My old buddy, Robert Charles Guidry, was better known as Bobby Charles, and he was more successful as a songwriter than a singer, and it's a sin 'cause he's a hell of a singer. He's got one of the most melodious voices ever transferred to a piece of vinyl. The boy could sing like a bird. He still does as a matter of fact." --Bob Dylan
American treasure:" As the term increasingly permeates the vernacular of musicology, one hesitates to use it -- unless it applies unequivocally. It is all but impossible to imagine the evolution of modern American roots music, without acknowledging the quintessential contribution of singer/ songwriter Bobby Charles. What better definition, then, of a true American treasure?
His road has been ground-breaking, bumpy, exhilarating, tender, and a path to personal freedom. The anecdotes are priceless.
I was 15 before I ever heard the word 'motherf***ker,'" Bobby recalls with the glee of having just experienced the moment. I got off the plane in Chicago from the Louisiana bayou, to meet Phil Chess, the brother and associate of my new employer, Leonard Chess. That was Phil's first word when he saw me! 'Man, I didn't know you were white,' he said, and I knew it was the first time he met a full-blooded Cajun." Bobby joined brothers Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley and Willie Dixon, and sister Etta James, on the historic Chess Records roster. Out of the gate, he wrote and recorded a little ditty called See You Later Alligator," soon a monster pop hit for Bill Haley and the Comets. In 1960, Bobby penned Walking to New Orleans" for Fats Domino, followed by (I Don't Know Why) But I Do," recorded by Clarence Frogman" Henry a year later.
Walking to New Orleans" has been a landmark Crescent City exponent for an incredible five decades, most recently as the theme for Spike Lee's heartbreaking requiem" to Hurricane Katrina, When the Levees Broke."
Now comes Homemade Songs, Bobby Charles' triumphant new recording, released in July 2008, on Rice 'N' Gravy Records (distributed by Select-O-Hits), and largely recorded on the bayou campus" of famed Dockside Studio, Maurice, LA. Produced by Bobby Charles, Jim Bateman and Ben Keith (the same team who co-produced 2004's Last Train To Memphis), Rolling Stone calls it a collection of 15 swampy soulful tracks, featuring pals like Dr. John and Spooner Oldham (and) Charles' songwriting (taking) center stage." Mardi Gras Song" bowed as critic Edna Gundersen's Pick of the Week" in USA Today, July 8, 2008. All songs are written by Bobby (with four, co-written). Bateman says, It's a rare treat to experience a new Bobby Charles CD. He has released few albums over the years, yet he continues to set the bar higher with each timeless recording."
His players include fellow Louisianian and longtime pal, slide and blues guitarist Sonny Landreth who says, Bobby's voice and his songs are the heart and soul of South Louisiana's all time greatest and for that he is our world champion."
Bobby's Queen Bee," a sultry, lowdown blues, was recorded with a core band that includes Landreth, Phil Chandler on piano, David Hyde on bass, Chris LeBlanc on acoustic guitar and David Peters on drums. Bobby says, I just knew Muddy would have recorded this one, if he were still alive. Sonny asked me, 'What do you want here, a Muddy lick?,' and I said 'Yea you right.'" (Muddy Waters' version of Bobby's Why Are People Like That? opens the Grammy-winning Woodstock album.) After groovin' to the song, one can't help but recall that Mick and Keith memorialized that Chess Records' Chicago address for a reason. Here, Bobby invigorates the ilk like never before.
Wow--a welcome surprise to hear Bobby's jazz-revamped But I Do." Taking the chairs on this cut are Joe Allen on bass, Charles Cochran on piano, Mike Elliott on guitar and Kenny Malone on percussion, backing Bobby's smooth, in-the-pocket vocals. This one really swings, in all its legendary glory, a sure bet for a new Bobby Charles genre: jazz radio. And, if the rendition sounds familiar, that's because the song was featured in this year's film, Everybody Wants To Be Italian." Bobby says the recording was effortless: We did it in one take, right there in Mike Elliott's engineering booth."
Cowboys and Indians" (co-written with Ben Keith) is a Dylanesque mix of Louisiana and Texas musical sensibilities, spotlighting Bobby's organic focus on Americana themes and historical perspective. When Fats Domino heard the song, he called out to Bobby, Now, that's gospel!"
Continuing a topical theme is Bobby's anthemic The Truth Will Set You Free (Promises, Promises)," co-written with Willie Nelson. Dr. John's acclaimed, new CD, City That Care Forgot, includes the song, plus four others co-written by Bobby, including Black Gold," an indictment of oil greed in light of the Gulf Coast disaster, climate change and the Iraqi war. Mac called me and said, 'How do we write a song about oil?,' and I said, 'Man, we call it black gold.'" (Synchronicity pairs the song with tru-TV's gritty new series documenting Texas oil-drilling roughnecks.") New York Times critic Jon Pareles quotes Dr. John: Bobby hits your nerves good. That's one of his fortes: he can go straight for the jugular. I could give Bobby some words or a thought, and within an hour it's finished."
Too Blue" has a terrific old-timey feel, with a swamp-funk production, supporting Bobby's bluesy vocals, an example of his ability to inject specific emotional personality in each performance. Again, Dr. John helps a brother with that singularly reliable New Orleans piano style. They are mutual fans, as Dr. John continues: Bobby Charles is truly one of the great singers and songwriters, and a character. It seems like he's always been in my life. We have a lot of laughs together and that's important. If you ain't got a sense of humor, you ain't livin.'"
Here I Go Again" is an example of Bobby's emotional elegance. Ace harpist Mickey Raphael adds to the beauty (as he does on three other tracks). Spooner Oldham lends full body on organ (and on two additional cuts). Some of these tunes make you wonder if it's Bobby Charles who influences Willie Nelson or vice versa. Yet another Louisianian, the late Clarence Gatemouth" Brown, did the song proud in a recording with Maria Muldaur.
Like Gate" and Fats, Bobby lost his home to a hurricane. It was Rita that hit Bobby. Well, now I've seen fire and I've seen rain," Bobby remarks, having previously lost a home to a fire. Thankfully, he's relocated, but it's another profound reminder that Bobby Charles is integrally woven in the richly complex, life-affirming and mystical tapestry that is Louisiana, our precious American roots homeland.
His passionate project on behalf of school children is Solution to Pollution," providing a learning package for public schools, at no charge. The only future for our children lies in the protection of our planet," Bobby says. And, nothing changes if it doesn't get taught in those formative years." Bobby produced a CD for the project, Clean Water," and released it on Rice 'N' Gravy Records. Longtime producer, associate and friend, Jim Bateman (who managed Clarence Gatemouth" Brown for 30 years), spearheads the marketing and distribution of Rice 'N' Gravy with Bobby.
Born Robert Charles Guidry in Abbeville, Louisiana, Bobby Charles was inducted into The Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2007. It's just possible that nobody's ever written a better pop song. And, it's possible that other Hall of Fame will catch on. What a good thing it is that the writing, singing and recording of Bobby Charles continue unabated. As another poet laureate (Leonard Cohen) puts it: Ring the bells that still can ring!"