New Orleans’ “President of Soul,” Rockie Charles, whose given name was Alfred Charles Merrick, died after a long battle with cancer on March 12. He was 70. Charles was a guitarist and singer who cut a handful of well-crafted soul singles in the 1960s and 1970s. He recorded his first CD in 1997, the acclaimed Born for You. Charles was also a seasoned Mississippi River tugboat captain for many years.
An engaging man, Charles was born November 12, 1939, in Boothville, Louisiana. He was raised by his father Earlington, who fished and shrimped the river and played guitar with a group that played the local juke joint. At the age of 13, Charles moved to New Orleans to live with an aunt where he attended Caffin High and Houston’s School of Music, where he learned to write music and play the guitar.
“I used to enter talent shows in the summer at Lincoln Beach,” said Charles in 1996, referring to the black amusement park on Hayne Boulevard adjacent to Lake Pontchartrain. “In 1958, I won second place. That inspired me to go some place with my music.”
During the 10th grade, Charles dropped out of school and moved to Venice, Louisiana, where he first saw his biggest musical influence, Guitar Slim. On his 18th birthday, he got his river pilot’s license and moved back to New Orleans, where he also formed a band called the Gadges. The Gadges played small black neighborhood clubs and Tulane fraternity dances on Broadway.
“By working those kind of gigs, you had to be real versatile,” said Charles. “That affected me when I started writing my own songs.”
Charles auditioned for Dave Bartholomew at Imperial Records and Allen Toussaint at Minit, but with no success. Like many New Orleans musicians, Charles frequented the One Stop Record Shop on South Rampart Street, where he met Senator Jones, who wanted to start a record label. Jones started Black Patch and his one-and-only release on the label was Charles’ “Sinking Like a Ship” backed with “Mr. Rickashay.” As appealing as it was, it didn’t sell.
Charles and the Gadges were hired to do a tour with Irma Thomas that took them to Nashville. While there, they were hired by a booking agent called “Good Jelly” Jones who put the Gadges on the road with everybody from Otis Redding to Little Johnny Taylor. “Good Jelly” kept the band busy but eventually stiffed them after three weeks’ worth of dates in Texas in 1969. At that point, Charles cut his losses and returned to New Orleans.
Back at square one, Charles realized that to shop for gigs, it would help to have a record out. With the local record business contracting, no label was willing to give him a shot. As a result he started his own label, Soul Gate. His ploy worked and Charles waxed several great sides including “Show My People Around the Curve,” “Living the Good Life” and his biggest, “The President of Soul” recorded in Jackson, Mississippi at Malaco Studios.
“The President of Soul” sold a respectable 7,000 copies around New Orleans, but in the mid-1970s Charles faced a new adversary—disco. With gigs harder and harder to find, Charles moved to the West Bank and returned to being a tugboat captain. He did that until 1986 when he let his license expire after one too many close calls on the Mississippi.
Charles built an oyster boat and continued to write music in his spare time. He was confident enough to run an ad in OffBeat’s 1994 Louisiana Music Directory announcing that “The President of Soul” was again accepting engagements. The ad caught the eye of Orleans Records’ owner Carlo Ditta, who promptly called Charles. After the two met, they began working on Born for You, which took two years to complete.
After its release, Charles reflected: “My style works off the blues, but it’s not confining, and I don’t mean that in a negative way. I’ve had to play a lot of different types of music because of the situation I was in. I incorporated those styles into what I write. That means taking the blues a step further.”
Born for You rightfully garnered a monumental amount of positive reaction and Charles was offered gigs far and wide. His new group, the Stax of Love, continued to work and record sporadically. In 2009, he recorded an album in Denmark, I Want First Class. Earlier this year, he released a single, “It’s Party Time for the Mardi Gras.” Charles was scheduled to appear at this year’s Jazz Fest, but sadly that ship won’t come in. He leaves numerous children and grandchildren.