Bobby Charles, Louisiana songwriter, dies at 71
By Keith Spera, The Times-Picayune
January 15, 2010
Robert "Bobby" Charles Guidry, the reclusive south Louisiana songwriter of hits for Fats Domino, Frogman Henry and Bill Haley & the Comets, died early Thursday after collapsing at home in Abbeville, his manager said. He was 71.
Known professionally as Bobby Charles, he wrote "Walking to New Orleans," one of Domino's most beloved songs; "(I Don't Know Why I Love You) But I Do," an enduring classic by Henry; and "See You Later Alligator," a smash for Haley at the dawn of rock 'n' roll.
A reluctant performer, Mr. Charles largely disappeared after participating in the Band's 1976 farewell concert The Last Waltz. He preferred to release the occasional album while living quietly, an enigma whose songs were more famous than he was. Along the way he dealt with a litany of personal disasters ranging from fires to floods to cancer.
Mr. Charles agreed to stage a "comeback" at the 2007 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell, only to back out at the last minute, citing health issues. Mac "Dr. John" Rebennack, Marcia Ball, guitarist Sonny Landreth and other admirers performed his songs in his absence.
"He was the champion south Louisiana songwriter," Landreth said. "Everybody had a favorite Bobby Charles song. He had the gift."
Mr. Charles grew up poor in Abbeville, the son of a gas company truck driver. At 14, he joined a band that entertained at high school dances.
"Nobody in my family wanted me to get into the music business, but I always loved it," he said during a 2007 interview. "The first time I heard Hank Williams and Fats Domino, it just knocked me down. When I was a kid, I used to pray to be a songwriter like them. My prayers were answered, I guess."
Leaving a cafe one night, Mr. Charles bid farewell to friends with "see you later, alligator." As the cafe door closed behind him, a drunken stranger replied, "after 'while, crocodile." Not sure he heard correctly, he went back inside and asked the stranger to repeat it.
That couplet inspired him to write "See You Later Alligator." He sang it over the phone and landed a recording contract, sight unseen, from Chicago blues and R&B label Chess Records. The company's owners assumed he was black until he stepped off the plane in Chicago.
As a burgeoning teen idol, he hit the road with other Chess artists, the only white guy on the bus. Not all audiences appreciated such integration. The threats soured him on touring. So did the occasional bullet fired his way.
"I never wanted to be a star," he said. "I've got enough problems, I promise you. If I could make it just writing, I'd be happy. Thank God I've been lucky enough to have a lot of people do my songs."
In the 1970s, Mr. Charles wrote a song called "The Jealous Kind." Joe Cocker recorded it in 1976, followed by Ray Charles, Delbert McClinton, Etta James and Johnny Adams. Kris Kristofferson and Gatemouth Brown covered Mr. Charles' "Tennessee Blues," as did newcomer Shannon McNally. Muddy Waters recorded "Why Are People Like That"; so did Houma guitarist Tab Benoit on his Grammy-nominated 2006 album "Brother to the Blues."
He could not play an instrument or read music. Songs popped into his head, fully formed. To capture them, he'd sing into the nearest answering machine; sometimes he'd call home from a convenience store pay phone.
"I can hear all the chords up here," he said, pointing to his brain, "but I can't tell you what they are."
He counted Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Willie Nelson and James Taylor among his friends and fans. Mickey Raphael, the longtime harmonica player in Willie Nelson's band, appears on Mr. Charles' forthcoming CD. He once encountered Mr. Charles at Nelson's studio outside Austin, Tex.
"He said he wanted to record some music, and he was bringing some musicians," Raphael recalled. "He said, 'This is my guitar player, Neil.' And it was Neil Young.
"He was so unpretentious and laid-back. On further investigation, you'd find out he wrote all these incredible songs."
In his younger years, Mr. Charles raised all kinds of hell. His rogue's resume included scrapes with the law, a busted marriage, and general excess. "To love and lose -- I know that pain," he said. "And cocaine killed so many of my friends."
For a time in the 1970s, he laid low in Woodstock, N.Y. But mostly Mr. Charles holed up in the bosom of south Louisiana, waiting for the next song to come along. Or the next calamity.
For years, he lived on the Vermilion River outside Maurice, La. In the mid-'90s, his house burned down. He moved into a trailer on the grounds of Dockside Studios in Maurice, a favorite haunt. Despondent, he hit the road with one of his four sons and washed up at Holly Beach, a hamlet with 300 permanent residents on the Gulf of Mexico southwest of Lake Charles.
"I'm a Pisces. I love water," he said. "There's nothing like a wave to wash away your problems and clean out your mind."
In Holly Beach, Mr. Charles disappeared for a decade. But in the summer of 2005, Hurricane Rita found him. He escaped just ahead of the storm, then later returned to find his house had washed away.
The reclusive songwriter preferred to live quietly, out of the limelight.He moved to a two-bedroom trailer amid the grand oaks of an eight acre property outside Abbeville. He kept his address and phone number secret, and cast a wary eye toward strangers and acquaintances alike.
"They all want to meet Bob Dylan or Willie Nelson. They say, 'Man, I got a song for Bob Dylan.' I think Bob Dylan writes most of his own. So does Willie. I don't even sing any of mine to them.
"Some people have to depend on somebody else to make a living. And that gets tiresome, man, carrying a load like that. It gets to the point where you're afraid to open your mouth in front of anybody."
Despite being swindled out of some publishing rights and songwriting credits along the way, his annual royalties afforded him a comfortable living. When, for instance, Frogman Henry's version of "But I Do" landed on the "Forrest Gump" soundtrack, Mr. Charles received a royalty check.
Mr. Charles was happiest in the studio. He often scheduled recording sessions to coincide with the full moon. "His approach was unorthodox," said Sonny Landreth, who often recorded with Mr. Charles at Dockside. "It wasn't like recording in Nashville, which is very organized, with musical charts."
Recent compositions occasionally contained ecological messages. The issue of clean water was especially important to him, Raphael said. "He'd call me up and say, 'I'm so mad about this, I had to write a song,'" Raphael said. "You'd listen to the song, and know he was mad as hell, but he always put a positive spin on it."
In 2003, Mr. Charles and Jim Bateman, his manager for the past three decades, gathered recordings spanning 20 years for the double-CD "Last Train to Memphis," released via Charles' own Rice 'n Gravy Records. Guest musicians included Neil Young, Fats Domino, Willie Nelson, Delbert McClinton and Maria Muldaur.
Mr. Charles' voice, graced with a slight, Randy Newman-esque drawl, remained strong in his later years, as did his gift for pairing lyrics and melody. He was due to release a new album, "Timeless," next month. Co-produced by Mr. Charles and Rebennack, it contains mostly new songs, and is dedicated to Domino. While recording, "he had lots of energy, and was very productive," Landreth said. Rebennack "had that affect on him."
Mr. Charles recently injured his back in a fall, but remained intensely focused on finishing "Timeless." "He kept saying, 'I've got to get this out. I want to hold it in my hands,'" Bateman said. "It's like he had a premonition."
Mr. Charles saw the final design for the album's artwork, but died weeks before its scheduled Feb. 23 release.
Had he lived, he was unlikely to hit the road to promote his new CD. In recent years, he tended to keep to himself. Most days, he ate alone at an Abbeville seafood joint where the waitress mixed his preferred cocktail -- a Grey Goose martini on the rocks -- as he parked his car.
"I don't really have anybody," Mr. Charles said in 2007. "I just don't have a whole lot in common with the people I went to school with. I still love them as my friends, but I don't have anything to say to 'em. They wouldn't believe half the (stuff) that happened to me anyway.
"But when I get around Mac Rebennack or Fats or somebody like that, then I'm in my world."