Born Robert Charles Guidry, 21 February 1938, Abbeville, Louisiana
Some musicians are born to stay out of the limelight. A prime example is Bobby Charles, the writer of "See You Later Alligator","Walking To New Orleans" and "But I Do". Though he is responsible for many fine recordings as a singer, he never considered himself a performing artist, let alone a star. For a large part of his life he lived as a hermit at a remote homestead near Abbeville, Louisiana (population 12,257 at the 2010 census), surrounded by a flock of animals, among which a pet alligator. Bobby Guidry, an ethnic Cajun with a laconic, laid-back voice, grew up in poverty. He recalled that his life "changed for ever" when he retuned his parents' radio set from a local Cajun station to one playing Fats Domino. Bobby loved R&B so much that he joined a band called the Cardinals (soon renamed the Clippers), as a vocalist. After playing a dance, the group stopped at a diner for some coffee and as Bobby was leaving he said to one of the band members "See you later, alligator". From a table of unknown people who were probably drunk, a woman said something that caught his ear and he asked her what she said. "After a while, crocodile" was the reply. Guidry went home and wrote a song around the two catch phrases in some 20 minutes.
When the Clippers played the song at a high school graduation dance in Crowley, it went down so well that local record shop owner Dago Redlich (kind of a talent scout for Chess in Crowley), asked Bobby to call Leonard Chess in Chicago (collect) and sing the song over the phone. Chess liked the song and instructed his New Orleans A&R man Paul Gayten to record the song with Bobby at Cosimo Matassa's J&M Studio. Bobby and his band headed to New Orleans in October 1955 and recorded three songs. Leonard Chess changed Guidry's name to Bobby Charles and released the single in November 1955. However, Bobby was distraught to find it released under the abbreviated title "Later Alligator" and he explained to Chess that the complete phrase was essential in the youth environment of the time. Subsequent pressings were released with the correct title. The B-side, the ballad "On Bended Knee", is now generally considered as the first swamp pop song and was later (1961) a # 64 pop hit for Clarence 'Frogman' Henry. "See You Later Alligator" sold very well in Louisiana, but on December 12, 1955 it was covered by Bill Haley, whose more professional version climbed to # 6 on the pop charts, while Bobby's original record only made a token appearance on the R&B charts at # 14 for one week in March 1956.
Meanwhile, Bobby had already recorded his second session in January, this time in Chicago with Chess house session men. The Chess brothers were astonished to see that Bobby was white. For three months they had assumed that he was black. Thus Bobby Charles became the first white artist on the Chess label (soon to be joined by Dale Hawkins). Out of that second session came the single "Don't You Know I Love You"/"Why Did You Leave" (a commercial flop), while "Watch It Sprocket" was held in the can. For the next session (May 1956), it was back to New Orleans, but this time with backing from Cosimo Matassa's studio band, which would continue to accompany Bobby on his Chess recordings. The results were white R&B/rock n roll recordings of a uniformly high quality, but after "Alligator" only the third Chess single, "Time Will Tell", charted briefly, climbing to # 11 on the R&B listings in August 1956. Bobby's unwillingness to promote his records personally must have contributed to the decline in sales. After having released seven Bobby Charles singles, Leonard Chess lost interest and cut him loose in mid-1958.
After an unreleased session for Jay Miller in Crowley, Bobby signed with Imperial, where producer Dave Bartholomew supplied him primarily with his own (Bartholomew's) songs. Though he was still backed by the same studio band, the Imperial singles are not nearly as good as the Chess sides. His two-year stint at Imperial ended with a bang with his co-writing of Fats Domino's "Walking To New Orleans", a # 6 pop hit in 1960. (Fats also recorded his songs "Before I Grow Too Old", "It Keeps Rainin'" and "Those Eyes").
Bobby Charles then returned to Chess, but primarily as a songwriter and promotion man. Clarence 'Frogman' Henry recorded many of his songs, including the smash hit "But I Do" (1961) and several songs that Charles had previously recorded himself ("Lonely Street", "Why Can't You", "On Bended Knees", "Your Picture"). Bobby's only session from this period (ca. March 1961) yielded four rather anachronistic songs that were not issued at the time.
Between 1963 and 1965 Bobby Charles recorded for Hub-City (a short-lived attempt at starting his own label), Jewel and Paula, but then his recording career went into a self-induced vacuum. In 1972 he made a comeback with the critically acclaimed album "Bobby Charles" on Bearsville, with backing from Dr. John and members of The Band. Sales were disappointing and Charles retreated once again into his Abbeville hermitage to concentrate on songwriting.
On November 26, 1976, Bobby was invited to play with The Band at their farewell concert, "The Last Waltz", but his contribution ("Down South In New Orleans") was edited out of the "Last Waltz" movie by director Martin Scorcese, though it was included on the eponymous triple LP. Albums with new material followed in 1987, 1995, 1998 and 2004, while Charles continued to live in isolation, embittered at the way the record industry treated musicians in general, songwriters in particular and Louisiana artists locally. He was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall Of Fame in 2007.
In late 2009, Bobby Charles Guidry finished his final album, "Timeless", which he co-produced with his longtime friend Mac Rebennack. The opening track was "Happy Birthday Fats Domino", a tribute to his idol, intended for Fats's 82nd birthday on February 26, 2010. Alas, Bobby did not live to see its release : he died on January 14, 2010, after collapsing at his home in Abbeville.
Obituary : http://www.nola.com/music/bobby_charles
Essential CD :
Discography : http://koti.mbnet.fi/wdd/bobbycharles.htm
Acknowledgements : Rick Coleman, John Broven, Roger Dopson, Paul Harris.
Dik, April 2012
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