Bobby Charles: Talking to New Orleans

Legendary songwriter Bobby Charles has the soul of a Native American. In the history of rock and roll, Charles is one of the genre’s great mysterious spirits, a man who feels guided by his art. He doesn’t play any musical instruments and can’t read music, yet he’s composed such songs as “See You Later Alligator,” “Walking To New Orleans,” “But I Do,” Ain’t Got No Home,” and “The Jealous Kind,” as if he was pulling them out of the wind.

He’s been promised remuneration for his craft, and too often been left with nothing but broken promises. He is distrustful of having his picture taken, sharing the Navajo belief that photographs steal a little piece of the soul. And when the tomfoolery of the world has seemed overwhelming, Charles has vanished like a fox losing a pack of hounds, retreating into nature, his whereabouts known only to a close-knit circle of friends.

Like literary icon and fellow recluse J.D. Salinger, the power of Charles’ work ensures that there will always be strangers trying to seek him out. It’s inevitable; certain chapters in his life have taken on an almost mythical quality. He signed to Chess Records as a teenager in 1955; he recorded a self-tided masterpiece album Bobby Charles in 1971 in Woodstock, NY with members of The Band; his last public performance was in 1976, for The Band’s star-studded The Last Waltz concert; and when Charles returned to the public eye 19 years later with his stellar 1995 album Wish You were Here Right Now, his friends Willie Nelson and Neil Young made cameo appearances.

However unlike most of his famous buddies, Charles has never felt comfortable in the spotlight. He has a beautifully rich voice that resonates the warmth and charm of South Louisiana, but Charles doesn’t consider himself a singer. Songwriting is his passion, and even in his teenage performing days, he didn’t relish being an entertainer. By his own admission, “he’s just a shy guy.” Considering these factors, it’s not surprising that he rarely grants interviews.

So it was with great surprise, that after a year of pursuing an interview with Charles, he extended a rare invitation to visit with him at Maurice, Louisiana’s Dockside Studios in early January. Charles was scheduled to record two songs for the upcoming film adaptation of writer Peter Guralnick’s Elvis Presley biography Last Train to Memphis.

Introductions were exchanged on the Dockside grounds as Charles was offering New Year’s greetings and catching up with Sonny Landreth. The shaggy hair and full beard Charles had sported in the few pictures since his Woodstock days is now close-cropped, and he appeared to be happy and relaxed, dressed in a t-shirt, loose-fitting sweat pants and sandals. Ai; the other musicians for the session began arriving and checking their gear in the control room, Charles set up camp on the back porch of the studio and let his interviewer pull up a chair. On this day at least, all the warnings of Charles’ reticence to share the stories of his life are unfounded. He is warm, gracious and peaceful. Perhaps it’s because at one point he used to live right down the street, on the bank of the river flowing behind us. This is practically Bobby Charles’ backyard .

His full name is Robert Charles Guidry, and he grew up in Abbeville, Louisiana. Even as a youngster, Charles’ destiny seemed apparent. “Since I can remember, I was always making up songs,” he says. “Ir’s like something I was born with. My daddy bought me a little harmonica, and I learned some French songs that I was listening to back then, because that’s all my daddy would ever listen to-that’s all he spoke. I’d play the harmonica and sing my little French songs, and everybody would laugh, so I guess I was entertaining ‘em and didn’t know it.”

When Charles heard the sounds of Fats Domino, Lloyd Price and Guitar Slim as a teenager, it “changed his life,” and he formed the group The Cardinals. “I was fourteen, fifteen years old, and I was singing with this little band because I loved music. I had written a song ‘See You Later Alligator.’ I’ve always been putting down little things, crazy songs. They weren’t really songs, but to me they were just funny.’

One person who heard “See You Later Alligator” was Charles Relich, the owner of Dago’s Record Shop in Crowley. Relich had recently been visited by Leonard Chess of Chess Records, who’d come through town on a talent-scouting trip. Chess encouraged Relich to call him if he heard any hot artists, and Relich phoned Chess and put Charles on the line to sing his new song. Knowing a hit when he heard one, Chess sent Charles to New Orleans to Cosimo’s studio to record, and put the single out on the market immediately. Then he invited Charles to fly to Chicago.

“When Leonard saw that I wasn’t black, he almost had a frog,” remembers Charles. “I went into his office, and he just looked at me and said, ‘Motherfucker! You can’t be Bobby Charles.’ And I had never heard the expression before, I didn’t know what it meant. I said, ‘Is there a problem?’ But it was too late then, the record was already out. It’s like once the toothpaste is out of the tube, you can’t put it back.”

Charles joined Chess Records’ potent roster of talent that already included the likes of Bo Diddley, The Moonglows, The Flamingos and Chuck Berry. His own recording of “See You Later Alligator” was eclipsed by the chart-topping version from Bill Haley and the Comets, and a breakthrough hit proved elusive. Revisiting Charles’ Chess work, that fact is a mystery-pumped up R&B rockers like “Take It Easy Greasy,” “I Ain’t Gonna Do It No More,” “Good Loving,” and “One Eyed Jack” hold their own wi th other classic gems from the ’50s. Regardless, his Chess affiliation offered him the once-in-a-lifetime chance of traveling with the Chess road shows.

“It was really an experience,” remembers Charles. “When you can hear The Five Blind Boys of Alabama singing in the hotel room after-we’d all stay together at the same place-that was like being in heaven. Chuck Berry and I got along real good together. Chuck got me a little guitar and tried to teach me the guitar, but I could just never learn to play the guitar and piano. All my fingers were trying to learn, and I had some masters trying to show me. But it showed me something. I learned that I’d write an entirely different song if I was writing on the guitar…it would mess me up, because I’d always try to go to some slick chord or somethin’, tryin’ to make it sound better, and I didn’t know that many chords, so there weren’t many places for me to go.”

His disappointing record sales and growing aversion to performing live led to Charles’ departure from Chess, and he went to Imperial Records. Imperial appeared to be a natural fit, since Charles’ friend and inspiration Fats Domino was enjoying an unprecedented string of hits, occasionally courtesy of Charles. Besides the timeless “Walking to New Orleans,” he also gave Domino “It Keeps Raining” and the anthem “Before I Grow Too Old.” To this day, Charles regrets that Domino passed on “See You Later Alligator.” “When I sang it for him, he said, ‘Well, I don’t know about no alligators,” laughs Charles. “And I’ve been trying to get him to do it ever since.”

Charles’ days at Imperial were short-lived. “I didn’t stay long,” says Charles. “I got disenchanted with the music business, because I was getting ripped off left and right. Your lawyer’s ripping you off, and everybody else is, and if you can’t trust your lawyer, you might as well go home. Sad to say it still goes on today, but I guess it’s just one of those things you have to go through.”

In the late ’60s Charles headed to Nashville, but that stay ended abruptly due to a minor scrape with the Tennessee police. He decided to migrate north and keep a low profile, staying for a short time in Jefferson, New York, before deciding he didn’t like it. “I looked at the map and I said, ‘Let’s go take a ride over to Woodstock and check it out.’ I didn’t know that’s near where they’d had the big festival. I knew right away that I liked the town-you could feel the vibes. I liked that fall ride, with the top down and all the leaves changin’. It’s beautiful-a very inspirational place.”

Unbeknownst to Charles, other artists, including The Band, Paul Butterfield, Maria Muldaur and a revolving cast of visitors, felt the same way about the rural countryside town. Within a week after he arrived Charles bumped into guitarist Amos Garrett and some of his old musician friends from Nashville. Many of the bands living in Woodstock at the time were being managed by Albert Grossman, the notoriously dictatorial mogul who had also managed Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary. After news of Charles’ arrival in town spread, a meeting with Grossman was arranged.

“Albert had a restaurant over there, and we went to eat and meet Albert and Maria and Geoff Muldaur and a whole bunch of people and he called Rick Danko and Robbie [Robertson] to the table to introduce me. There I was. And I was thinkin’, how in the hell did I get here? But it was really a gas. Albert asked me if I had any songs, and I said, ‘Yeah, I’ve got a few.’ So I sang him ‘Tennessee Blues,’ and he fell on the floor. Maria started singing it with me and everybody loved that song. That was it, the key that opened the door.”

Grossman offered to record Charles on his Bearsville label, with the Woodstock community as backing musicians. The result was Bobby Charles, a sleeper masterpiece that sounds like the Louisiana version of Bob Dylan and The Band’s Basement Tapes. Charles also was an unofficial member of Paul Butterfield’s Better Days Band, contributing songs and vocals to Butterfield’s two stellar Bearsville albums. (The late great Louisiana singer and piano player Ronnie Barron was also a Better Days alumnus)

Close listening to the Bobby Charles album, however, reveals trouble was brewing. “Small Town Talk,” with its deceptive pop lilt, addresses the gossip and backbiting that began infecting Woodstock, and “He’s Got All The Whiskey” is a thinly disguised attack on Grossman’s creative accounting techniques. “Albert and I just didn’t get along,” Charles remembers. “I wasn’t that anxious to be in the record business anyway, if I was going to have to give it to somebody else. Hey, I was brought up by the best teachers: Leonard Chess and Albert Grossman. I said, ‘Wait a minute, Albert. I’ve heard this song before, and I ain’t goin’ through this again.'”

Grossman let the album die on the vine, and Charles decided to return to Louisiana. Or Tennessee. He’s not quite sure. “That’s like another life ago,” he muses. He did stay connected to the music business, traveling with The Band occasionally, hanging out at George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh, and passing time with his houseguest Bob Dylan in 1974 when Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue came through Louisiana. But his own recording career was tucked away in hiatus, and he had no one taking care of his financial affairs.

“I’ve never had anybody looking out for my best interests,” says Charles. “I’ve never had anybody plugging my tunes. I just got a lawyer for the first time about five years ago, and that’s the first time in my entire life that I have somebody looking out for my best interests rather than their own. I was just lucky because a lot of the arrists liked my songs when they heard them.”

That’s an understatement. Charles’ affecting compositions have been covered by a who’s-who in soulful music, including Muddy Waters, Etta James, Junior Wells, Dr. John, Wilson Pickett, Delbert McClinton, Bo Diddley, UB40, Lou Rawls, and Joe Cocker. That kind of support has kept Charles going through the leanest of times, and also provided him with some thrilling surprises.

“One night I’d just gotten in from somewhere, and I was laying back in a hammock I had in my living room, and I turned on the TV. It was the Tonight Show or something. And Ray Charles was singing a new song, and I said, ‘Out of sight.’ So I laid back and listened to it, and right after he did that, he did “The Jealous Kind,” and I almost fell out of the hammock. Nobody had told me he’d done it. Nobody knew where I was, or how to get in touch with me or anything. I went to see him one night and he sang it, and he told me that it was one of his favorite tunes. He said he loved the tune because every time he sang it live he got a reaction from it.”

It was a late-night conversation with Willie Nelson that convinced Charles to give his own career another chance. Nelson offered the use of his studio in Austin, Texas, and Charles accepted the opportunity. In 1984 he cut the tracks that would eventually make up his comeback album Wish You Were Here Right Now. Charles was so pleased with the sessions he took a blind spur-of-the-moment trip to France to the MIDEM convention, the largest international music-business gathering. He had no idea what was in store for him.

“I said, I’m gonna go to France and see if I can sell any of these things, if anybody wants ‘em. I borrowed the money to go, and it was really strange…I walked into this place, and it was a big old building and everybody had a booth; there were booths everywhere. And you could tell all those guys wearing black hats, those were the guys you didn’t want to talk to. It was just like the movies. There I was by myself, and I said, ‘What am I doing here?’ So I looked at this list I’d brought from BMI [Publishing] to see where I was collecting money from. And the first booth I passed was Holland, and I looked and said, ‘Hmmm, I do pretty good in Holland, let me go talk to this guy.’ So I introduced myself and the guy looked at me like he didn’t believe me: ‘You’re really Bobby Charles? What are you doing here?’ And I said, ‘I’d like for you to listen to something and see if you’d be interested in buying some of it.’ He listened to a song and said, ‘I’ll take a thousand copies.’ I said, ‘Did you listen to the slow one or the fast one?’ He said the slow one, and I said, ‘I played you the wrong song.’ He listened to the fast one and said, ‘Make it 3,000.’ So I thought, this might be fun!

Making the rounds to the various booths, Charles met Holger Peterson, the president of Stony Plain Records. Charles had finally found a kindred spirit in the business, but it took another eleven years for the album to see the light of day.

“I got out of it for a while again,” Charles sighs. “I got ripped off by some people, and I said, ‘Fuck it.’ Every time I try and do something…I think, I just don’t need this anymore. But it’s the only thing I know how to do. I say, how you gonna eat? If you quit this, what else you gonna do? If I didn’t have to eat, you’d probably never hear anything from me. It’s really true. I’m basically a very shy person.”

Wish You Were Here Right Now was a brilliant re-introduction to Charles’ talents. “Not Ready Yet” and “The Mardi Gras Song” continued his love for New Orleans R&B, “Ambushin’ Bastard” and “Promises, Promises (The Truth Will Set You Free)” blasted backstabbers and politicians, and “I Want To Be The One” and the title track are two of his most powerful and haunting Louisiana and Nashville-influenced ballads.

More importantly, Wish You Were Here Right Now seems to have inspired Charles to ride a new wave of creativity. He’s already completed a brand-new record entitled Secrets of The Heart, due out this month. It picks up where Wish You Were Here left off, with the thunderous shuffling of “I Can’t Quit You” paving the way for a beautiful ballad with Tracy Nelson on “Secrets.” “Why Are People Like That” is a devastating indictment of the human foibles that have made Charles live outside mainstream society, and “Happy Birthday Fats Domino” brings Charles’ career full-circle, paying tribute to his long-time friend with a joyous second-line piano groove.

“It feels real good right, now,” says Charles. “I’ve been writing songs that I like a lot.” That point is hammered home as Charles gets up from the porch to go in and orchestrate the session. The musicians gather around Charles as he sings them the song he hears in his head. It’s a glorious tribute to Elvis Presley, and he sings the melody, inflections, and verse changes with complete command, and the band plays back accompaniment to his creation. It’s a give-and-take process, but Charles knows exactly what he wants, and the band nails it after a few hours of loose rehearsals.

“I usually finish writing the song right away,” he says later. “I put the melody down right away, because not knowing music, I forget how things go. What’s good about it is I have no boundaries- I don’t know what’s right from wrong, so it doesn’t matter to me, as long as I like it. Because I write ‘em to please myself, not anybody else. Sometimes it’s really embarrassing. Sometimes people will play a wrong chord when I’m teaching ‘em a song. That happened to me with Willie Nelson, Neil Young and everybody. Willie one time said, ‘Well, what is the right chord?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know, just play all the chords you know and I’ll tell you when you hit the right one.’ Not being a guitar player all I knew was only three chords, I figured he knew about five or six. And he started runnin’ down the guitar, and after about ten chords I said, ‘That’s it.’ And he turns around to Neil Young and says, ‘I’ll be damned, he’s right!’ It’s strange and embarrassing at times, but they understand. And I’m just lucky to have people like that play with me. They just like the songs.”

One can only hope that Secrets of the Heart will further encourage Charles to remain actively recording and writing. If he decides to vanish again it won’t come as a surprise. But he’ll be content regardless, living on the Gulf Coast near the soothing sound of the water. There is a good Chinese restaurant nearby, old friends to share stories with, and long walks on the beach just outside the door. Charles loves his South Louisiana backyard, and it’s inspired another recent accomplishment he’s immensely proud of: The Solution to Pollution, a special environmental education program with musical accompaniment he’s developed for school systems. As our interview winds down, he fingers the cross around his neck.

“I know why I was given the gift of music,” he says. “I realized it when I wrote that children’s program. All the kids all over the world, if they get this thing in all the schools, they’re gonna save the planet. I leave it all in His hands. I’m like an instrument. That’s what I feel like to God. I feel like one of his instruments, and I’m being used to do these things. That’s why I was given the gift of music.”