I’ve always enjoyed visiting Bobby Charles, one of America’s best kept
secrets as far as songwriting goes, at his humble A-frame abode on the
shores of the Gulf of Mexico at Holly Beach, LA, a small town of closely
clustered weather beaten shacks he affectionately calls the “Coon Ass
[Cajun] Riviera.” And he didn’t choose this isolated village, which
provides its inhabitants with just the basic needs of survival, by chance.
He’s always been difficult to locate. And if you think his latest residence
is a remote outpost, all the more desolate during the winter “offseason,”
you should have tried to discover his former domicile near the hamlet of
Maurice on the banks of the Vermillion Bayou, a destination which could
only have been accessed by paying close attention to specific landmarks
bordering a lonely, narrow, twisty, and willow-shaded, byway covered with
clumps of Spanish moss. Bobby likes it this way. “Hey, Larry, the only gas
station here just closed. That’ll discourage the tourists,” he said almost
gleefully. And he almost pathologically guards his privacy. And why not?
After having been ripped off all his life by all sorts of characters he had
encountered in the music industry from publishers to producers, he can
justifiably be paranoid, especially of strangers who come knocking and
then promising offers he can’t refuse. “My biggest fault is that I’m too kindhearted,
too trusting. It’s been my downfall,” he added.
Bobby finds that this solitary existence is especially conducive to songwriting,
not that he hasn’t found inspiration in crowded places like a roadside diner
after a high school gig in 1955 when his departing rejoinder “see you later alligator,”
was greeted by a clever response from a customer, “after while crocodile,” a r
epartee which he converted into his first big hit. Amazingly enough, after all the
substantial chart makers he has penned, he still doesn’t read music and regards
his answering machine as a godsend. “If I’m outside the house, I’ll run the
nearest phone and sing onto the tape so that I don’t forget the words and
melody,” he said.
Two years ago when I last called, Bobby had a slew of songs on a cassette
that he auditioned for me, including one which would be the title track of his
newest CD, Last Train to Memphis (Bogalusa 350). “This film director called
me up and needed something for the soundtrack of a movie which I think was
about the life of Elvis. The tune came to me right away,” he said. But no
movie mogul ever followed up on the request. Of the remaining tunes he
offered for my evaluation, some were brand new and others he had composed
long ago and never released. Of the latter batch, he had constantly been
tinkering with them and subtly tweaking them, adding instrumental
passages, back-up vocals, horns, etc. But all the creations, regardless of
their genre - blues,
Cajun, C&W, or swamp pop - were extraordinarily crafted and expertly
recorded with moving, soulful, memorable melodie - a joy to behold. I was
speechless. “Bobby, don’t you think it’s about time to let the public hear some
of these gems?” I said. “It’s coming,” this perfectionist responded, who is always
loath to let go of a song before its time. And that time has at long last arrived.
Last Train to Memphis is much more than just another release. It is Bobby’s
chef d’oeuvre, his masterpiece and a retrospective of his life in music. And it
deserves much more than just a cursory glance; in fact, it merits a full treatment.
Other celebrated artists must have also reached this conclusion and jumped on
the bandwagon, gladly volunteering their services to bring his magnum opus into
fruition -Delbert McClinton, Willie Nelson, Fats Domino, Maria and Geoff Muldaur,
Clarence “Frogman” Henry, Sonny Landreth, and Neil Young - just to name
a few of the notables. But there are also members of his stellar session men who
are just as well known to aficionados of all types of music (more about them later).
“Bobby, do you realize that you are coming up on a half-century after “Alligator”
first made a splash. And do you think that you could ever put together another
treasure like this?” I asked. “I don’t think so. I’m sixty-six now and just don’t seem to
have the energy or inclination like before. I’ve lived a lot in my time and have woken
up on a lot of strange couches. You can say that each song here represents adifferent life experience. Because I have indeed seen it all,” he confessed.
Robert Charles Guidry was born on February 21, 1938 in Abbeville, LA, a
town in Acadiana southwest of Lafayette. Musically predisposed at an early age,
he was recruited as a vocalist by a combo, the Cardinals, composed of mostly
older musicians, “college types,” like sax men Raoul Prado, Carlo Marino, and
Harry Simoneaux, drummer Kenneth Theriot and pianist Ed Leblanc. Strikingly
handsome with a spit curl, Bobby with his band which favored New Orleans R&B
became a popular act playing teen dances, especially at his alma mater, Mount
Carmel High. In 1955, head honcho of the independent Chess records, Leonard
Chess (original family name, Czyz), was scouring the Deep South for blues artists
to augment the roster of his eponymous label based in the Windy City, a logo which
already laid claim to blues luminaries Muddy Waters, Eddie Boyd, Howlin’ Wolf,
Willie Mabon, and Jimmy Rogers (and soon Chuck Berry). Stopping in Crowley,
LA, west of Lafayette, he met record store owner Charles “Dago” Redlich. Figuring
he couldn’t pry any musicians loose from Redlich’s brother-in-law, J.D. Miller,
who also had a discriminating nose for talent and ran the Feature label (just up the
same street, Parkerson Ave.) with bluesmen Tabby Thomas, Lightnin’ Slim, and
Clarence “Bon Ton Roula” Garlow under contract, Chess promised him a finder’s
fee and to call him collect if he found any budding blues star in the region.
By the way, this was the same J. D. Miller who later leased masters of blues
recordings - Lazy Lester, Lonesome Sundown, Lightnin’ Slim, Guitar Gable,
Slim Harpo, etc. - to Ernie Young of Nashville-based Excello and who could
boast of a legendary studio band that included horn man Lionel Torrence, bassist
Bobby McBride, guitarist Al Foreman, drummer Warren Storm, and pianist Katie
In short, Redlich, who was later to inaugurate his own label, Viking (with Johnnie
Allan, Kenny Tibbs, Randy & the Rockets, etc.) soon got wind of Bobby Charles’ s
novelty song that was causing quite a stir in the territory and quickly corralled him,
having Bobby sing the tune over the telephone to Leonard Chess, who immediately
grasped its potential; so much so, that he had Bobby travel to New Orleans where
it was to be taped at Cosimo Matassa’s first studio, J&M, at 838 N. Rampart
in the French Quarter. At the time, pianist Paul Gayten was Chess’s A&R (artists
and repertoire) man in the Crescent City and Leonard Chess wanted Gayten to back
Bobby with the Big Easy’s best session men, including baritone Alvin “Red” Tyler,
tenors Lee Allen and Herb Hardesty, bassist Frank Fields, and drummer Charles
“Hungry” Williams. But Bobby balked at the request, insisting that the Cardinals
play on the record or it was no deal. In short, Chess finally relented but did prevail
upon Bobby to drop his surname, Guidry.
“See You Later Alligator” debuted on Chess records in early 1956 and fared
substantially well on the R&B surveys of the day so that it was noticed by the majors,
including Decca, who had Bill Haley & his Comets “cover” the record (#29791) for the
white pop market, not an uncommon practice during that era (think Pat Boone’s
“Tutti Frutti,” the Diamonds’“Little Darlin’,” or Georgia Gibbs’s “Dance With Me Henry”).
Chess records, not having the distribution network or the disk jockey connections of
such a corporate giant as Decca, could not compete and Bobby’s original version of
“Alligator” was obliterated on the charts (even the R&B) by the multi-million selling
monster by Haley. But RCA’s (another big player in the market) watered-down rendition
by Otto Bash released on February 10, 1956 proved to be. Fortunately for Chess records,
Leonard and brother/ partner, Phil, had Bobby sign a songwriter’s agreement with the
label and ARC publishing which involved the brothers Harry and Gene Goodman.
As far as collecting royalties was concerned, “Alligator” proved to be Chess records’
best cash cow to that date and they eagerly awaited a follow up from Gayten’s young
protege and, in fact, invited Bobby to Chicago, rolling out the red carpet. But the Chess
brothers would be in for a big surprise.
When Bobby landed in the Windy City, there were black DJs, black cheerleaders, and a
black band to greet him. And one could imagine their astonishment as a white man
emerged from the plane. The powers that be at Chess had already arranged a
nationwide promotional tour on the “Chitlin’ Circuit” with Bobby as a headliner
performing before all black audiences. It wasn’t as if Bobby had deliberately
deceived Chess with his smoky baritone of a voice; it was that no one bothered
to inquire if he were Caucasian. And it was now too late and the Chess brothers
had to make do with a bizarre situation. According to Bobby, Leonard Chess, when
confronted by this contretemps, revealed his true feelings by employing an unprintable
epithet. Nevertheless, after the shock of his arrival had worn off, he was “rewarded” for
his effort for Chess records by being given a hundred dollar bill and a hotel room just
coincidently adjacent to that of a nubile and willing young fan. It was business as usual
in the recording industry during the nascency of rock and roll.
Bobby, who by the way held his own before black audiences, could write a book
about his travels in the company of R&B caravans of that day, with acts as diverse
as rock and roller Chuck Berry to spiritual groups like the Five Blind Boys of Alabama,
but an anecdote or two with a local flavor might suffice to best describe the tenor of the
times. He related to me an appearance at segregated Carr’s Beach in Annapolis
wherein he was on the same bill as Vee-Jay records’ (another Chicago-based indie)
Jimmy Reed and all were backed, as was the custom, by the same
(normally horn-driven) house band, usually a Choker Campbell or a Red Prysock.
On this occasion it was Sil Austin, who was now a bandleader after serving a stint with
vocalist Tiny Bradshaw of Syd Nathan’s Cincinnati-based King records .
It seemed that so-called sophisticated ensembles of the day like Austin’s were
always clashing with and looking down on such “countrified” bluesmen like Reed,
claiming that they couldn’t follow him. “One day, Reed couldn’t take it no more and told
the band to just get off the stage, saying ‘I don’t need you all. I can entertain by myself.’
And with his harmonica strap and guitar in hand, that’s just what he proceeded to do.
And he put on quite a show without them” said Bobby. Later that night,
Bobby was obliged to sleep under rather Spartan conditions in the bathhouse because,
being white in that age of strict segregation, he couldn’t dare to share the same
accommodations as his black counterparts.
When tours took him into the Deep South, he was guilty by association with black
musicians and forced at times to suffer the same indignities - riding in back of the
bus or utilizing the ostensibly “separate but equal” facilities. “One day, I think it was
Birmingham [AL] that I was doing promotion work for Chess records [well known as
a race label], out of the trunk of my car and staying at an all-black hotel. I could
sense something was brewing and damn if a crowd didn’t burn that building down the
same night. I was lucky to get out of there alive,” confessed Bobby.
Not only was Bobby introduced to black culture on the road, but also in the studio.
It is kind of a blur to him which subsequent records (six in all) for Chess were
recorded where, either in the Windy City or New Orleans, but he was always
surrounded by black sidemen. Apparently it was bassist Willie Dixon
who supervised his second Chess release, the plaintive “Why Did You Leave
(1617),” at Chess’s headquarters still then at 4750 South Cottage Grove Ave.
in Chicago and also advised him to have his copyrights in order. Bobby remembers
that he also witnessed a 1956 Little Walter (Jacobs) session which yielded “Just
a Feeling” on Checker (#845), a Chess subsidiary label. Bobby tried with some
success to recapture the witty aspect of “Alligator” with his third Chess effort,
“Take It Easy Greasy (1628),” but actually had more success with its flip, the
catchy “Time Will Tell” which spent a few weeks on the hot one hundred platters
in 1956. Next came “Laura Lee (1638)” in the same year followed by the rollicking
Crescent City interpretation of “Put Your Arms Around Me Honey (1647)” in 1957,
one of the few tunes he didn’t author himself during this period. Close on the
heels of this latter disk came “You Can Suit Yourself (1658),” which sold only
modestly but was regarded highly enough to be included in the soundtrack of
the recent cinematic release entitled Miracle, the story of the United States
hockey team’s incredible victory over the Soviets at the 1980 Winter Olympics
in Lake Placid, NY. Bobby Charles closed out his career with Chess with
one final record, “One-Eyed Jack (1670)” in 1957.
Although Bobby never again with Chess enjoyed the triumph of “See You Later
Alligator,” he could be justifiably proud of his achievements. How many
nineteen-year-olds in the history of recorded music could brag of already
having recorded seven singles?
Bobby wished that his parting with Chess was amicable, but it was most
decidedly not. As his record sales progressively slumped, the principals
at Chess became less and less patient with his demands for royalties to
which he was entitled. “I never felt that I was compensated adequately for
‘Alligator, ’ considering how many copies were bought and every time I looked,
someone else was sharing the writer credits with me,” he said, meaning
especially Paul Gayten, who wanted and received a portion of the
proverbial pie by conveniently affixing his name next to Bobby’s. “And it’s
still haunting me. When that movie came out [Miracle], I could only
receive singer’s credit, when I actually composed the tune,” he added
But Bobby was not the only artist of 50s who had fallen victim to this standard
operating procedure regarding who the real tunesmith was. Any enterprising
producer would change a lyric or two, if he even bothered to at all, and then
add a name directly beneath the title, such in the case of the aforementioned
J.D. Miller of Crowley, who ubiquitously employed the pseudonym, James
West, in scores of his Excello releases. Miller, who had ties to Acuff-Rose
publishing in Nashville, was light years ahead of most record men in
understanding the importance of copyrights and royalties and, like so
many of his ilk, when an opportunity arose, he took advantage of it.
Now in the late 50s, he was without a label, and prospects looked rather
bleak. But little did he know that his genius as a songwriter was about to
issue forth big time. Larry Benicewicz
Last Train to Memphis: Part II: A Songwriter Blossoms by Larry Benicewicz
Besides Chess with its subsidiaries Checker and Argo, there were
many other independent records labels hovering over New Orleans in the
50s just waiting to swoop down and capture any available talent that already
wasn’t under contract to another company. Specialty, under the direction of
Art Rupe and located at 311 Venice Boulevard (hence their publishing,
Venice Music) in Los Angeles had a roster that could boast of Lloyd “Lawdy
Miss Clawdy” Price, Little Richard (Penniman), Larry “Short Fat Fannie”
Williams (Price’s valet/ hairdresser), and Eddie “Guitar Slim” Jones, who was
first to score with the monster blues classic, “Things I Used To Do” in 1952.
Aladdin records, operated by the Mesner brothers, Edward and Leo, at 4918
Santa Monica Blvd in L.A. struck it rich with steady sellers -“Feel So Good”
and “Let The Good Times Roll”- in Shirley (Goodman) & (Leonard) Lee.
Then Ace, a Jackson, MS, concern run by Johnny Vincent (Imbragulio) soon
established itself in the Crescent City, corralling the likes of Huey “Piano”
Smith, Earl King (after his Specialty period), Frankie “Sea Cruise” Ford,
Alvin “Red” Tyler, and the young Dr. John as Mac Rebennack. Bobby
Robinson’s Fire/Fury venture headquartered in New York at 271 W.
125th St. but overseen by Marshall Sehorn in the Big Easy discovered much
success with Lee “Ya Ya” Dorsey and Bobby “There Is Something on Your
Mind” Marchan, former lead singer of the Clowns who backed the
aforementioned Huey Smith. And other Big Apple race labels also made
some inroads into the New Orleans music scene, like the R&B giant
Atlantic with Tommy “Jam Up” Ridgley, Professor Longhair (Roeland Byrd),
and later Wilson “Willie Tee” Turbinton and Benny Spellman. Ike Berman’s
Apollo, based at 615 Tenth Ave in Manhattan, managed to land pianist
Eddie Bo (Bocage) with his hit, “I’m Wise,” in 1956, while Al Silver’s
Herald/Ember at 469 W. Broadway later got on this profitable bandwagon with famed engineer Cosimo Matassa’s studio tenor - Lee Allen’s
instrumental smash, “Walkin’ With Mr. Lee,” in 1957. Even Newark’s
Savoy records headed by Herman Lubinsky attempted to get a little
piece of the action, but garnered nary a major hit.
Yes, there was a lot of musical genius to go around in New Orleans
during this decade and a bevy of contenders for their artistry, but they
all were merely pretenders to the throne of Imperial records founded
in 1944 by Lewis Chudd, an erstwhile radio executive in Los Angeles.
Undeniably, his ace in the hole in New Orleans was ex-Duke Ellington
trumpeter, Dave Bartholomew, who ably served him as an A&R
man, arranger, producer, talent scout - you name it. Often cruising for
performers with promise at the uptown Hideaway Bar or Frank Pania’s
Dewdrop Inn, notorious for its after-hours jam sessions,
Bartholomew, with more or less a carte blanche from Chudd, brought
an incredible array of future stars into Imperial’s fold, including Fats
Domino, Smiley “I Hear You Knocking” Lewis (Overton Lemons),
the Spiders (with the Carbo brothers, Chick and Chuck), Bobby
“I’m Gonna Be A Wheel Someday” Mitchell, Chris “Sick and Tired”
Kenner, Archibald (Leon Gross) Billy Tate, James “Sugarboy” Crawford,
Jesse Allen, Roy “Let the Four Winds Blow” Brown, Lester Williams,
and Ford “Snooks” Eaglin. These were just a few of the feathers in Dave
Bartholomew’s hat. And if their tenure was to expire with other
logos, Dave Bartholomew was quick to pounce and sign them
exclusively to Imperial in order to further explore their possibilities,
like the aforementioned Huey Smith, Frankie Ford, and Earl “Trick Bag”
King. If this quasi-monopoly wasn’t enough, Lewis Chudd in the late
50s agreed to a distribution deal with Joe Banashak of Minit records
in the Crescent City - Irma Thomas, Ernie “Mother-In-Law” K-Doe,
Aaron Neville, Benny “Lipstick Traces” Spellman, and Jessie “Ooh Poo
Pah Doo” Hill - a shrewd business move which would further tighten his
noose around the Big Easy’s pool of potential.
By the late 50s, Antoine “Fats” Domino, with his cheerful, warm,
“non- threatening” Cajun accent, had already recorded a mind-boggling
number of chart making smashes for Imperial--“Goin’ Home,”
“Going To the River,”“Ain’t It a Shame,”“Blueberry Hill,”“My Blue Heaven,”
“I’m Walkin’,”“Whole Lotta Loving,”“Be My Guest,” “I’m Ready,”“Country Boy,”
and “I Want To Walk You Home.” And it was true that many of these efforts
became certified million-sellers by crossing over to the pop surveys from
the R&B, despite the fact that nearly all were “covered” and thus further
sanitized by white pop artists on major labels like Pat Boone and Gale
Storm. But as the decade drew to its end, it became abundantly clear
that both Bartholomew and Domino were running out of novel ideas and
more and more relying on the practice of regurgitating pop chestnuts for
public consumption. And it was a formula that met with less and less
success. So, Bartholomew began hunting in earnest for freshgrist for his former juggernaut of a music mill.
One such writer, a huge fan of Fats’s, who arrived on the scene from
Gulfport, MS, and, unsolicited, proffered him new material was the
tragic figure of Jimmy Donley, who seemingly could compose a
soulful song on the spot and just as easily toss it away, as if he were a
bottomless well of musical invention. During this time frame, in the early
60s, Fats recorded several of Donley’s tunes with modest results as
singles, including “What A Price,”“Rockin’ Bicycle,”“Stop the Clock,”
“Nothing New (Same Old Thing),” and also included his “Bad Luck and
Trouble” and “I’ve Been Calling” on a 1960 LP. After a brief fling
with Huey Meaux’s Houston label, Teardrop, this tortured soul committed
suicide in March, 1963, never having earned a penny of royalties
(nor given writer’s credit) for any of the gems that he penned.
But during what proved to be a transitional era, there was absolutely
no writer who gave Fats’s faltering career a shot in the arm like
Bobby Charles. And sneaking a great song past Dave Bartholomew was
like throwing a fastball past Hank Aaron. Suffice it to say, that both
Dave and Fats recognized a winner when they saw one and Bobby,
at the tender age of 20, was claimed for Imperial’s stable. It seemed
that, in the hiatus between his leaving Chess in 1957 and joining up with
Imperial the very next year, Bobby had an epiphany of sorts as a songwriter.
Maybe it was the decline in touring or the solitude that he craved that
caused his creative juices to flow. But for whatever the reason, Bobby
began composing enduring melodies at a furious pace.
A friend and former schoolmate of his, the aforementioned Warren
Storm, renowned studio drummer for J.D. Miller, who would have been
a member of his permanent road band had he not had to serve a
tour of duty in the Louisiana National Guard, recently described Bobby’s
modus operandi for writing during this period. “When I was out with Bobby,
I knew that he could come up with a number at any instant. So, I was
prepared and brought a portable tape recorder with me so he could sing
into it. Otherwise, he might forget everything before we got home. I knew
right then and there that they were exceptional and many of these he later
passed on to artists in New Orleans,” he said.
Bobby’s debut as a tunesmith for Fats Domino was to say the least
auspicious. In January of 1960 a group of New Orleans session musicians,
including Dave Bartholomew, Buddy Hagans and Clarence Ford on saxes,
Roy Montrell on guitar, Jimmy Davis on bass, and Cornelius Coleman on
drums, gathered around Fats to tape “Before I Grow Too Old (Imp. # 5660)”
at Cosimo Matassa’s new 3-track facility at 521-525 Gov. Nicholls St. in the
French Quarter. Bobby’s own number and its flip, “Tell Me That You Love Me,”
climbed to #51 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in May of that same year.
But no one could have been prepared for the outcome of Bobby’s second
gift to Fats, “Walking to New Orleans (#5675),” recorded by the same crew
in April, 1960, but, at the insistence of Dave Bartholomew, with the addition
of strings. Cosimo Matassa, the affable and very patient engineer, remembered
the immense hassle it was to recruit the violin section of the New Orleans
Symphony and to synchronize their playing with the vocal/instrumental track
in less than state-of-the-art surroundings. “It was like mixing oil and water,”
he said. But Cosimo, the self proclaimed “king of the razor blade[tape
splicer],” as usual, proved masterful in these uncharted waters and the song
rocketed to #6 in the nation, yet another gold disk for the Fat Man,
remaining on the survey for three months.
Bobby immediately recognized the significance of the event. “By adding
strings, I think the song firmly established Fats as a pop figure to be
reckoned with and not just an R&B artist. It was a real breakthrough
for him,” said Bobby in all modesty in a recent interview. Fats was still
on a roll and Bobby’s next offering did nothing to tarnish Fats’s reputation
as a pop icon -“It Keeps Rainin’(#5753)”--which reached #23 in May, 1961.
But by that time the word was definitely out and other New Orleans
entertainers were clamoring for his skills as composer, mainly Paul Gayten,
to pass on to his then-current protégé, Clarence “Frogman” Henry.
The kindly and jovial singer, Clarence “Frogman” Henry (b. March 19,
1937 in Algiers), backed by Paul Gayten’s outfit, burst into national
prominence at #30 in December, 1956, with the novelty item, “Ain’t Got
No Home,” for the Chess auxiliary, Argo. Replete with falsetto, croaking,
and other vocal gymnastics, this feel-good rocker struck a chord with the
buying public. Despite two excellent follow-up releases, including “Lonely
Tramp” and “I Found a Home,” Clarence could not duplicate the triumph of
his initial single and his career by the late 50s was floundering. But his mentor,
Gayten, who himself was recording instrumentals for Argo, came to his
rescue with yet another Bobby Charles concoction, a song that would put
him back into the national spotlight.
“They must have realized that they had something special because they sure
rolled out the best people that New Orleans could muster,” said Bobby,
referring to the session at Cosimo’s in August of 1960, which included
Allen Toussaint on piano, Dalton Rousseaux on trumpet, Big Boy Myles on
trombone, Nat Perrilliat on tenor, Roy Montrell and Justin Adams on guitars,
Chuck Badie on bass, and Johnny Boudreaux on drums. The end product
of this seance was beyond anyone’s dreams, as “But I Do” shot up to #4 by
February, 1961, and culminated in another gold record authored by Bobby.
Needless to say, this phenomenon of a record prompted another countrywide
tour by Clarence and an appearance on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand,
then still in Philadelphia. But Bobby’s relationship with the Frogman was far
from over. In fact, three of his next four chart makers had a Bobby Charles
connection-“Why Can’t You,” the reverse of “Lonely Street (Argo # 5395, #57,
August, 1961),” to “On Bended Knees (Argo# 5401, #64, November, 1961),
” the b-side to “Later Alligator,” and finally to Clarence’s last Top 100 entry,
Bobby’s “A Little Too Much ( Argo #5408, #77, January, 1962).” Ironically,
one of Bobby’s best pieces for Frogman (and his last) was “The Jealous
Kind (Argo 5426),” which failed to make a substantial impact then, but
years later proved prosperous for Englishman, Joe Cocker.
All the while in the period 1958 to 1960, Bobby himself was recording
for Imperial (six single releases in all) without much to show, sales-wise.
Perhaps, in order to be mutually beneficial, Bobby and Fats had a
reciprocal arrangement. It seemed as though both Fats and Dave
Bartholomew encouraged Bobby to sing some of Fats’s own numbers,
like “Four Winds (# 5691)” and “What a Party ( #5681),” in hopes that he,
too, might cross over to a pop audience. Bobby even recorded to no
avail his own, haunting “Those Eyes( #5642),” which he would eventually
donate to Fats during his last Imperial session before he jumped ship
and signed with the major (like Lloyd Price) ABC-Paramount in 1963.
But by being neither fish nor fowl, a white man singing R&B, Bobby was
clearly out of his element, especially while being promoted as a squeaky
clean teen idol, like fellow label mate, Ricky Nelson, the perennial
darling (and bread and butter) of Imperial records well into the 60s.
Nevertheless, it was a moot point, as Lew Chudd, seeing the
handwriting on the wall - the shifting musical tastes of America
toward rock and roll -abruptly sold Imperial to the major pop label
Liberty (Bobby Vee, Gene McDaniels, Timi Yuro, Dick & DeeDee, Jan & Dean)
in 1962 and, as a result, left everyone in the lurch to fend for themselves,
including Bobby Charles. In fact, there was probably no label ever
inaugurated that was so ill-equipped to handle R&B than this West
Coast company. His early 60s New Orleans experience left a bad taste
in Bobby’s mouth for years to come. Not only was he dismayed by Chudd’s
sudden departure but also the fact that there was much tampering with his
royalties. Even though Bobby himself wrote all the songs, both Fats’s name
and that of Dave Bartholomew’s would invariably find themselves in the writer’s
credits beneath the title. Even Gayten’s name was mysteriously slapped on
the blockbuster “But I Do.” For all his labors, Bobby was only being rewarded
a relative pittance. “They would change a word or two and that was it. I guess
I should be grateful that I received anything at all. But people like Dave
Bartholomew can be really intimidating at times,” said Bobby.
The only thing left to do after leaving Imperial in the early 60s was to
go home and regroup. “I was determined that my next goal would be that
I would be in control as far as the label and copyrights were concerned,”
said Bobby, who experimented with the Farie and Tide record labels
about this time frame, companies so obscure that they are not even listed in
the encyclopedic and exhaustive reference tome, The R&B Indies.
Bobby himself could not remember much about these short-lived affairs.
“I wish I could help you with more of the details but that was a long time ago,”
he added. And it was. But ironically, his third project to this end in 1963
would not involve his own compositions. He christened this new logo
Hub-City after the moniker for Lafayette, LA, and borrowed a
tune from local Eddie Futch (now C&W luminary, Eddie Raven) called
“Big Boys Cry.” Recorded by Carol Rachou at his La Louisianne studio
then at 2823 Johnson St in Lafayette, the Swamp Pop ballad certainly
seemed viable hit-wise. But the song withered on the vine because
Bobby’s new enterprise lacked the necessary connections - advertising,
distribution, and airplay to expose it to a wider market.
Bobby, by the mid-60s, and now armed with a slew of originals (some
with a decided country flavor, an easy segue from Swamp Pop), thought
he had found the answer to this problem of getting his product out to the
public in the person of Stan Lewis.
Lewis was a former talent scout and A&R man (he first introduced
Lowell “Reconsider Baby” Fulson to the Chess brothers in 1954) who
formed Jewel records and two ancillary labels, Paula and Ronn, out
of Shreveport, LA. He was to later add Whit, after buying out Lionel
Whitfield Productions. Multi-faceted in scope, Lewis dabbled in soul
with the Carter Brothers, Bobby Powell, and the Uniques, C&W with
Ben Gabus and Joe “Pop A Top” Stampley, and a whole pantheon of
blues demigods, including Buster Benton, Ted Taylor, Lowell Fulson,
Joe Turner, Charles Brown, Albert Washington, Little Johnny Taylor,
George “Wild Child” Butler, Frank Frost, Ray Agee, Eddie Lang,
Lightnin’ Hopkins, Big Mac, and Jerry “Boogie” McCain, just to name
a few. But Lewis’s major claim to fame came in 1967 when he released
Baton Rouge’s John Fred’s (real name Gourrier) pop novelty invention
“Judy in Disguise with Glasses” on Paula, which became a world-wide wonder.
Stan Lewis was well aware of Bobby through his Chess affiliation
a few years back and Bobby, knowing that Lewis was savvy about
the recording business and familiar with all the networks for distribution,
approached him about a deal just as Lewis was about to launch Jewel
records in 1964. “We agreed that I was to have half of Jewel records
in return for my services as singer and songwriter,” said Bobby.
Bobby, indeed, held up his end of the bargain, cranking out tune after
tune for Lewis in the mid-60s -“Everybody’s Laughing (Jewel #728),”
“I Hope (#729),”“Preacher’s Daughter (#735),”“Worrying over You
(Paula #226),” and his biggest seller, “One More Glass of Wine
(Jewel # 740).” Although none of these releases was the smash
either envisioned, an agreement was an agreement. And after putting
Bobby off time after time, Lewis decided that Jewel would be his
exclusively and that Bobby would be cut out of the profits. “When I went
up to Shreveport to collect what was owed to me, I discovered
to my chagrin that the contract had been rewritten and in my naivete,
I was manipulated again,” confessed Bobby. It is not difficult to imagine
how such circumstances might transform any man into a bitter paranoid;
and if Bobby Charles at this time held out a ray of hope that any record
producer would treat him fairly, he would soon encounter, in the person of
Albert Grossman, someone who would administer the final coup de
grace to that sentiment.
On the lam from a drug possession charge in Nashville and traveling
under an alias, Bobby Charles found himself in the unlikely locale of
Woodstock, NY, in the summer of 1972. Seeking a hideout/retreat in
the mountains, a real estate agent directed him to a potential refuge,
whose tenant, well-respected bassist Jim Colegrove, fortuitously
happened to be the conduit to all the legendary musicians who also
resided there. As fate would have it, the late Paul Butterfield lived
out back with members of his Better Days outfit, which included
guitarists Geoff Muldaur and Amos Garrett. In nearby Saugerties,
the Band (Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, Rick
Danko, and Levon Helm) still shared living quarters in the venerable
rock and roll shrine, Big Pink. Things proceeded slowly at first as
Bobby was hesitant to reveal his true identity. Gradually though the
two men gained each other’s confidence. It was Colegrove who told
Bobby of the famous local, Albert Grossman, the former agent of
Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, and Simon and Garfunkel, who parlayed his
earnings in this capacity into an ultra-modern recording studio in
Bearsville, just two miles down the road. And this record maven now
was in the process of seriously recruiting artists to his new label, which
bore the name of the town.
Soon the list would include Butterfield, Foghat, and Todd Rundgren
(also as a member of Runt). Colegrove also volunteered to introduce
Bobby to Grossman. Albert had heard of Bobby and assured him that
he would relieve him of all his legal difficulties, as well as shield him
from the law, in exchange for a recording contract. “It sounded too good
to be true. But in retrospect, I wish that there was something drawn up to
have protected me from Grossman,” claimed Bobby.
After having assented to what he considered a generous proposition,
Bobby was eager to go into the studio and record his latest batch of
compositions, including the achingly reflective “Tennessee Blues” and
“Before I Grow Too Old.” And Grossman, recognizing the artistic import
of this undertaking, spared no expense to ensure its success. Not only
did he use members of both Butterfield’s Better Days and the Band but
also hired noted saxophonist David Sanborn and banished Big Easy
pianist Dr. John, the latter obviously no stranger to Bobby’s talent as
composer. A great album for its day (Bearsville 2104), this eponymous
LP was said to express succinctly the collective yearnings of the many
disenfranchised youth of that post-Viet Nam era. Us usual, a single was
released, “Small Town Talk”/”Save Me Jesus (Bearsville 0010),” which
never charted but, overall, the fruits of this recording session were very encouraging.
For a spell, this situation seemed idyllic for Bobby, continually forming
relationships with his fellow transplanted peers (for the most part, the Band
was Canadian in origin) and also exchanging musical ideas. From all
accounts, he became very handy in the Bearsville studio, especially as
a back-up singer, and aided both Paul Butterfield in his subsequent Bearsville
endeavors, both in 1973: It All Comes Back (BR 2170) and Paul Butterfield’s
Better Days (BR 2199) and folkie Eric Von Schmidt with his Living On the Trail
project on Poppy in which Bobby was joined on vocals with Rick Danko, Geoff
and Maria “Midnight At the Oasis” Muldaur, and Amos Garrett. As testimony to
this bond he forged with the other displaced artists in the Bearsville/ Woodstock
community, Bobby was invited in 1978 to participate in director Martin
Scorsese’s( Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, GoodFellas), The Last Waltz, a
quasi-documentary of The Band’s swan song, a Thanksgiving Day farewell
concert, joining a whole host of rock luminaries - Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Eric
Clapton, Joni Mitchell - on stage for the final performance. In addition, Bobby
shared a duet with Dr. John, “Down South in New Orleans,” as part of the
soundtrack (Warner Bros. #3146) for the same cinematic release.
Perhaps buoyed by the popular acceptance of Bobby’s first album for
Bearsville, Albert Grossman gave Bobby the green light in 1975 or so for
a second, which featured songwriter (“I’m Your Puppet,”“Cry Like a Baby,” etc.)
and Muscle Shoals, AL, stalwart, Spooner Oldham on piano. But, as events
transpired, this worthy labor of love was never to see the light of day.
Taking advantage of his role as mediator in Bobby’s still-precarious legal
position, Grossman conveniently rearranged the wording in the original
contract papers, assuming that his client would acquiesce. “However,
in his haste to redraw the document,” recalled Bobby, “Grossman omitted
a crucial detail in the option clause.” And Bobby seized the moment to
escape the covenant through a loophole. Now eager to get out of Dodge
as they say, Bobby remembered vividly his parting words to the record mogul:
“I can’t say that it was good doing business with you, so I’ll just say adios,
Bobby, by that time, a sadder but wiser man, had finally had it with the
music industry and returned to Louisiana where he would lie low for many
years. But it would be just a matter of time before his musical muse beckoned.
But in this instance, when he did reappear, he vowed to do things differently
-completely on his own terms. Larry Benicewicz
Last Train to Memphis: Part III: On His Own Terms
by Larry Benicewicz
Having bid good riddance to the major labels with whom he had been associated
and which all, to some extent had taken advantage of him, Bobby in the late 70s
returned home to his beloved Louisiana and settled in the woods near the tiny hamlet
of Milton on the Vermilion Bayou. Often portrayed as a recluse or a hermit, far from the
madding cry of civilization, Bobby did lead, as he still does now, a solitary, contemplative
life, but he was far from cutting off all ties with humanity. In fact, he began actively
engaging it by writing songs concerning the environment. “Larry, you know you can see for
yourself the damage caused by the oil industry drilling in the swamp and destroying
the landscape,” he said. And truly any visitor driving through Baton Rouge on Interstate
10 can attest to the myriad chemical plants and refineries straddling the Mississippi there
belching clouds of acrid smoke into the air, seemingly indifferent to any kind of ecological
statutes against such emissions (if indeed there are any). “But you have to educate kids
about this serious issue early. It’s already too late in their teens when they have hard heads
and hard ons,” he added.
So, Bobby worked tirelessly assembling a program for schools called the Solution to
Pollution which featured, as part of the learning package, a song he wrote especially for the
undertaking, a single, “Clean Water” on his own, newly inaugurated Rice N’ Gravy label.
He promoted it heavily on public radio and he still crusades for its acceptance to this day
despite the fact that he knows it’s an uphill battle fighting the politicians, lobbyists, and special
interest groups in the aforementioned state capital.
“It’s still number one on my agenda and I’m not ever going to let go of it,” he said
emphatically. In the mid to late 80s, Bobby’s writing career again had taken flight which
resulted in several singles for his new logo, including the jaunty “Lil Cajun” and its flip, the
achingly bittersweet ballad, “Secrets(RG-22139),” in which Tracy Nelson provided an
understated and sensitive backing. Other memorable pieces from this period were
the funky second line rhythms of “Party Town(22140)” and the plaintive “Lonesome Christmas
(22139),” the latter which later was “dedicated to the men and women in Saudi Arabia, the
Persian Gulf, their families, and their loved ones.” Most of these 80s vintage numbers
appeared on the LP Rice N’ Gravy-Zensor LP ZS-35/CD ZS-42, released in Germany in
1987, an album which was also reissued in Japan with a bonus track, “You,” on the
Village Green label, CD D22Y0345 in 1989. Another tune he penned from this period,
“Groovin’ Out On Love,” found its way onto British reggae exemplars, UB-40’s Labour
of Love: Part II and contributed mightily to its earning a multi-platinum status.
As his reputation as a writer grew, Bobby by the 90s, had formed strong bonds
with other composers of his era including Willie Nelson, whom he introduced to the
Neville Brothers during an unforgettable concert of Willie’s in New Orleans, and Neil
Young (with Crazy Horse), with whom he had worked in the studio in the late 70s.
Even Willie and Neil themselves shared a single in 1985, “Are There Any More Real
Cowboys (Columbia 38-05566).” So, all were very familiar with each other. And Wish
You Were Here Right Now (Rice N’ Gravy-Stony Plain SPCD 1203) is a result of that
collaboration. Wish You Were Here Right Now, released in 1995 on Stony Plain, an
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada roots label, is significant in many regards in that it
presents Bobby reprising his own classics for the first time, including “The Jealous Kind,”
“Walking to New Orleans (with a cameo by Fats, himself),” and his signature “See You
Later Alligator.” Moreover, he seems to have found his comfort zone toiling in as many
as four separate recording facilities necessitated by this endeavor - Technosound in Baton
Rouge, the cozy Dockside near his home in Maurice, Black Top records’ Ultrasonic in
New Orleans, and the famous Pedernales Studio of Austin, Texas, the headquarters
of Willie Nelson. As always, the sidemen are legends in themselves, including
redoubtable horn man, Jon Smith of the heralded Boogie Kings, guitarist Bobby
Broussard, everyone’s first choice in the realm of zydeco, guitarist Sonny Landreth
of the renowned blues band, Bayou Rhythm (with Mel Melton on harp), the
aforementioned Ben Keith on pedal steel, and, last but not least, Rufus Thibodeaux,
perhaps the greatest Cajun fiddler of all time. In the 60s Rufus had replaced bassist
Bobby McBride in J.D. Miller’s famed studio band and actually appeared on a 1978
Neil Young album, Comes a Time, on Reprise (MSK 2266), undoubtedly through the
recommendation of Bobby Charles, who was well acquainted with this master of the
violin, who was most closely associated during his long career with C&W great, Jimmy Newman.
Just three years later in 1998, Bobby had a fistful of material that warranted a second
release on Stony Plain, Secrets of the Heart (SPCD-1240), which not only included the
aforementioned singles, “Secrets” and “Party Town,” but also ten new tracks. Staying with
the same winning formula as its predecessor, Bobby, too, does a version of his
blockbuster, “But I Do,” and the bluesy, “Why Are People Like That,” a composition
which was first covered by none other than Muddy Waters (his MCA/Chess Woodstock
Album in 1975). Recorded variously at Dockside, Ultrasonic, and Magic Tracks in
Hermitage, TN, Secrets of the Heart demonstrated the true versatility of Bobby, from the
elegant French cabaret song, “Champs Elysee (worthy of an interpretation by a Maurice
Chevalier or Charles Aznavour)” to the mariachi flavored “Angel Eyes,” and to the C&W
styling of “I Don’t Want To Know.” Among the newcomers as guest artists (joining “regulars”
Jon Smith, Sonny Landreth, and Ben Keith) on this venture are the up-and-coming
bluesman, Derek Trucks, guitarist son of Allman Brothers’ drummer, Butch Trucks,
noted English export (now of New Orleans) Jon Cleary on piano, and rhythm guitar wizard,
Added to this mix is the towering personage of Wardell Quezergue, longtime
producer/arranger for engineer Cosimo Matassa of New Orleans. Wardell established
himself early on as a figure to be reckoned with, overseeing his tour de force of Professor
Longhair in 1964, “Big Chief (Watch 45-1900),” which included nearly two dozen sidemen,
including Earl King and Dr. John. A talented man very much in demand, Wardell currently
does all the charts for yet another Crescent City musical ambassador,
Frankie “Sea Cruise” Ford. Bobby Charles’s latest release, and by far his most ambitious
effort to date is Last Train To Memphis (Bogalusa 350) which also has been issued
abroad by the UK concern, Proper records (PRPCD016).
And what a handsome collection it is. The cover which depicts a deserted train depot
opens to reveal a triptych format with a CD in each wing and a pamphlet (complete,
thorough discography) tucked into the pocket of the middle frame. Within is a gallery
of photos of all the artists who generously gave of their time to be a part of this special
tribute to one of America’s great songwriters.
And talk about a lot of bang for the buck. No one should grumble about the length
of this album, an all too common complaint today. Not only is there a bonus CD of 19
cuts which represents the best of songs culled from his three former albums, including
“Wish You Were Here Right Now,”“Secrets,” and “Why Are People Like That,” but
also there are 15 totally new tracks comprising the other, for a total of 34 selections in
all. Undoubtedly this extra CD was inserted in order to finally make such former (import)Bobby Charles nuggets more readily accessible for the domestic market.
But, perhaps it is a misnomer to call Bobby’s recent CD, also recorded variously at
Dockside, Pedernales, and LSI in Nashville, a compilation of brand-new items.
In reality, some of them were first recorded or conceived of in the 70s and finally have
seen the light of day after some modifications over the years. But generally speaking the
bulk of the tunes were taped in the late 90s, just after Secrets of the Heart.
The title track, “Last Train To Memphis,” certainly merits a soundtrack and Delbert
McClinton furnishes a rollicking, whooping, Sonny Terry-like harmonica accompaniment
just like in the good ole days when he backed Bruce Channel on his smash, “Hey Baby,”
by the way, on Smash records in 1962. The rhythm is infectious and the listener almost
feels himself on board being carried down the line.
The second track, “The Legend of Jolie Blonde,” is a totally different departure
as Bobby pays homage to his Cajun heritage in the form of a French waltz with the
exceptional backing by Geoff Muldaur on guitar, Rufus Thibodeaux on fiddle, and Pat
Breaux of Beausoleil on the one-note accordion. And you couldn’t ask for a collection
of individuals better suited for capturing the tender sentiments and melancholy of this
folk music indigenous to Louisiana.
“I Spent All My Money Loving You,” the third track, is one of the best of the batch
and finds Bobby in a catchy, bluesy, second-line New Orleans groove with a devastating
slide accorded by Sonny Landreth and punctuated by the punchy, full throated horn of the
great Jon Smith. And had I not known that George Bitzer was on keyboards, I could have
sworn that it was Dr. John, himself, supplying the crisp piano solo.
The fourth cut, “String of Hearts,” had been in the can a long time, in fact, a couple of
decades, since Bobby first played it for me and asked my appraisal. I had urged him then
and many times thereafter to release it and I thought he never would. But, here it is, finally,
all dressed up as a waltz, with a spiraling, swirling tempo suggestive of falling leaves.
And it doesn’t hurt to have the input of the grand aforementioned New Orleans arranger,
Wardell Quezergue, who has left his stamp on the recording. “String of Hearts” isindeed something extraordinary.
The next two numbers, “I Wonder” and “Everyday,” are similar in nature - medium
tempo C&W tinted melodies with origins in the 70s, evocative of Bobby’s Woodstock
days, when he composed the wistful “Tennessee Blues.” The latter song, “Everyday,”
is particularly noteworthy in that Bobby is backed by both Ben Keith on pedal steel and
the late Eddie Hinton on electric guitar. This is the same Eddie Hinton who so expertly
played behind so many soul stars of the late 60s and 70s at the celebrated Muscle Shoals
studio of Alabama and also later supervised a session with Mark Wenner’s Nighthawks
of Washington, D.C.
In “Don’t Make A Fool of Yourself,” Bobby again returns to another strong suit, the
funky, parade march rhythm of the Big Easy. This time it’s Joe Krown on the keyboards
doing his best Dr. John imitation. And no self-respecting Crescent City denizen could resist pulling out a handkerchief and umbrella and getting behind this number.
“Homesick Blues” is not your standard 12-bar blues. But it’s blues nonetheless and
speaks to everyone who’s ever been down and out and spurned by a woman. The all star
supporting cast on this gem includes Maria Muldaur on vocals, Rufus Thibodeaux on fiddle,
and Mickey Raphael furnishing the mournful harmonica obbligato. And Willie Nelson’s rapid fire,
staccato-like, cascade of individual notes on his trusty acoustic nylon string guitar is suggestive
of other long gone Texas bluesmen, like T-Bone Walker, Lightin’ Hopkins, and Lowell Fulson.
Willie’s certainly done his blues homework, as well as paid his dues, and here in Pedernales,
it amply shows.
The next two tracks, “Forever And Always,” and “The Sky Isn’t Blue Anymore,” could
actually pass for pop songs; in fact the latter gets the full treatment with a string section
(led by Wardell Quezergue) which includes viola, cello, and, of course, violins. George Bitzer
here switches to the electric piano. The two songs demonstrate the chameleon nature of Bobby
who is completely at ease in authoring a variety of musical styles.
“Full Moon on the Bayou,” as the title implies, is a Cajun-influenced two-step like
“Jambalaya,” which really moves along, especially when propelled by the piano of Clarence
“Frogman” Henry. But everyone here gets into the act as well, including Willie Nelson,
Neil Young, Rufus Thibodeaux, Mickey Raphael, and Maria Muldaur. If this rocker won’t get
them out on the dance floor, nothing will. The next cut, “What Are We Doing,” is another
bluesy composition underscored by the sympathetic electric slide guitar of Sonny Landreth,
and like many of Bobby’s songs, it is reflective and keenly introspective. He’s a man, like all
of us, with many regrets.
The song “Sing” is difficult to categorize but carries the message that music has the
power to bring us together. In fact, it’s like an anthem to this notion. It may be simplistic, but
Bobby’s an eternal optimist, even after all he’s been through. Originally recorded in 1980 in
Nashville, “Sing” features a children’s chorus and a handful of musical luminaries, including
longtime Decca studio stalwart, Grady Martin on guitar, ex-Flying Burrito Brother, Chris
Ethridge on bass, and writers Dan Penn (“At the Dark End of the Street”) on acoustic guitar
and Spooner Oldham (“Cry Like A Baby”) on organ. The latter two were also producers for
the Box Tops (“The Letter”) with vocals by Alex Chilton.
In the next to the last track, “Goin’ Fishing,” Bobby, as unpredictable as always,
reverts to the traditional, straight-ahead blues; in fact, the Delta slide species ably
reproduced by Sonny Landreth on his Silvertone guitar, who is joined only by a second,
that of Sam Broussard. It’s blues stripped to its bare essentials. When the world is too much
to take, it’s time to go down to the local watering hole and sort things out. Not a bad
philosophy no matter what type of watering hole it might be.
The grand finale of Last Train To Memphis is Bobby’s big band version of his first
mega hit, “See You Later Alligator,” which is perhaps fitting as a testament
to his half-century in music.
Aside from old standby Sonny Landreth, Bobby has added several sidemen too
beef up the sound, including ex-Bayou Rhythm electric bassist, Dave Ranson,
horn man Jon Smith, and Phil Chandler on the Hammond B3 organ.
And here, as always, it’s a bona fide crowd pleaser. I asked Bobby recently if he
had anything more up his sleeve, if there was to be anything forthcoming of this
magnitude in the near future. “I’d like to say yes. But first things are first and that
means getting out of Holly Beach A.S. A.P. I’ve dodged [hurricane] Ivan twice in
one week and that’s enough,” said Bobby. “Where are you going to move to now?”
I asked. “I’m only sure about one thing. Wherever it is, it’s going to be way inland,”
he responded with a hearty laugh. Larry Benicewicz
|< Prev||Next >|