Louisiana lost one of the brightest jewels on its musical crown with the passing of Robert Charles Guidry a.k.a. Bobby Charles on January 14, 2010. The reclusive Charles, 71, who had diabetes and had suffered a bout with cancer, died at home. While Charles was a moderately successful recording artist, he excelled as a songwriter. When Johnnie Allan claims Charles “practically invented swamp pop music,” he’s not far off the mark. Charles’ 1950s recordings of “On Bended Knees,” “Why Can’t You” and “Why Did You” are virtually templates for South Louisiana rock ’n’ roll, a genre eventually labeled swamp pop.
Born February 21, 1938, in Abbeville, Charles fell under the spell of Cajun music, Hank Williams and Fats Domino as a teen. He downplayed his music aptitude, joking, “I can’t even play a radio.” Nevertheless, Charles formed a band called the Cardinals with some high school buddies. When he wasn’t singing with the band or doing school work, Charles sat in his room writing words to songs that didn’t exist yet.
“I wrote songs as a hobby,” said Charles. “I didn’t take it seriously because it was so easy.” His songwriting might well have remained a hobby had fate not stepped in in the form of a tipsy woman during the summer of 1955.
“We finished playing a dance and stopped on the way home to drink some coffee,” Charles said. “We were getting ready to leave when I turned around to my piano player and said, ‘See you later alligator.’ There was a table full of people by the door that were drunk. One of the ladies said something that caught my ear. I went back and asked her what she said. She told me, ‘Aw, after awhile crocodile.’ Well, that clicked. I went home and wrote that song in 20 minutes.”
He told record store owner Charles Relich about the song. Relich told Chess Records’ Leonard Chess, and soon after Charles sang the song to Chess over the phone, he was in New Orleans cutting the track with his band.
Charles and the Cardinals spent the better part of a weekend at J&M Studio cutting “Later Alligator” and “On Bended Knees.” Once released, “Later Alligator” started making noise in the South. With sales picking up, Chess arranged for Charles to appear on American Bandstand and a slot on a rock ’n’ roll road show along with Chuck Berry. In the meantime, Bill Haley covered the song (as “See You Later Alligator”), turning it into a top 10 hit. While Charles benefited greatly as the writer, Haley’s version killed his version’s chart action.
Charles returned to the studio but couldn’t repeat the success of “Later Alligator.” After leaving Chess in the late 1950s, Charles signed with Imperial, the same label Fats Domino recorded for.
“Fats came to Lafayette and I went back stage to see him,” Charles said. “He told me to come see him sometime in New Orleans. I told him I was broke and couldn’t afford to. Fats laughed and said, ‘Why don’t you walk?’ That was my hook. I went home and wrote ‘Walkin’ to New Orleans.’”
By the mid-1960s, Charles was disillusioned with music. He tried to settle down with his wife to raise four sons, but he eventually found himself in Woodstock, New York, where he recorded a selftitled album for Bearsville in 1972 produced by himself, John Simon and Rick Danko. It earned critical praise, but it sold poorly and Charles retreated to a sprawling house he rented near Abbeville. He made a brief appearance in the Band’s documentary, The Last Waltz in 1976, but Charles pretty much kept to himself and he rarely performed in public outside of occasional guest appearances with musical friends at Tipitina’s.
In 1986, Charles cut an album in Nashville where he enlisted Willie Nelson’s band, his friend Neil Young, and put it out on his own label, Rice N Gravy. “I want to get something started down here,” said Charles at the time. “In the past the state has been victimized by the big labels in New York and L. A.”
In the mid-1990s, the house he lived in outside Abbeville burnt to the ground, and he wound up in Holly Beach with his four sons where he owned a house. Hurricane Rita struck in 2005 and wiped out his house and the rest of Holly Beach. Charles got out ahead of the storm and moved into a double-wide trailer near Abbeville.
In 2008, he released Homemade Songs, which included some of the tracks recorded in Nashville, and Charles co-wrote tracks for his friend Dr. John’s Grammy-winning City That Care Forgot. Charles recently completed a new album, Timeless, again working with Dr. John.
“Bobby was the first person to draw attention to the music of South Louisiana,” said Johnnie Allan, who recorded several of Charles compositions. “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.”