The dapper Mr. Charles at Jazzfest 2008
(photo by Dan Phillips)
Although I missed Rockie Charles' performance at this year's Ponderosa Stomp, I caught him on the first Saturday of Jazzfest, playing in the Blues Tent. Sitting there soaking it in (and prior to actually getting soaked in an afternoon storm), I remembered I had wanted to feature his first single here, and stuck a mental "Post-It" to my grey matter to start work on it when I got home. After a second weekend of serious festing and a week's decompression back at work, I've finally actually gotten around to it.
My introduction to singer, guitarist, and songwriter Rockie Charles Merrick was via a promo of his 1996 Orleans Records CD, Born For You, sent to me by label-owner/producer Carlo Ditta when I was doing my radio show in Memphis. Chock full of Rockie's sometimes meandering, always quirky but enjoyable tunes - mainly slow to mid-tempo soul with touches of blues - the CD put him at least briefly into the spotlight in New Orleans and marked his re-emergence on the local music scene after several decades absence during which he worked as a tugboat captain on the Mississippi River and as a self-employed oyster fisherman. You can read more of Charles' interesting history in the liner notes to the CD, which were written by author Jeff Hannusch, who expanded upon them for a chapter on Charles in his 2001 book, The Soul of New Orleans. Through those pieces I learned that Rockie had made several fairly obscure records back in the mid-1960s and early 1970s. It took me over a decade to find any of the vinyl; and, as far as I know, none of those sides have ever been compiled on CD.
While the Born For You CD never much excited me rhythmically (except for the wonderfully wacky "Festus Believe In Justice", which sounds like a lost Ry Cooder outtake), it was well-produced with good musical support; and Rockie delivered his songs with soul and grit. Some at the time likened his vocals to Al Green (there is a passing similarity in tonality); but Rockie's singing and songwriting reminded me more of the more offbeat stylings of the great Earl King, who was a friend of Charles back in the early 1960s. Besides being a recording artist, King had begun producing various sessions around town in those days and would often hire Rockie to play guitar, but never got around to cutting a record on him. After being turned down by producers Allen Toussaint and Dave Bartholomew, Rockie finally got the opportunity to record on his own from another fledgling producer and label-owner he knew, Senator Jones.
(with appropriate patches of black mold...)
"Riccasha" (Rockie Charles)
Rockie Charles & The Lavonics, ca 1967
(Tune in to HOTG Internet Radio)
[UPDATE 4/25/2011: You can currently hear this track on YouTube, thanks to Colby.]
I spotted this single on an eBay auction last year; and, boy, was I confused. At first, I didn't get that "Riccasha", which was the side listed, was supposed to be pronounced "ricochet". And, when I consulted Hannusch's pieces on Rockie Charles to refresh my memory about Charles' singles, I found that he consistently referred to the Black Patch sides as "Mr. Rickashay" and "Sinking Like A Ship". To add to the confusion, the R&B Indies discography strangely titled the side "My Rickashay" on its Black Patch discography (such as it is). These people were messin' with my mind; but at least I figured out how to pronounce it! Since "Sinking Like A Ship" was a match for the other side of the single up for bid, I threw caution to the wind and went for it, and lucked out because I was the only one who did - not much demand as yet for the Rockie Charles back catalogue.
Black Patch has a rightful claim to serious obscurity in that, as noted on the label, it was a division of Shagg Records, one of Senator Jones' early micro-companies, which only had five releases of its own. But that seems a lot, considering that this 45 is the only issue listed for Black Patch. In those days, Jones had a label for nearly every occasion, which I am sure allowed him to at least stay one step ahead of his creditors as he pursued the elusive hit, which Rockie Charles' debut record certainly was not. As Charles told Hannusch, "The record didn't turn out the way I thought it would and didn't sell." So, Senator Jones and Rockie Charles ricocheted off on their separate ways.
Too bad nobody heard it, though, because "Riccasha" is a killer little tune. It was the B-side; but I find it to be by far the stronger of the two tracks. The drummer is a force of nature! His short, upbeat drum intro quickly revs up the energy for this dance tune; and, then, drums and bass lock into a pulsing groove duel that propels the entire song to the fade, overcoming the minor distraction of some out of tune instruments in the mix, including a cheesy sounding organ and some strangely voiced horns, which give the track a "garage" feel. Rockie's vocal sound is well-seasoned with a definite Otis Redding influence; and his phrasing is spot on.
I still don't know why Hannusch and Rockie call this "Mr. Rickashay". The lyrics cleverly address the ricochets of relationships and the dancefloor, but never mention a Mr. Rickashay or even Mr. Rockie Shay. I guess Hannusch had not seen a copy of the single; and maybe Rockie mis-remembered the title. Or, perhaps there was a later pressing with that title, though I have not uncovered one in my subsequent searches and get the feeling that one very limited pressing was all Senator Jones was good for. There's always the distinct possibility that Jones messed up the title, maybe due to a severe shortgage of dictionaries in New Orleans at the time. Maybe that's part of what Rockie meant: the record did not turn out they way he expected, because one side had a mangled title no one could pronounce.
(...from water damage...)
"Sinking Like A Ship" (Rockie Charles)
Rockie Charles & The Lavonics, ca 1967
(Tune in to HOTG Internet Radio)
So here's the flip - the actual A-side. This surely is another part of the reason why this record did not set sail on commercial waters, or even float. Musically, the tune might not quite be sinking; but it does no more than tread water, repeating the same two chords and weak little riff until it fades. What holds it together and keeps it going is the kick-ass drumming. That drummer doesn't let the open-ended, going-nowhere song stop him from having a field day. As on the far groovier "Riccasha", the drums here not only inject a strong dance beat into the proceedings, but let fly with some fancy fills, rolling turnarounds, and broken-up segments, never losing the groove.
Charles gives himself no melody to work with and ends up more rapping the lyrics than singing, trying to force a little soul into it by saying "Lord, have mercy" every other line. And those lyrics, seeming to go on way longer that the actual three minutes running time, tell a tale, if I follow it, of a captain who builds a ship, sets to sea, floats around for 40 days, rams an iceberg, jumps overboard with the crew in cold waters full of whales and sharks, and tries to swim back to Liverpool (?), but drowns. With all that, the storyteller is trying to say to his baby, with unintended humor, that he's "sinking like a ship". If his overly extended metaphor is not in fact tortured, it has certainly been water-boarded. The point of the exercise would surely have been as lost on his baby as it is on us. But, I find that if I just follow the drummer, "Sinking Like A Ship" seems far less like a disaster.
I have no idea if the Lavonics were a real band or just a fabricated name for the musicians on the session - never heard of them, and can find no other references to them. The bands Charles gigged with were the Eagles early on, and, in the 1960s, the Gadges Soulful Band (Gadges was pronounced "gauges", by the way - remember the great dictionary shortage). Whoever they were, props to the Lavonics' drummer and bassist.
All things considered, Rockie Charles' debut on Black Patch 711 is a fun record to listen to, and does not deserve to be consigned to perpetual oblivion or just become some collectors' cult fetish item (wink, wink, nudge, nudge). I hope to feature some of his other singles at a later date, if they are even half as interesting and entertaining. Though, as his discography attests, he hasn't had much of a recording career until much later in life, Rockie is one of a long line of engagingly eccentric creators and performers from New Orleans. His work may be far from the mainstream, but is worth seeking out in the far more fascinating and mysterious musical backwaters of his hometown.
[Update 3/14/2010: Rockie passed away on March 12, 2010 due to cancer. He was 67. For more details, read his obituary at nola.com, and note their uncredited use of my label shot from this post!!]
[Update 5/7/2012: Rockie's neice, Rhonda, has informed me/us in the comments that she has set up a wiki on him and would appreciate any assistance in adding to the information she is accumulating there.]
ROCKIE CHARLES DISCOGRAPHY (incomplete)
"Sinking Like A Ship"/"Riccasha" -Black Patch 711- ca 1967
"Living In The Good Times"/"Someday I'll Call In Love" -Soulgate 13654- ca 1969
"Show My People Around The Curve"/"Calling Your Name" -Soulgate 6050366- ca 1969
"The President Of Soul, Pt 1"/ Part 2 -Soulgate #? -ca 1970?
Born For You -Orleans CD 1911- 1996
The War Is Over -Rockie Charles CD 001- 2001
Have You Seen My Uncle Steve -self-produced- 2002
It's Party time For the Mardi Gras -self-produced- 2003
I Want First Class -Soulgate- 2007