Rick Bayles writes: “The second article in our new Cajun Corner series sees Martin Johnson talking about the debut album of one of the finest singers and writers of the Swamp Pop genre.”
Bobby Charles, born Robert Charles Guidry in Abbeville, Louisiana in 1938 and an ethnic Cajun, was a leading influence on swamp pop primarily through his songwriting, which included the rock and roll classics ‘See You Later Alligator’ and ‘Walking To New Orleans’. He also had the voice to become a rock and roll star himself but the fact he recorded his own singles for the Chess and Imperial labels, labels who worked with primarily black artists at the time, meant he didn’t breakthrough as an artist in his own right. This didn’t particularly bother him as his songwriting royalties provided a steady income. By the end of the ‘60s, he found himself in Nashville but was forced to leave due to a drug charge when a neighbour stashed some speed in his apartment. Charles spent time in Austin, Texas, before deciding to head to Woodstock. In Woodstock, he soon came to the attention of the local community of musicians which just happened to include The Band. Rick Danko was particularly taken with Bobby Charles, and The Band and Dylan manager Albert Grossman agreed to resolve his drug-related legal problems in exchange for Charles signing to his label, Bearsville, for what would be his eponymous debut solo album.
Demo sessions started in November 1971 at Bearsville studio and it was these sessions that produced the final album, with the musicians unaware they were playing on what would become final album cuts. This meant that the album had a country funk charm to support a stellar set of songs. There was a core band of N. D. Smart on drums, Todd Rundgren and later Gram Parsons’ Grievous Angels’ drummer, Todd Rundgren’s bassist Jim Colegrove, Maria and Geoff Muldaur’s guitarist Amos Garrett and Band producer John Simon on piano, production was shared between Simon, Danko and Charles himself. The core band were joined by a number of other musicians including all of The Band, Dr. John, Geoff Muldaur and pedal-steel star Ben Keith.
The songs all have a slow easy vibe that invokes a hot steamy Louisiana summer and while things move slowly and the final takes were ostensibly demo sessions, this isn’t a sloppy album. In fact, it is difficult to imagine how it could be improved. It has been called the quintessential Woodstock album but in reality, it is the first swamp rock album by a Louisiana native and probably the greatest of that genre. One of the standout tracks is a Rick Danko co-write ‘Small Town Talk’ and Danko included this with two additional Bobby Charles’ co-writes on his own 1977 debut solo album. The ‘Bobby Charles’ album didn’t sell despite its quality and the musicians involved.
Bobby Charles continued to play in and around Woodstock in the ‘70s, including a stint with Paul Butterfield’s Better Days with Geoff Muldaur and Amos Garrett and he joined The Band for ‘The Last Waltz’, before retiring from the music business until the late ‘80s. While Bobby Charles is remembered as one of the great early rock and roll songwriters he also recorded one bonafide classic album that should be in the collection of anyone who likes American roots music and if you are in any way interested in the music of Louisiana, it is absolutely essential. His later albums are also worth hearing if you can find them and they also include cameos by more famous musical friends such as Dr. John and Willie Nelson.
Bobby Charles’ time in Woodstock is covered in ‘Small Town Talk’ by Barney Hoskyns published by Faber and Faber.
Thanks. Nice article. Bobby Charles is one of music’s sad and ‘bad luck’ stories. I don’t believe he could read music nor play an instrument yet he produced some wonderful songs. He never got the full recognition he deserved. A friend of mine from years ago, who got me interested in Bobby’s music, helped put together the anthology ‘Walking To New Orleans (The Jewel And Paula Recordings 1964-65)’ and interviewed Bobby for the sleeve notes at his Louisiana home, which some years later burned down. It’s a shame Bobby’s performance at ‘The Last Waltz’ was cut: there’s so little of him on film.
Glad you enjoyed the feature Jeremy. As you say, with his vocal and songwriting chops it is a mystery why he wasn’t more popular, but at least his songs were covered heavily by other artists which ensures some form of recognition of his talents.