The Street Parade was deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Bobby Charles, Louisiana songwriter extraordinaire.
The Cajun Charles was born Robert Charles Guidry in Abbeville Louisiana in 1938. He gained early fame writing songs for Fats Domino, Frogman Henry and Bill Haley & the Comets, including “See ‘Ya Later Alligator,” “Walking to New Orleans,” and “(I Don’t Know Why I Love You) But I Do.”
Charles experienced a revival when he appeared with The Band in the Last Waltz (his version of “Down South in New Olreans” included on the album is a classic) but he was always a reluctant performer, releasing a few albums while living in near seclusion. His songs were more famous than he was, and he seemed more than content to leave it that way as he dealt recently with a range of disasters from fire to flood to cancer. He has remained largely unknown although enjoying an almost cult-like following in some circles.
Charles agreed to stage a “comeback” at the 2007 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, but he was forced to back out at the last minute due to 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.”
“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 Charles’s “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. In a recent interview he said, “I can hear all the chords up here,” he said, pointing to his brain, “but I can’t tell you what they are.”
Charles’s 1972 self-titled album is one of the Street Parade’s all-time favorite albums. Working with a remarkable back-up band including Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Levon Helm, and Doctor John, Charles is at his Louisiana finest. This is one of those albums I can never grow tired of hearing. It was a hard-to-find classic for many years, but it’s easily accessible now after recently re-released. Any fan of the Street Parade should really have this album.
Once again, the Street Parade is sad to announce a musical loss such as this, but certainly happy to spread the news of good music. Bobby Charles, we’ll miss you.