January 14, 2010 – Bobby Charles was born Robert Charles Guidry on February 21, 1938 in Abbeville, Louisiana. As a kid grew up listening to Cajun music and the country and western music of Hank Williams. At the age of 15, he heard a performance by Fats Domino, an event that “changed my life forever,” he recalled.
Charles helped to pioneer the south Louisiana musical genre known as swamp pop. His compositions include the hits “See You Later, Alligator“, which he initially recorded himself as “Later Alligator”, but which is best known from the cover version by Bill Haley & His Comets which sold more than 1 million records, and “Walking to New Orleans“, written for Fats Domino.
He led a local group, the Cardinals, for whom he wrote a song called Hey Alligator at the age of 14. The song was inspired by an incident at a roadside diner, when his parting shot to a friend – “See you later, alligator” – inspired another customer to respond with: “In a while, crocodile.”
The popularity of the song led a local record-store owner to recommend Guidry to Leonard Chess of the Chicago-based Chess Records label. After Bobby had sung it over the phone, Chess signed him up. He travelled to New Orleans to record the song and several others under the name Bobby Charles. On his first visit to Chicago, he shocked the label’s owners, who had been expecting to meet a young black singer and had arranged a promotional tour of the “chitlin’ circuit” of African-American venues.
“(I Don’t Know Why) But I Do” was an early 1960s song that Charles composed, which Clarence “Frogman” Henry had a major hit with, and which was on the soundtrack of the 1994 film Forrest Gump. His composition “Why Are People Like That?” was on the soundtrack of the 1998 film Home Fries.
Although Charles performed alongside big names such as Little Richard, the Platters and Chuck Berry on tours in the late 1950s, his own records for Chess, Imperial and Jewel did not sell that well. Nevertheless, he enjoyed songwriting royalties from hit versions of songs he had co-written, such as Walking to New Orleans, recorded by Fats Domino in 1960, and But I Do, recorded by Clarence “Frogman” Henry in 1961.
Charles’s laidback, drawling vocal style was also a formative influence on a style of music made by white and black Louisiana teenagers that came to be called swamp pop – primarily slow, rolling two-chord ballads drawing from all the musical traditions of south Louisiana, such as country, soul and Cajun.
Charles was invited to play with the Band at their November 26, 1976, farewell concert, The Last Waltz, at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. In the concert, Charles played “Down South in New Orleans”, with the help of Dr. John and the Band. That song was recorded and released as part of the triple-LP The Last Waltz box set. The performance was also captured on film by director Martin Scorsese, but did not appear in the final, released theatrical version. Charles did, however, appear briefly in a segment of the released film—in the concert’s final song, “I Shall Be Released“. In that segment, his image is largely blocked from view during the performance. That song, sung by Bob Dylan and pianist Richard Manuel, featured backup vocals from the entire ensemble, including Charles.
He co-wrote the song “Small Town Talk” with Rick Danko of the Band. “Promises, Promises (The Truth Will Set You Free)” was co-written with Willie Nelson.
Charles continued to compose and record (he was based out of Woodstock, New York, for a time) and in the 1990s he recorded a duet of “Walking to New Orleans” with Domino.
His songs continued to attract other singers. Joe Cocker recorded The Jealous Kind (in 1976), as did Ray Charles and Etta James. Kris Kristofferson was among several singers to record the wistful Tennessee Blues. Charles returned to the studio rarely in later years, recording Wish You Were Here Right Now (1995) and Secrets of the Heart (1998). The 2004 double CD Last Train to Memphis was a retrospective of his compositions, with guest appearances by Neil Young, Willie Nelson and Fats Domino. In 2008, his friend and collaborator Dr John co-produced the album Homemade Songs.
Charles lived for some years in quiet seclusion at Holly Beach on the Gulf of Mexico. After his house was destroyed by Hurricane Rita in 2005, he returned to Abbeville. His contribution to the music of his home state was recognised when he was inducted into the Louisiana music hall of fame in 2007. He had been in poor health recently with diabetes and was in remission from kidney cancer. He died on January 14, 2010 at age 71.