Bobby Charles: See you later, alligator

Had Robert Charles Guidry never composed a note after the age of 15, his place in popular culture would still have been secure. He was the kid who, having overheard the phrase “See you later, alligator”, added the reply “after awhile, crocodile”, set it to a jumping blues riff and gave Bill Haley and his Comets the hit they needed to follow the epochal Rock Around the Clock.

In fact, Guidry, or Bobby Charles as he came to be known, who died last month at age 71, grew up to pen hundreds of songs – including Fats Domino’s Walking to New Orleans – and to play an important, if near-invisible, role in several decades of popular music. I learnt much about his songwriting, his life and the reasons for his invisibility when I paid him a visit in 1995.

Although I had known See You Later, Alligator my entire life, my fascination with its author stemmed from an album recorded in 1972. Titled simply Bobby Charles, it bore little connection to his teenage hit.

Instead, here were 10 terrific songs, as elemental as those of Hank Williams. Homespun tales, both rustic and streetwise, coming from some indefinable place between country and blues. They told of rivalry (He’s Got All the Whiskey), gossip (Small Town Talk, co-written with Rick Danko, one of several members of the Band to feature on the record), and about power and greed (“save me, Jesus/from this godforsaken place”). Best of all was Tennessee Blues, the album’s closing ballad and one of the loneliest, loveliest songs of longing you will ever hear. The voice, like the words and melodies, was plain yet eloquent and utterly believable.

My friend Arthur Baysting introduced me to this masterpiece on a worn cassette he used to carry with him wherever he went, and I spent years searching second-hand stores before I finally found my own vinyl copy. It hadn’t received much promotion and the few pressings had mostly gone to discount bins.

From the little information available, I learnt that Charles was a Cajun: one of the French-speaking people of the Louisiana bayous. My friend and fellow fan eventually found a contact and sent him a recording of New Zealand school children singing his song Clean Water.

In 1995, I was in New Orleans for the Jazz and Heritage Festival and decided to look him up. For a recluse, he wasn’t too hard to find; he even answered his own phone and, surprisingly, invited me to stay. On the three-hour drive to Holly Beach, a windswept strip on the Gulf of Mexico not far from the Texas border, alligators lounged along the roadside.

Home was a fisherman’s cottage. The single sign of success was a spa pool, paid for by royalties from But I Do, a 60s hit for Clarence “Frogman” Henry and more recently used in the film Forrest Gump.

He explained the Band connection. Busted for cannabis in Nashville in the 60s and facing likely imprisonment, he had turned fugitive. After years on the run, he wound up in Woodstock, where he fell in with the local musical fraternity. Albert Grossman, manager of the Band and Bob Dylan, offered to sort out his legal problems and get him a recording deal. But Charles could not shake off his fears and paranoia and soon returned to the South and obscurity.

He talked sadly about the Band’s Richard Manuel and the great bluesman Paul Butterfield: victims of the rock’n’roll road. Both used to ring him, “all fucked up”, in the middle of the night. He would advise them to come down to rural Louisiana and leave their demons behind; if they had listened, he said, they would be alive today.

Charles explained how he had never played an instrument and, until recently, never even made demos. If a song was good enough, it would simply stick in his head until he could get into a studio. One such song was The Jealous Kind, an enduring classic that has been recorded by both Joe Cocker and Ray Charles. It came to him in the bath, and he recalled shouting to his then-wife to bring him a pencil so he could quickly write down the lyric. Among the recordings he played me was a heartbreaking unreleased version of The Jealous Kind, sung as an impromptu trio with Danko and Butterfield.

He also mentioned a tape he had been sent that made him “real happy”: a bunch of school kids singing Clean Water. Preserving the ecology, especially of the threatened Louisiana wetlands, was now his main passion. It was Arthur's recording, I realised, that had made him so immediately hospitable to this Kiwi visitor.

Over the years, a handful of recordings have carried his name, from the sides he made for the Chicago R&B label Chess in the 50s (“before they discovered I wasn’t black,” he laughed) to an unreleased album completed just last year.

Meanwhile, the 1972 album has been recognised as a classic and reissued several times, most recently in a deluxe edition from Rhino last year. I’m listening to it now. “When you take me, Jesus/please put me among friends/don’t put me back with those power-crazy money lovers again,” Charles sings, and the song rings truer than ever.

Tags: bobby charlesarthur baystingnew orleansthe bandchess records

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