Bobby Charles Must Be In A Good Place Now. . . .
I was saddened to learn Thursday of the passing of Robert Charles Guidry, a/k/a Bobby Charles, without a doubt one of the great songwriters of American popular music. With no musical training, and unable, or unwilling, to play an instrument, he managed to write countless songs, lyrics and melodies that will endure. Some he sang and recorded himself, but many were done by others, including big name performers who knew a good tune when they heard one and had success with Bobby's. He started out with the rockin' "See You Later, Alligator", that he recorded in New Orleans in 1955, and got a short-lived contract with Chess Records out of it - they at first thought he was black! The song was covered by and hit big for Bill Haley and the Comets, eclipsing Bobby's , but giving him his first substantial royalty checks.version. Then the million-selling Fats Domino began recording his material, including classics like "Walking To New Orleans" and "Before I Grow Too Old"; and Bobby's career path was set. Fats' delivery and piano playing combined with Guidry's simple, effective songcraft were the inspiration for the perennially popular Swamp Pop style of music (though it wasn't called that at the time) in South Louisiana. for over 50 years now, blues, R&B and rock acts have recorded his music, while Bobby did his best to keep a very low profile most of the time; but he would sporadically make some very good records himself, far from the music business mainstream, when the spirit moved him.
It's not my intent to do a lengthy retrospective of the man. You can read more about him in Keith Spera's obituary and in his Allmusic biography. There is also a great fan site in Japan, that has close to a complete discography of his music. I just wanted to feature a few of his lesser known songs that I have on vinyl, done by himself and others, to give a taste of what he had going on, and as a remembrance.
If you already know about Bobby Charles, enough said. If you don't, you need to.
"Lost Without You" (R. Guidry)Clarence Henry, Argo 5414, 1962
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Though Bobby no was longer recording for Chess by the late 1950s, he was recruited as a songwriter by the company's A&R man and producer in New Orleans, Paul Gayten, to provide material for Clarence 'Frogman' Henry. The Frogman almost cut Bobby's "I Don't Know Why" (later renamed "But I Do"), early on, but instead went with his own song, "Ain't Got No Home", which was a huge hit in 1957. Henry's other original follow-ups didn't fare nearly as well; so Gayten came back to "But I Do" (see photo to right for label with its earlier title), which proved to be another high-charter and big seller for the singer in 1960. At the time, Gayten had Allen Toussaint doing the arrangements and piano duties on the sessions; and numerous other fine R. Guidry compositions were cut over the next few years, with only "Lonely Street" making the charts in 1961.
Released in 1962, "Lost Without You" is one of my favorites Frogman cuts, with a big horn arrangement and wonderful piano solo by Toussaint. Charles' song definitely lent itself to the bouncy New Orleans groove, courtesy of Smokey Johnson's syncopating drum work; and the result was infectious. But Henry's marketplace heat had cooled off by then, and would not return.
"I Must Be In A Good Place Now" (Bobby Charles)from Bobby Charles, Bearsville, 1972
As soon as we heard about Bobby being gone, my wife started singing this song, talking about how she had always loved it. So, I had to include it, being as she still has her well-worn LP (I only have it on an import CD from over a decade ago) , and it is such a beautiful melody and statement. For my money, this song alone is proof that Charles can be considered up there with top composers such as Hoagy Carmichael, Randy Newman, and Allen Toussaint.
The album was recorded in Woodstock, NY, where Bobby lived for a time, and had an impressive cast of players, including Mac Rebennack, Amos Garrett, Geoff Muldaur, and members of the Band, including Rick Danko, who co-produced it and co-wrote one of the cuts, "Small Town Talk". Both Garrett and Muldaur were in Paul Butterfield's Better Days around the time; and that band would record several of Bobby's songs over the course of two LPs. He joined in on both of those projects, too, and wrote the title track of It All Comes Back, from 1973.
Bobby Charles was an utterly relaxed, impeccably played collaboration of friends and musical peers, featuring Bobby's originals probably as close as he ever got to how he heard them in his head when he created them. The LP doesn't show which players are on what songs; but I recognize Garrett's shimmering guitar here. And via the Band's website I've found session information for the track provided by bassist Jim Colegrove and Muldaur naming the pianist as John Simon, Rebennack as possibly playing the vibes, with Colegrove, and drummer N. D, Smart, II. The performance is simply perfect, and, now, so poignant.
I recommend this album as Bobby's best; and it has finally been re-issued on a US CD by Rhino, and surely is available for download as well. Seek it out.
"The Tie That Binds" (Mac Rebennack - Bobby Charles Guidry)
Levon Helm and The RCO Allstars, ABC, 1977
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This album was another collaborative effort among some incredible players, but did not quite live up to its potential. The basic rhythm section was Helm on drums with Booker T. & the MGs, plus other impressive sidemen such as Mac Rebennack on piano and guitar, and blues harp master, Paul Butterfield. How promising is that? It should've killed from needle drop to run-out on both sides; but didn't quite get there, in my estimation. Still, it was a well-played, laudable project, with material that tended toward the bluesy side, and could have used more soul and funky R&B material.
I've included "The Tie That Binds" because it is a rarely heard songwriting venture from Bobby and his old friend Mac Rebennack, who he knew from the New Orleans music scene in the 1950s and early 1960s, before Mac's Dr. John career took off. A few years back, I featured what I consider their best joint writing effort, "Wild Honey" from Dr, John's City Lights LP. Bobby collaborated again with Dr. John on his pointed, acid-tongued, post-Katrina CD statement, City That Care Forgot, featuring numerous songs Charles wrote or co-wrote; and I've read that they had been working together on the album that Bobby finished just before he died. Proof that they had an unbroken tie up until the end.
"Party Town" (Bobby Charles)Bobby Charles, from Clean Water, Zensor, 1987
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Recorded in Nashville and released on a label out of Germany, this album didn't get much attention at the time, at least in the US. The tracks would not be released here until the 1998 CD, Secrets of the Heart, on Stony Plain (actually a Canadian label). On that, six cuts from the earlier LP were combined with another six from sessions Bobby did later, many of which had great local players like slide master Sonny Landreth and bassist David Hyde.
But back to the LP, I picked "Party Town", not because it's Bobby's best song, but in the spirit of the season(s), Mardi Gras and the Saints winning again. And if you really want to know what a party town can do, wait 'til the franchise gets to the Super Bowl! One of those songs that sounds custom made for the Louisiana Department of Tourism, Bobby's tribute to the city' propensity to party is fun to hear and gets a feel-good groove going, even though he cut it far from home with seemingly not a New Orleans player in the studio. Kudos to him for managing to add a tune to the Mardi Gras music catalog - another achievement in his lifetime of music making.
Bobby passed away in his hometown of Abbeville, LA, on January 14, 2010. As you may recall, around Mardi Gras last year, we lost Snooks Eaglin (who knew and played many songs by Bobby Charles, I am sure); and Eddie Bo died not long thereafter. Sad as it is to lose these irreplaceable contributors to our culture, we who are left behind must cast off our cares and celebrate the life that goes on; but, as we do, let's not forget to lift a glass to Mr. Bobby Charles Guidry, who left us with a lot of songs to enjoy, and to the other greats in the continuum of music who've all gone on to that good place he's in now.