“See you later alligator…in a while crocodile” was the first song lyric to make an impression on my young self. The reptilian rhyme was smart, snappy & became quite a catchphrase. Bill Haley & the Comets were a Rock & Roll sensation in the mid-1950s. They may not have been the originators, they weren’t, but they were popularisers of this new, rebellious music. In the UK the inclusion of their #1 hit “Rock Around the Clock” in the 1955 film “The Blackboard Jungle” & a subsequent tour in 1957 caused a moral panic when the Teddy Boys made the nation’s front pages, wrecking & rolling cinemas & concert halls. Haley was 30 years old, a great pro but hardly hip to the teenage trip. This swinging sayonara, a hip hasta la vista, was written by a much younger hepcat, someone whose music continues to hit the spot.
Bobby Charles (Robert Charles Guidry) was just 17, you know what I mean, when he recorded “Later Alligator”. The song caught the attention of Chess Records who were surprised when a young white boy answered their invitation to Chicago. Bobby was from Abbeville Louisiana, 150 miles west of New Orleans, & it was Fats Domino, that city’s biggest star, who had inspired him to take up with the Rock & Roll. In 1960 his hero recorded “Walking to New Orleans”, a song written for him by Charles, & had his biggest hit for a couple of years. In the following year “(I Don’t Know Why I Love You) But I Do” put Clarence “Frogman” Henry in the Top 10. Bobby continued to record with Imperial Records in N.O. & then with Jewel up in Shreveport but it was as a songwriter that he made his money (never what he was fully due) & earned his reputation. “I Hope”, 2 minutes short & so sweet, is one of the tracks cut for Jewel in 1964.
In the late sixties Bobby had to leave Nashville when he was caught growing the marahoochie. He turned up in Woodstock NY, famous for a festival that was actually held 60 miles away, home to a community centred around Bob Dylan & his manager Albert Grossman’s Bearsville Records. Bobby was laying low but, back then, if you knocked on a door in Woodstock it was likely that a musician would answer it. With his stories of sessions with Fats, Willie Dixon & Little Walter, his bag full of new songs, he soon had new friends, a recording contract & was back in the studio.
“Bobby Charles” (1972) is known as the album Charles made with the Band, Dylan’s backing musicians for his concerts & responsible for great music in their own right. Sure, bassist Rick Danko co-produced & was joined in the studio by Levon Helm & Garth Hudson (I believe Richard Manuel is in there somewhere, the credits are a little informal) but there’s much more to the record than famous friends. From the slinky Funk of “Street People” to the closing languid Country waltz “Tennessee Blues” there’s a greasy musical warmth matched with Bobby’s smoky rasp that makes the whole record a lovely, leisurely treat. Session guitarist Amos Garrett inserts a handsome elegance whenever he steps forward. Bobby’s roots are still there, you can take the boy out of Louisiana but…his lyrics, mature & magnanimous are, on the best songs, quite perfect. It’s tough to pick just one track but “Small Town Talk”, just Bobby, Levon on drums & the organ playing of Dr John, always does it for me.
Recording was underway for a follow-up LP in Bearsville when Grossman, who had helped Charles out with his legal problems, wanted to negotiate a new contract. Bobby had been wheeled & dealed before & now had a sharp eye for sharp practice. He walked away from Woodstock with the parting shot, “I can’t say that it was good doing business with you, so I’ll just say adios m—-f—-r !”. In November 1976 he showed out at the Winterland in San Francisco for the Band’s farewell concert. He performed “Down South in New Orleans” but didn’t make the final cut for the movie “The Last Waltz”, possibly because he had refused to go along with director Martin Scorsese’s suggestion that he should play “See You Later Alligator”. Bobby had had it with the business of music, went back to Louisiana. There would be no more new music for over a decade.
Bobby still wrote songs, it was what he did. Joe Cocker picked up a couple for a 1976 LP. He had a co-credit with Neil Young on “Saddle Up the Palomino” & there was a song with Willie Nelson. Some of the tunes from the eponymous LP, “Small Town Talk”, “Tennessee Blues”, were covered by other artists. Fellow member of the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame Tommy McLain recorded “I Hope” & “Before I Grow Too Old”. Charles became known as a pioneer of Swamp Pop, somewhere musically & geographically between Zydeco & New Orleans. His subsequent LPs, some involving more of his regarded friends, included selections from his extensive catalogue. It was the extended version of the 1972 record, followed by a box set of the complete Bearsville sessions which confirmed the quality of the music he was making at that time. “You Came Along”, not previously released, is a simple, sumptuous, delightful declaration of love with outstanding support on piano from Spooner Oldham off of Muscle Shoals AL.
Charles chose to live a quiet life in Abbeville, his major concern the pollution caused by the refineries along the banks of the Mississippi. When his house burned down, leaving him with his car & little else he moved to Holly Beach on the Gulf of Mexico. A hurricane found him there & he returned to his hometown where unfortunately, in 2010 he collapsed & died aged 71.
His talent was that he merged his many musical influences with his own empathic personality to produce an attractive, individual take on American music. His lyrical facility, direct, honest, almost conversational, has meant that successive generations have found an affinity to his songs. In the UK Ian Dury, no slouch when it comes to vernacular lyrics, selected “Small Town Talk” as a Desert Island Disc. Lily Allen opted for McLain’s version of “Before I Grow Too Old”. That same song, as “Silver & Gold”, was recorded by the great Joe Strummer, appearing as the final track on his final LP with the Mescaleros. Everyone has a favourite Bobby Charles song, maybe it’s just that you haven’t heard yours yet. That great album can be found in full on the Y-tube so get to it. I’ll see you later…