”
As at the date of writing, none of the Imperial recordings have been reissued by EMI on LP or CD.
* This appears to be incorrect as ’Before I Grow Old’ and ’Walking To New Orleans’ were not recorded until 1960 – P.H.
”GET YOUR OWN DAMN PAPER!”
Bobby once said that he never sat down for the explicit purpose of writing a song.
“When they come, they come. It’s like the song’s already written and it just takes something or somebody to punch that button to let it out”.
For example, in 1960, Bobby started having his songs recorded by the likes of Fats Domino and Clarence ’Frogman’ Henry. The first Guidry song that Fats recorded was ’Before I Grow Too Old’ which was written as the result of marital conflict.
”Well, I’ll be honest with you. I’d just gotten married and I had a kid and I was partyin’ and stuff and I came home one night all loaded and the wife would say, ’Are you gonna do this all the rest of your life?’. I said, ’Well, maybe I wanna hurry up and do everything before I grow too old’. I said, ’Get me a paper and a pencil!’ She says, ’Get your own damn paper and pencil!!'”
Despite this distinct lack of co-operation, Bobby went ahead and wrote the song. The day after it was recorded, he went to watch Fats perform at a club in Lafayette.
”When I went to see him, he said, ’Man, I wished I’d have brought what we did last night, I cut one of your songs last night’. I said, ’Oh, really, man I wish you’d brought it’. [Fats:] ’Well listen man, you oughta come to New Orleans, come visit with me, you know.’ I said, ’I’m sorry, but I just don’t have the money to make it’. He said, ’Fly over there, get a ride or something’. I said, ’No man, I just can’t afford it – about the only way I could get there would be to walk’. And as soon as I said that, I said, ’Well Fats, I’ll see you later’ and I jumped in the car (there was a couple of friends that were giving me a ride) and I wrote ’Walking To New Orleans’ on the way back home in about ten minutes. Next time I saw him I sang it to him and he liked it so he did it. He did another one too, called ’It Keeps Rainin”.”
”There’s a story behind that song. We had gone to the studio and we put down a rhythm track to a song that I’d written called ’Little Rascal’. Fats was in Detroit doing a show. When they sent it to him they left the vocal off so he didn’t know anything about the song, about ’Little Rascal’, but he liked the rhythm track so much that he sat down and he wrote another song but he called it ’It Keeps Rainin”. So I said, ’Well, here’s my chance to get even, I want one third of that song ’cause he’s used my rhythm track on it’ and he had to give it to me because that’s what they would do with my changes. But I still think my words were better.” ‘Those Eyes’ was another Charles composition recorded in 1962 by Fats, of whom Bobby says, ”I don’t like Fats Domino – I love Fats Domino! Fats is always real nice to me, a beautiful person ”.
Among the songs waxed in 1960 and 1961 by Clarence ’Frogman’ Henry were ’But I Do’, ’Just My Baby And Me’, ’I Want To Be A Movie Star’, ’Steady Date’, ’Little Suzy’, ’Why Can’t You’ and ’Your Picture’, which Johnnie Allan also recorded. Clarence recalls: ”Bobby was a white/black artist – he sing like a black guy and that was something new to the people. Bobby did tours with black guys during the hard times – he went right along because he was so downhome. He had no colour barrier, he was raised that way and he got with the guys that he wanted to be with, the musical guys”.
”THE SOUND THAT THE WORLD WILL NEVER FORGET”
Although he never attended a Domino recording session, Bobby was once booked to record the day after such an occasion.
”It took ’em like three hours to get rid of all the empty bottles! The clean-up crew had a hell of a job. They’d do a lot of takes, Fats would do like maybe thirty or forty takes on one song.”
These recordings were made in Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Studio in North Rampart Street.
”Cosimo cut a lot of hits in that little studio. The first time I walked in there he had a shoe-shine shop; it was a real narrow place about six or eight feet wide, if that, and it was long and you walked all the way through. They had like about two dozen shoe-shine chairs, and you sit up there and get your shoes shined, and all the way up the end of that shoe-shine parlour there was a door and you walked through there and there was a studio – that was Cosimo’s. Then later on he bought the place on Governor Nichols [Street], a bigger studio.
”Cosimo would always wear the same thing: a white T-shirt, white socks and black shoes and dark trousers. I’ve never seen him dress any other way. He could have a million dollars in the bank but he wouldn’t wear a shirt with arms. He was quite comfortable and that was it. I’ve never seen him with a dress shirt in my life. He was a real good engineer. He was a top engineer in his time I would guess – with all the hits he put out of there he must have been doin’ somethin’ right. I’d say he was an influence [on the sessions]. Those walls you know, just the place, it was somethin’. To me he got some of the best sounding records to this day that I’ve heard. I just like the sound that he got from the equipment that he had to work with. I’m sure that he didn’t have the best equipment in the world, but he had the equipment that gave us the sound that the world will never forget.”
”PEOPLE ARE THE BEST NATURAL RESOURCE”
In 1963 Bobby was completely disillusioned with his treatment by record companies, and set up his own label, Hub City Records, the title, apparently, being a nickname for Lafayette.
”It was one of those good plans that just didn’t work. It looked good on paper. I didn’t wanna do business with any more people that I had been doing some business with. I wanted to try to start something in Louisiana because I felt Louisiana was where the music was coming from and it was being taken from us and being brought somewhere else. And it’s still being done the same way today. We should be one of the sellers of the universe of the music. But we let all that slip away ’cause as soon as they come down on an airplane from California and New York with a $20,000 cheque front money, they’ll sell out right away and they’ll think that they’re somethin’ real smart and they wind up owning nothing of what they had before. I’ve always wanted to try to help make people really understand that it’s the people of Louisiana that are the best natural resource that we have, not the oil or the gas or the crawfish.”
”I STAYED OUT OF IT BUT I WAS STILL IN IT”
Bobby was also involved in the creation of Jewel Records in conjunction with Stan Lewis, a man of humble origins who became the South’s largest independent record distributor.
”Stan and I were supposed to own it half [and half] ’cause I’m not a business man – at that age I didn’t know what to do about business. But I was still writin’ songs and trying to get something going. I got taken for a ride on that too, so then I got really depressed and disappointed with the business so I just stayed away from it. But I never quit writing; I stayed out of it but I was still in it, I guess… inside of me.”
In the mid-sixties, Bobby had four releases on Jewel, all recorded at Carol Rachou’s La Louisianne Studio in Lafayette, but met with only local success, notably with ’One More Glass Of Wine’. Personally I highly rate the mournful, atmospheric ‘I Hope’.
In 1965, a release on the related label Paula appeared but, as Bobby says, ”During that period I was living another life you might say, trying to make a marriage work [he had four sons]. It was a good try but it just didn’t work.”
”INSIDE OF MY HEART IS NOTHING BUT SONGS”
A long silence followed until, in 1972, an LP entitled simply ’Bobby Charles’ appeared on the Bearsville label. It included a powerful ’(Before I) Grow Too Old’, and a beautiful song entitled ’Small Town Talk’.
”I was sittin’ down in the Bearsville bar in New York one afternoon and this friend of mine, Billy, he had a drinkin’ problem. And his wife was workin’ there and she was a real sweetheart man, only a young girl – she got really upset and it was the first time I had seen her lose it. She got really upset when she saw how loaded he was at the bar that time of the day. I’d just gotten down there and sat down and I ordered myself something to drink and I was talkin’ to Billy… Billy was wobbling in the chair and he had one other guy sittin’ down at the other end of the bar that I didn’t know. And then Billy’s wife came and she threw her glass on the bar and broke it, and right away I saw that other guy’s eyes and I says, ’It’s gonna’ be all over town – small town talk’. And man, it hit me, and she passed by me and she says, ’Bobby, I’m so sorry, I really didn’t mean to do that.’ I says, ’Don’t apologise, you have no idea what you just did. Just get me a pencil and a piece of paper please’. She said, ’That sound like you probably gonna’ write something.’ I said, ’It gonna be somethin’good, something nice. I hope that you understand’. And she understood. She liked the song.”
Backing musicians on this fine album (which was reissued on the See For Miles label) included Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Geoff Muldaur and Mac Rebennack (Dr. John). (Some of these will be recognised as members of The Band, and Bobby returned the compliment by appearing on their 1972 album ’Rock Of Ages’ and, in 1978, at their grand farewell performance, ’The Last Waltz’.) This album was greatly admired by the late Charlie Gillett who provided publicity by playing tracks regularly on his BBC Radio London programme ‘Honky Tonk’.
”I JUST ENJOY MY OWN PRIVACY”
So Charles retreated again into his Abbeville hermitage to concentrate on songwriting.
”I love living in the country, I just don’t like living in cities. I just enjoy my own privacy. It’s not that I don’t like neighbours or anything like that. I’ve never really wanted to be a star, whatever that is. I was just always happy making other people happy. If they liked my music that was good enough for me. I really don’t care to get out there. I don’t even like to go to the grocery store in public.” Surprisingly, in view of his teenage excursion into the world of music, Bobby claims to have ”…been a shy person all my life. I was born that way. I’ll probably die that way. I don’t mean any disrespect to anyone, that’s just the way it is. I don’t mean to be rude. I just really don’t like answering the same questions a hundred times a day to the same people. It’s hard to say that there are very few things you have in common with everybody else around here, but as far as business goes there really are very few things that I have in common. I go to talk to somebody over here and if I mention somethin’ about a song or somethin’, they look at me like ’What is this?’, so I just don’t even go to town and talk to anybody any more.”
In view of this attitude I feel privileged that in 1979, accompanied by John Broven, we tracked down Bobby Charles among the crowds at The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and I was allowed to talk to him, to obtain an autograph and to take two greatly treasured photographs.
”I KNOW THE RIGHT CHORD WHEN I HEAR IT”
Bobby admitted that he could not read or write a note of music. As far as his knowledge of musical instruments was concerned, he could not even ‘play a radio’.
”I sing a song to Willie Nelson and Neil Young or somebody like that, I’ll tell them that they’re playin’ the wrong chord. They just look at me really weird ’cause they know what they doin’ and they say, ’What do you mean, the wrong chord?’, and I say, ’Well, hit some other chords’. They hit some other chords and when they hit the right one I say, ’Well, that’s the one right there’. I know the right chord when I hear it, I just don’t know what it is.”
Around 1986, Bobby recorded enough songs for an album with the aforementioned Nelson and Young and members of their bands. One band member, Ben Keith
”…asked me if I had any new songs. I said that I did and I sang him a couple of ’em and he said, ’Man, let’s go in the studio and do ’em right now’. So we went in, we got some time and we started doin’ some songs and before we knew it we were on our way to finishing another complete album and I just felt really good about this. This is the record that I’ve always dreamed of making. This is the first time I get to make MY record the way that I wanted to make it, from cover to cover.”
The album in question was released in 1987. Produced by Bobby’s own Rice ’n’ Gravy company (so-called after Bobby’s favourite Cajun dish), it was entitled ’Clean Water’ and was issued in Germany by Zensor. It included a version of ’But I Do’, performed in a very different manner to Clarence ’Frogman’ Henry, plus nine more Charles compositions, many of which were well worth a place in any record collection. The title track reflected Bobby’s interest in ecology: ”I’m trying to clean all the waters of the world. It’s a big project but I think we can do it”. Three years later when he autographed the sleeve of my copy of the album he wrote “Smile – Better Days are coming”. These sentiments are particularly ironic in view of the recent BP oil leakage into the Gulf of Mexico and the disastrous consequences. It is difficult to understand why airplay was so difficult to come by in Louisiana at the time when four singles were released, even though the album was not originally issued in the States.
”They play Cajun in Berlin, Germany before they play it in Lafayette, Louisiana which is the Cajun capital of the world and that’s embarrassing to me, it really is.”
”I DIDN’T THINK ANYBODY THOUGHT ABOUT ME”
Bobby would have been surprised to know that there were three albums available in Europe at that time because, as he told John Broven, he was unaware of his fame abroad:
”I didn’t think anybody ever thought about me at all really. I had no idea.”
He was a very modest man despite his considerable songwriting talents and his important position in the history of both rock n roll and swamp-pop
A VISIT TO THE RETREAT
In 1989 I was fortunate enough to pay my third visit to Louisiana, and thought it would be appropriate to try and make contact with the legendary songwriter/singer/recluse. I knew it would be difficult, but thanks to the good services of gentleman Johnnie Allan and the fact that Bobby was ”pleased” with the articles published in Now Dig This magazine that I had written, I was invited to visit his abode which Johnnie somehow managed to find in the wilds of Swamp Country. What an amazing sight awaited me as we turned the corner and the Guidry ’estate’ came into view. There were beds of roses and flowers, a newly built trellis-work bridge with hanging baskets, a river running in from a bayou and the house (I had previously quoted Johnny’s description of it as a ’shack’ and Bobby pointedly commented upon this) which was a large rambling wooden structure with a covered ’yard’ complete with swing. Dogs ran to greet us and then, there was Bobby Charles casually dressed in shorts. He took us inside the house where there were more surprises. Not only were there cages of brightly coloured little birds, but there were also aviaries full of them! Each bird was individually named; there was Elvis, Mardi-Gras, Tarzan, Magic, etc., etc..
Even more surprising was an aquarium containing a pair of pet crawfish – you don’t have crawfish as pets for God’s sake, you just eat them! Bobby had studied their lifestyle carefully and could accurately describe their methods of love-making! There were more crawfish in a tank in the yard. All this brought home to me Bobby’s real back-to-nature existence – but even so, I still found it difficult to believe he had a pet alligator!! Yes, appropriately enough, 37 years after writing ’See You Later, Alligator’, Bobby could use the phrase in its literal sense. A member of the ’family’ since it was four inches long (it was then four feet long), the ’gator answered to the name of Gaboon and allegedly ”eats anything that wouldn’t eat it first.” During the mating season it would swim up-river to the bayou to try its luck there – but it always returned and really did answer to its name.
Despite his idyllic environment, Bobby was still very bitter about the mistreatment of musicians in general (”There’s no nice people in this business. Everybody makes a living offa everybody else”); of songwriters in particular (”The song is the seed of the whole music business. Without the f*****g song they ain’t got no record companies, they ain’t got no managers… and that [the songwriter] is the first person that they’ll try to take advantage of, everything he’s got… eat his heart out.”); and of Louisiana artists locally (”The disc jockeys around here, man, you oughta take ’em all and put ’em in a f*****g sack and throw ’em all in a f*****g bayou, man. [They] will not play a Johnnie Allan record or a Bobby Charles record or anybody’s record around here on a regular programme. They will not support, much less promote the local artist.”) It should be noted that things have changed for the better since then with several local radio stations being devoted to Louisiana music. The Governor and State Officials came in for similar criticism concerning lack of support for local artists. Luckily for me, Bobby’s earlier frame of mind was such that he allowed me to photograph proceedings without any restrictions for which I was extremely grateful.
Bobby remained determined to live in isolation. His closing comment was well worth recording for posterity: ”If you see anyone I know, tell ’em ’Hi’. Just don’t tell ’em how to get here!”
There were housing problems to come for Bobby. The house near Abbeville that I had visited was burned down in the mid-nineties and Bobby moved to Holly Beach, Louisiana. In September 2005 that residence was wrecked by Hurricane Rita. Bobby lost everything he owned and moved back to the Abbeville area where he lived in a double-width trailer. At least Bobby did eventually receive some recognition of his talents when in 2007 he was inducted into the Louisiana Music hall of Fame. He died at home as a result of diabetes and kidney cancer on 14th January 2010. His last album entitled ‘Timeless’ appeared shortly after his death and was dedicated to Fats Domino – “A great man, a great friend, a great inspiration” – his love for Fats never faded. Indeed, the bird pictured on the album is named ‘Domino’ and gave its seal of approval by chirruping loudly when it first heard demos from the album!
Death always seems to concentrate the mind and since Bobby’s passing I have played a lot of his music which has really brought home to me his genius, primarily as a songwriter but also as a singer. Johnnie Allan said,
“He had a lot of adversity, but he always seemed to overcome it. I lost a good friend but, my god, the songs that man wrote. The world’s lost a great songwriter”. See ya later Bobby!
Interview with Bobby Charles by John Broven, 1987
Interview with Clarence ’Frogman’ Henry by Paul Harris, 1984
Interview with Johnnie Allan by Paul Harris, 1986
’South To Louisiana: The Music of the Cajun Bayous’ by John Broven, published by Pelican Publishing Company, Gretna, Louisiana, U.S.A., 1983
’Chuck Berry – The Autobiography’, published by Faber & Faber, U.K., 1987
‘Swamp Pop – Cajun and Creole Rhythm And Blues’ by Shane K. Bernard, published by the University Press of Mississippi, U.S.A., 1996
‘After A While Crocodile – The Bobby Charles Story Part One’ by Paul Harris, Now Dig This 68, November 1988
‘After A While Crocodile – The Bobby Charles Story Part Two’ by Paul Harris, Now Dig This 69, December 1988
‘Seen You Later Alligator’ by Paul Harris, Now Dig This 77, August 1989
Liner notes to Bobby Charles CD entitled ‘Walking To New Orleans (The Jewel and Paula Recordings 1964-65)’ by Paul Harris on West Side WESA 874.
Bobby Charles Discography
See You Later, Alligator/ On Bended Knee Chess 1609
Why Did You Leave / Don’t You Know I Love You Chess 1617
Time Will Tell / Take It Easy Greasy Chess 1628
Laura Lee / No Use Knocking Chess 1638
Why Can’t You / Put Your Arms Around Me, Honey Chess 1647
You Can Suit Yourself/ No More (I Ain’t Gonna’ Love You No More) Chess 1658
One Eyed Jack / Yea Yea Baby Chess 1670
Since She’s Gone / At The Jamboree Imperial 5542
Since I Lost You / Oh Yeah Imperial 5557
What Can I Do / The Town Is Talking Imperial 5579
Bye Bye Baby / Those Eyes Imperial 5642
What A Party / I Just Want You Imperial 5681
Four Winds / Nothing As Sweet As You Imperial 5691
Goodnight Irene /I Don’t Know Farie 21018
Big Boy’s Cry / You Made Me Love You Hub-City 715
Sometimes / 24 Hours Hub-City 716
Everybody’s Laughing / Everyone Knows Hub-City ???
Everybody’s Laughing / Everyone Knows Jewel 728
I Hope / Goodnight Irene Jewel 729
Ain’t Misbehavin’ / Preacher’s Daughter Jewel 735
One More Glass Of Wine / Oh Lonesome Me Jewel 740
Worrying Over You / The Walk Paula 226
I Hope / One More Glass Of Wine Jin 1030
Small Town Talk / Save Me Jesus Bearsville 0010
Lonesome Christmas / Lonesome Christmas Rice ’n’ Gravy RG 22139
Party Town / Full Moon On The Bayou Rice ’n’ Gravy RG 22140
Clean Water/Clean Water (Instrumental Rap) Rice ‘n’ Gravy RG 22141
Lil’ Cajun / Secrets Rice ’n’ Gravy RG 23138
CHESS MASTERS (Chess CXMP 2009) (Later reissued as Greenline GCH 8094)
All tracks included on Bear Family CD (see below)
BOBBY CHARLES (Bearsville LP IRSP 26)
Street People / Long Face / I Must Be In A Good Place Now / Save Me Jesus / He’s Got All The Whiskey / Small Town Talk / Let Yourself Go / Grow Too Old / I’m That Way / Tennessee Blues (Later reissued as See For Miles SEE 218)
BAYOU BEAT (Flyright FLY 581)
Alligator Stomp /Teenagers (remaining tracks by other artists)
CLEAN WATER (Zensor ZS35)
Li’l Cajun / Secrets / Love In The Worse Degree / Cowboys And Indians/ But I Do / Clean Water / Eyes / Lil Sister / Party Town / Le Champs Elysee!
WALKING TO NEW ORLEANS: The Jewel and Paula Records 1964-65 (Westside WESA 874)
Ain’t Misbehavin’/Preacher’s Daughter/Everybody’s Laughing/Everybody Knows/The Walk/Worrying Over You/Goodnight Irene/I Hope/Oh Lonesome Me/One More Glass Of Wine/The Jealous Kind/See You Later Alligator/Cross My Heart/Walking To New Orleans/Who’s Sorry Now/I Hope*/Preacher’s Daughter*/The Walk*/Oh Lonesome Me*/One More Glass of Wine* (* alt versions/mixes).
BOBBY CHARLES Stony Plain SPCD 1202
(Bearsville LP, as above, reissued as See For Miles SEE CD 218)
WISH YOU WERE HERE RIGHT NOW Stony Plain SPCD 1203
Not Ready Yet/The Jealous Kind/See You Later Alligator/I Want To Be The One/Promises, Promises (The Truth Will Set You Free)/Walking To New Orleans/The Mardi Gras Song/I Remember When/Ambushin’ Bastard/Peanut/I Don’t See Me/Wish You Were Here Right Now.
SECRETS OF THE HEART Stony Plain SPCD 1240
I Can’t Quit You/Secrets/Angel Eyes/But I Do/Party Town/I Don’t Want To Know/Love In The Worst Degree/Why Are People Like That?/You/I Believe In Angels/Happy Birthday Fats Domino/ Les Champs Élysée/Interview.
LAST TRAIN TO MEMPHIS Proper PRPCD016
Last Train To Memphis/The Legend Of Jolie Blonde/I Spent All My Money Loving You/ String Of Hearts/I Wonder/Everday (sic)/Don’t Make A Fool Of Yourself/Homesick Blues/Forever And Always/The Sky Isn’t Blue Anymore/Full Moon On The Bayou/What Are We Doing/Sing/Goin’ Fishin’/See You Later Alligator.
I Can’t Quit You/Secrets/Angel Eyes/But I Do/Party Town/I Don’t Want To Know/Love In The Worst Degree/Why Are People Like That?/ I Believe In Angels/ Les Champs Élysée/Not Ready Yet/The Jealous Kind/I Want To Be The One/Walking To New Orleans/I Remember When/ Ambushin’ Bastard, I Don’t See Me, Wish You Were Here Right Now/Clean Water.
HOMEMADE SONGS Rice ‘n’ Gravy RIC 0515
The Football Blues/Queen Bee/Pick Of The Litter/But I Do/Cowboys and Indians/The Mardi Gras Song/Too Blue/The Truth Will Set You Free (Promises, Promises)/Homemade Songs/Seize the Moment/Rose/Always Been a Gambler/Here I Go Again/Tennessee Blues/Sweep ’Em
SEE YOU LATER, ALLIGATOR Bear Family BCD 17207
Later Alligator (See You Later, Alligator)/On Bended Knee/Watch It, Sprocket/Why Did You Leave/Don’t You Know I Love You (You Know I Love You)/Why Can’t You/Take It Easy Greasy/Time Will Tell/Ain’t Got No Home/No Use Knocking/You Can Suit Yourself/Laura Lee/I’m A Fool To Care/Mr. Moon/I’ll Turn Square For You/Lonely Street/Over Yonder/Put Your Arms Around Me, Honey/One Eyed Jack/Yea Yea Baby (Yeah Yeah)/Good Lovin’/Your Picture/Teenagers/I’d Like To Know/Tell Me Baby/Lovesick Blues/Hey Good Lookin’/No More (I Ain’t Gonna Do It No More).
TIMELESS Rice ‘n’ Gravy RIC 517
Happy Birthday Fats Domino/Where Did All The Love Go/Nickles, Dimes And Dollars/Clash Of Cultures/Little Town Tramp/Nobody’s Fault But My Own/Before I Grow Too Old/Old Mexico/Rollin’ Round Heaven/When Love Turns To Hate/Take Back My Country/You’ll Always Live Inside Of Me/Happy Halloween
A collection of songs, all written by Bobby Charles, that was released in 2005 and may be of interest is:-
BOBBY CHARLES – THE ARC CLASSICS Arc BC 0503
Bobby Charles: See You Later Alligator/ One Eyed Jack/ Jealous Kind/On Bended Knee/Yeah Yeah/ Take It Easy Greasy/ Good Loving/I Ain’t Gonna Do It No More/No Use Knocking/I’ll Turn Square For You/Why Did You Leave/But I Do Clarence ‘Frogman’ Henry: (I Don’t Know Why) But I Do/Just My Baby And Me/On Bended Knee/A Little Too Much/Lost Without You Rita Coolidge: Jealous Kind Johnnie Allan: Your Picture Marcia Griffith: But I Do Jennifer Lane: Jealous Kind Van Broussard And The Bayou Boogie Band: Why Can’t You Bill Haley And The Comets: See You Later Alligator
Text and photos: Paul Harris / Jefferson #166