Bobby Charles will always be remembered as one of the pioneers of swamp pop. He played a huge part in popularising swamp pop, not just in Louisiana, but much further afield. However, there’s more to Bobby Charles’ career than that. Much more. Bobby was also a successful songwriter. The story begins in 1955.

In 1955, Bobby Charles signed to Chess Records. His debut single was Later Alligator. Although it wasn’t a commercial success, it gave another artist one of the biggest hits of their career. 

Later Alligator would later be released by Bill Haley and The Comets as See You Later Alligator. It also featured in the film Blackboard Jungle. This wasn’t the only Bobby Charles song recorded by major artists. Fats Domino recorded Walking To New Orleans and Clarence “Frogman” Henry covered (I Don’t Know Why) But I Do. Bobby’s songs were also covered by everyone from Paul Butterfield, Wilson Pickett, Muddy Waters, Joe Cocker, Bo Diddley and Tony Joe White. These are just a few of the musicians who recorded Bobby Charles’ songs. Bobby also worked with some of the biggest names in music, including The Band.

In 1972, there weren’t many bands bigger than The Band. Since 1969, they’d just a quartet of albums. This began with 1969s Music From The Big Pink, 1969s The Band, 1970s Stage Fright and 1971s Cahoots. Before that The Band had accompanied Bob Dylan between 1965 and 1972. So, they were at the peak of their popularity. This meant having The Band accompany Bobby Charles on his 1972 eponymous debut album was something for a coup for Bobby. With The Band accompanying Bobby on his 1972 debut album Bobby Charles, which was recently rereleased by Light In The Attic Records, surely the album was bound to be a hit? Especially given Bobby wasn’t exactly a rookie.

No. Bobby’s career began back in 1955. He was only seventeen. Bobby was born Robert Charles Guidrin in Abbeville, Louisiana in1938. He’d grownup listening to Cajun and country and western music. Hank Williams was one of Bobby’s favourites. That’s until he heard Fats Domino. That was a game-changer. For Bobby, this “changed his life forever.” Little did Bobby realise that in 1960, he’d cowrite Walking To New Orleans with Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew. By then, Bobby’s career was well underway.

It was in 1955 that a  seventeen year old Bobby Charles released Later Alligator for Chess Records. He’d spend the next two years signed to Chess. In 1956, Bobby released Laura Lee, Why Can’t You and Take It Easy. The following year, 1957, Bobby released three further singles on Chess, No More (I Ain’t Gonna Love You No More) and One Eyed Jack. That was the end of Bobby’s time at Chess. It wasn’t the most successful period of his career. After that, Bobby split his time between songwriting and singing live.

During that period, Bill Haley and The Comets covered Later Alligator as See You Later Alligator in 1960. It also featured in the film Blackboard Jungle. The same year, Clarence “Frogman” Henry covered (I Don’t Know Why) But I Do. It gave him one of the biggest hits of his career. Then in 1994, it featured on the soundtrack to Forrest Gump. Then in 1963 Bobby cowrote Walking To New Orleans with Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew. Given the influence Fats Domino had on Bobby Charles, this must have been one of the highlights of his career so far.

1964 saw Bobby return to the recording studio. He recored Everybody’s Laughing, a song he penned with Stan Lewis. It was released on Jewel Records. Just like his previous singles, commercial success eluded Bobby. So he returned to playing live and writing songs. He was happy doing this for the next few years. Then Bobby had the chance of lifetime.

Having signed to Bearsville in 1972, at last, Bobby had the opportunity somewhat belatedly, to record his debut album. Bobby wrote eight tracks and cowrote two other tracks. He penned Small Town Talk with Rick Danko who co-produced the album with Bobby. Grow Too Old was a track Bobby penned with Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew. These ten tracks became Bobby Charles which saw Bobby accompanied by none other than The Band. 

Accompanying Bobby on Bobby Charles four out of five members of The Band. Only Robbie Robertson was absent. The band backing Bobby included some of the most talented musicians of the early seventies. The members of The Band were multi-instrumentalists. Rick Danko, who played bass, guitar and violin. Levon Helm played drums, mandolin, guitar and bass. Garth Hudson played keyboards, saxophone, accordion, pedalboard, woodwinds and horns. Richard Manuel played piano, drums, organ, marimba, lap slide guitar. Other musicians included guitarists 

Geoff Muldaur Amos Garrett, Ben Keith and Rob Neuwirth plus drummer Billy Mindi. Adding horns were trumpeter Joe Newman and saxophonist David Sanborn. They were joined by pianist Dr. John and violinist Harry Lookofsky. This was the band that recorded Bobby Charles, which was released in 1972. 

Despite the presence of The Band on Bobby Charles, the album wasn’t a commercial success. It failed to chart. That’s despite what’s essentially a genre-melting musical journey with Bobby Charles as your tour guide. Everything from Americana, country, pop, R&B, rock and and soul shines though on Bobby Charles, which I’ll tell you about.

Opening Street People is Street People. Hissing hi-hats, hesitant bluesy guitars and a probing bass provide the backdrop for Bobby’s worldweary vocal. He seems destined to be a drifter. Despair and resignation fill his voice as he sings about” “hanging out with the Street People, drifting from town to town.” Meanwhile, the band play around Bobby’s vocal. They frame Bobby’s vocal. It’s a mixture of bravado, resignation and irony given the situation he finds himself in.

As Long Face  unfolds, the unmistakable sound of Dr. John can be heard on the piano. He adds a New Orleans’ R&B sound, while the rhythm section provide the heartbeat. Washes of Hammond organ give way when Bobby’s tender vocal enters. It’s heartfelt and full of concern. Behind him, the band provide a delicious backdrop. Everything from jazz, R&B, rock and soul is combined. When Bobby’s smoke hued vocal is added this proves a potent partnership.

Just a piano and reverberating guitar combine as I Must Be In A Good Place Now unfolds. They set the scene for Bobby’s wistful vocal. Memories come flooding back, as Bobby reflects. He’s accompanied by a laid-back, jazz-tinged arrangement. Partly, this comes courtesy of drummer Levon Helm. His playing is subtle and sparse. Never once does he come close to overpowering the vocal. As for the piano, it’s the perfect accompaniment, to Bobby’s tender, pensive vocal. He sounds like J.J. Cale in his prime. That’s how good this track is.

Save Me Jesus marks a change in style. Gone is the balladry of the previous track. Replacing it is a track with a much stronger country influence. This comes courtesy of the rhythm section and guitars. Bobby’s vocal is different too. It’s husky and delivered with a twang. Despairing and needy describes his vocal. He pleads “Save Me Jesus, Save Me Jesus, for this godforsaken place.” Bobby’s rails against greed and avarice. His lyrics are full of social comment and he delivers them with power, emotion and hope. This results in a moving and powerful song, one that’s still relevant today.

Bobby scats before All The Money decides to reveal its secrets. It’s shaping up to be a fusion of jazz, blues and gospel. That proves to the case. The track has a loose, laid-back sound. You can imagine Bobby and The Band jamming, as they perfect this track. Horns rasp, while the rhythm section and handclaps accompany Bobby’s grizzled vocal. He  sings with frustration “he got all the money, he got all the women…he got all the power, but he give me none.”  The result is a fusion of blues, gospel, jazz and rock that demonstrates Bobby’s versatility.

Small Town Talk meanders into being. Bobby whistles, while the rhythm section, guitars and Hammond organ provide a backdrop for Bobby’s tender vocal. He sounds weary as sings about “Small Town Talk.” You sense he’s been a victim of “Small Town Talk” far too often and he’s drawing upon experience. Wistful, weary and melancholy describes Bobby’s lived-in, languid vocal.

Let Yourself Go has a glorious country sound. This comes courtesy of the honky tonk piano, weeping guitars and rhythm section. Then there’s Bobby’s needy, tender and seductive vocal. His vocal is needy as he sings “come on, lay down, right hear beside me.” The band raise their game. They play their part in what’s one of the best arrangements on Bobby Charles. No wonder. That’s what I’d expect from a combination of Bobby Charles and The Band.

Blistering guitars and honky tonk piano open Grow Too Old. With the rhythm section adding the heartbeat, this sets the scene for Bobby’s vocal. It’s a fusion of power, passion and joy. Later, blazing horns are unleashed. They soar above the arrangement as blues, country and rock are combined to create a slice of good time music.

I’m That Way sees the good time music continue. Bobby’s all-star band deliver a musical masterclass. Dr. John plays  piano and is joined by country-tinged guitars. They’re joined by the rhythm section and Bobby’s vocal. It’s feisty and sassy. He tells his partner he’s leaving and looking for someone new. Guitars answer his call, while the band enjoy some grandstanding. This is a reminder, if any was needed, of just how good they are.

Closing Bobby Charles is Tennessee Blues. Just a thoughtful, chiming guitar and gently strummed acoustic guitar combine. They’re joined by an accordion. This results in a melancholy backdrop. It’s perfect for Bobby’s heartbroken vocal.  Hurt and despair fills his voice. When he sings: “if I had my way, I’d leave here today, I’d leave in a hurry” it’s obvious he means every word. With a vocal oozing emotion, Bobby sings about being unable to shake the “Tennessee Blues.” So, realistic is Bobby’s delivery, it’s as if he’s lived, loved and survived to tell the tale.

Listening to Bobby Charles, which was recently rereleased by Light In The Attic Records, which was released forty-two years ago, the best way to describe the album is a timeless, classic in-waiting. Despite being accompanied by most of The Band, plus some of the best session players of the day, Bobby Charles wasn’t a commercial success. Granted working with The Band lifted Bobby’s profile. More people heard his music. Sadly, not enough to make the album a hit. As a result, Bobby Charles didn’t chart. Since then, it’s remained one of music’s best kept secrets. 

Those in the know talk about Bobby’s debut album Bobby Charles in hushed tones. It’s given the reverence it deserves. It was as if everything Bobby had done since his 1955 single Later Alligator, had been building towards this. He’d waited long enough to release his debut album. So he wasn’t going to blow it. Like a prize fighter belatedly getting a title fight, Bobby Charles grabbed the opportunity. He penned eight tracks and cowrote the two other tracks. Then with The Band in tow, recorded a genre-melting epic. Everything fro, Americana, blues, country, pop, R&B, rock, soul and swamp pop shines through on Bobby Charles. 

On Bobby Charles, Bobby should’ve made the step from contender to champion. It’s an album that oozes quality. From the opening bars of Street People, right through to the closing notes of Tennessee Blues, it’s akin to jumping onboard a musical roller coaster. Musical genres and influences melt into one. So do emotions as Bobby sings about betrayal, heartbreak and hurt. It’s as if he’s experienced the hurt and heartache he’s singing about.  Despite that, Bobby’s capable of delivering vocals with tenderness and emotion Other times, Bobby happiness and joy fills Bobby’s voice.  Each of the ten tracks tells a story, which Bobby brings to life. It’s as if he’s lived and survived the lyrics. Bobby Charles it seems is a survivor.

Following the commercial failure of his debut album Bobby Charles in 1972, Bobby went on to enjoy a long and successful career. While chart success eluded Bobby as a singer, other singers made his songs a hit. Meanwhile, Bobby released another six albums before his death in 2010. By then, he’d established a reputation as one of the founding father’s of swamp pop. However, his debut album, Bobby Charles, which is a classic in-waiting, shows there’s more to Bobby Charles than swamp pop. Much more. Standout Tracks: Street People, I Must Be In A Good Place, Let Yourself Go and I’m That Way.


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