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Searching for Bobby Charles 

"Walking to New Orleans," "See You Later Alligator" and "Ain't Got No Home" all came from the mind of reclusive Louisiana songwriter Bobby Charles. For the first time in years, the music legend talks about his inspirations and his storied career.

Bobby Charles just wants to be left alone.

The songwriter who gave the world such classics as "See You Later Alligator," "But I Do," and "The Jealous Kind" retired from performing almost three decades ago, but that hasn't stopped admirers and aspiring songwriters from seeking out the man whose circle of friends includes rock 'n' roll royalty.

"Man, you wouldn't believe how many people show up at my door, asking me to send a song of theirs to Bob Dylan or Neil Young," says Charles. "I always have to say, 'No, please go away.'"

Charles lights a cigar in the dark living room. The blinds of his small Cameron home are drawn shut to keep out the noontime sun, and Charles settles back into an easy chair facing a large-screen TV tuned to CNN. The adjacent sofa is piled high with mail opened and unopened, T-shirts and caps emblazoned with the logo of his Rice 'n' Gravy record label, and stacks of his new CD, Last Train to Memphis. It's Charles' first record in six years -- and the primary reason Charles has made a rare decision to discuss his remarkable career.

Now 66, Charles -- an Abbeville native who was born Robert Charles Guidry -- values his privacy more than ever. After having a kidney removed six years ago, his back started giving him trouble. Rather than endure another surgery, Charles maintains a regimen of exercise and a stricter diet, but the pain remains. He walks with a cane now, and any type of extended travel is a challenge.

Not that Charles has much desire to venture out of town anyway. When his house in Abbeville burned down eight years ago, Charles lost all his possessions, and felt like he was on the brink of a nervous breakdown. "All I had left was the shirt on my back, the pants on my ass, and my car," he says. "I had bought another little house and we were fixing it up, and I was going crazy -- no roof, no place to stay. So I said to one of my kids, 'Let's go take a ride to the beach, go to Florida for a couple days, so I can listen to the water and clear my head out and get myself together.' He said, 'Why go to Florida, that's so far, let's go to Holly Beach.'

"When I saw an empty lot and the water right there, I said, 'This is what I need.' I stopped the car right there and jumped in the Gulf of Mexico."

He's been living on the Gulf ever since -- and it's a perfect spot for the man who once stunned director Martin Scorsese and guitarist Robbie Robertson by refusing to sing "See You Later Alligator" at The Band's star-studded 1976 farewell concert, which Scorsese was filming for the movie The Last Waltz. Charles wanted to sing a newer song instead, and wouldn't back down.

"Martin Scorsese dropped his jaw," remembers Charles. "He couldn't believe I was saying no to him and Robbie. 'Who is this guy?' he asked. 'He's somebody that doesn't want to be a star.' I said, 'I'm sorry, it's just the way I am.'"


LAST TRAIN TO MEMPHIS
is a reflection of Charles' unusual career and unconventional work habits. Of its 15 tracks, 10 were recorded over the past eight years in Dockside Studio in Maurice. The other five are culled from sessions dating back to 1975 in locations from Nashville to Austin, Texas. Charles will never be accused of being prolific; he recorded a number of singles in the 1950s and '60s, but Last Train to Memphis is only the fourth album he's released in the last three decades.

"A lot of people don't understand that music is a business for me," he says. "It's not like a party where you go and have a dance to listen to the music. They don't know what it takes to do the song, do the music, deal with the band, deal with the record companies -- they have no idea."

For Charles, those aspects of his work are worth it for his songs. He doesn't read music or play a single instrument, but he understood early on that he has a gift for writing memorable melodies, phrases, and choruses. As a teenager, he watched other musicians record his compositions and turn them into hits. Bill Haley & the Comets took "See You Later Alligator" to the top of the charts. In short succession, Fats Domino scored with "Walking to New Orleans" and Clarence "Frogman" Henry made "But I Do" and "Ain't Got No Home" into signature songs. That was only the beginning; his work has since been immortalized by Ray Charles, Etta James, Muddy Waters, Wilson Pickett and Joe Cocker, among many others.

Along the way, Charles got a merciless crash course in copyrights, accounting and record-label contracts, courtesy of industry figures such as Stan Lewis of Jewel/Paula Records, and Albert Grossman, the infamous heavy-handed manager of Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin. Charles' eye-opening education on the music industry started with Chess Records, the label responsible for launching the careers of Chuck Berry and Howlin' Wolf.

It began when "See You Later Alligator," which Charles says he wrote in 1955, caught the attention of Charles Relich, owner of Dago's record shop in Crowley. Relich arranged a phone call for Charles to sing his new song to label co-owner Leonard Chess, who liked what he heard. Chess sent Charles to New Orleans to record the song, and to Chicago to sign a contract.

"Phil Chess picked me up at the airport," remembers Charles. "He said, 'You can't be Bobby Charles.'" The Chess brothers had assumed Charles was a black man. "Phil said, 'Leonard's gonna shit. But there's nothing we can do now -- the record's already out, and it's a hit.'"

During his Chess tenure, Charles wrote some terrific and diverse songs: New Orleans R&B-informed catchy numbers such as "Watch it Sprocket" and "Take it Easy Greasy," and ballads like "On Bended Knee" and "Why Did You Leave" that helped lay the blueprint for swamp pop. None of the songs took off like "See You Later Alligator," but Charles got a dose of the touring life, as he went on the road with his Chess label mates.

"I was the only white artist on a black label," he says. "I was playing in Mississippi with an all-black band along with Chuck Berry and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. We went to Ole Miss to play a gig, and I went to go to the bathroom. A bunch of football players followed me in there, and they were ready to kill me, because they found out I was riding with Chuck Berry. Luckily Chuck and some other people in the band came in there because they saw those guys follow me in the bathroom -- they saved my damn life more than once."

Charles had other reasons for not liking the spotlight. "Number one, I'm not a performer," he says. "Number two, every time I'd do something, it'd go wrong. Some girl would come to get my autograph, and her boyfriend would threaten me."

The stage wasn't the only place where things didn't feel right. Even after Bill Haley's success with "See You Later Alligator," Charles still wasn't making money. It was legendary Chess songwriter Willie Dixon -- author of classics such as "Hoochie Coochie Man," and "Little Red Rooster" -- who told Charles he could take better care of his business.

"Willie told me, 'Start your own publishing company,'" remembers Charles. "So I told Leonard (Chess) I wanted my own publishing company. He said, 'Man, you're going to screw everything up.'"

Charles left the label and went into a partnership with Shreveport's Stan Lewis, who had success recording and placing songs such as Dale Hawkins' "Suzie Q" on the national charts. In 1964 and 1965, Charles recorded a handful of songs -- including "The Jealous Kind" for the newly created Jewel and Paula record labels -- but he says that Lewis didn't live up to their agreement. "Stan stole the damn label, keeps the label to himself, and takes half of all the songs and the publishing. I said, 'Well, two words for this, and they ain't happy birthday.' I said, 'I ain't getting screwed again.'"


WITHIN A FEW YEARS, a disillusioned Bobby Charles would leave Louisiana and drift to upstate New York. He knew nothing about the area, but he saw the town of Woodstock, and decided he liked the name. The rural setting felt right. When a real estate agent mistakenly brought him to a house that was already occupied, Charles got out of the car to apologize to the tenants. They invited him in for a beer.

"I walked in and saw all these instruments and all these records," Charles remembers. "I asked, 'What do y'all do for a living,' and they said, 'We're musicians.'"

That was an understatement. Charles was talking to harmonica ace Paul Butterfield of the Butterfield Blues Band and renowned guitarist Amos Garrett. They were part of a tight-knit music community living in a town that included folk singers Maria and Geoff Muldaur, and members of The Band, who'd recorded their landmark debut album Music From Big Pink in Woodstock.

Butterfield told Charles that Albert Grossman was also living in town, and helped arrange a meeting. In hindsight, Charles is philosophical about the turn of events. "There's some good in all bad, you just got to find it, you know what I mean? Albert was a businessman, and he'd take advantage of you if he could. He liked my songs. He'd talk about my songs being more commercial than Bob (Dylan)'s and all that kind of crap."

Charles signed a management deal with Grossman, and set out making his first full-length album. With Charles' new neighbors as backing musicians, and augmented by Dr. John and saxophone virtuoso David Sanborn, 1972's self-titled Bobby Charles was a revelation. It resonated like a Louisiana-informed version of Dylan's Basement Tapes, with Charles' laid-back vocals a perfect fit for rootsy instrumental accompaniment on tracks like "Tennessee Blues" and "Street People."

The lyrics also marked Charles' increasingly frustrated and weary worldview. On "Save Me Jesus," he sang, "They're much too busy getting rich to save our little children / Jesus save me from this god-forsaken place." And it didn't take long for Charles to become disenchanted with Grossman. "He's Got all the Whiskey" was a metaphor for Grossman's greed.

Disgusted with his situation, Charles found a loophole in his contract and terminated his relationship with Grossman. In the fallout, a second album that Charles recorded for Grossman's label in 1977 was never released. Charles moved back home to Louisiana to try to figure out his next move.

Part of the challenge then -- and now -- is that Charles writes out of inspiration, not dedication.

"I don't sit down and try to write a song or anything like that," says Charles. "When they come, they come. It's like the song's already written and they're inside of me. It just takes something or somebody or something to punch that button to let it out, like Mac (Rebennack, aka Dr. John) to punch a note on the piano, and I'm singing a new song. I can't explain it. You'd think I was crazy."


CHARLES' RENEGADE PERSONALITY has endeared him to longtime friends such as Neil Young, and it was kindred spirit Willie Nelson who convinced Charles to take a stab at recording some new tracks at Nelson's Texas studio in 1984. (Two of those songs, "Homesick Blues" and "Full Moon on the Bayou," make their debut appearance on Last Train to Memphis.)

Having that kind of support and expert musicianship behind him is essential for Charles, given his lack of formal musical training.

"I like my melodies simple, so that everyone can remember them," he says. "I had to tell Willie Nelson what to play one time. I was so embarrassed. As good a player as Willie is, he kept hitting the wrong chord on this one song I was teaching him and Neil (Young). I said, 'I hate to tell you this Willie, but you're hitting the wrong chord.' He said, 'Really? I'm sorry. What is it?' I said, 'I don't know, but I know it ain't right. Just play me the chords you know and I'll tell you when you hit the right one.' He started going through the chords, and when he hit it, I said, 'That's the one right there.' He looked at Neil and said, 'He's right.'"

Charles laughs at the memory sheepishly. Ask him about the specifics of his writing process -- if words or images or melodies come first -- and he's also at a loss for explanation. "It only takes me 20 to 30 minutes write a song," he says. "It lifts you off the ground. It's such a special feeling, it's like you're not even a part of something else. I don't even know how to put it into words. It's so special, so spiritual, to me. It'll bring a tear to my eye.

"It's got to come from my heart, or it ain't worth nothin' to me," he says. "Everything to me is from the heart. My feelings about everyone, and my music. I got a big heart. A lot of people try to take advantage of it, and that upsets me."

The sentiments that first appeared in 1972 on Bobby Charles still creep into his music. On one side is the gentle soul that writes a ballad like "I Believe in Angels." The other side, fueled by bitterness, produces rants like "Ambushin' Bastard." Both sides continue to appeal to other artists; Maria Muldaur covered the whimsical "Peanut" on a recent album of children's music, while blues legend Junior Wells cut a devastating version of Charles' "Why Are People Like That?"

And despite running a one-man show and not having an agent or manager pitching his songs full-time, Charles' work still finds its way to some major projects. "But I Do" was included in Forrest Gump, and a Charles song was featured in this year's Kurt Russell movie Miracle, about the 1980 Olympic hockey team. Besides bringing royalty checks to his mailbox, it gives him the inspiration to keep chasing his muse.

"When anybody does one of your songs, it's like they're giving you the nicest compliment they can possibly give you," he says. "If they like it that much and want to sing it too, it makes me feel good about it, too."

In the summer of 2002, that feeling inspired Charles to get on a stage for the first time since briefly appearing in The Band's The Last Waltz in 1976. His old teenage friend Warren Storm and the ensemble Lil' Band o' Gold came to Cameron to play a local club on the night of Charles' birthday, and Charles went by for the show. Acknowledging his presence, the band started its second set by playing a number of Charles' classics.

"He was sitting there, and then came up and said he was sick and tired of being sick and tired, and took the microphone," remembers saxophonist Dickie Landry. "It was amazing, and he was totally rejuvenated." Charles wound up singing six or seven songs with the band, including "Tennessee Blues" and "Before I Grow Too Old." The collaboration convinced Charles to accept a booking with Lil' Band o' Gold this past May in New Orleans at the Ponderosa Stomp, but he canceled the week prior to the show, citing health problems. "I told the promoter I was in pain, and he said, 'That's your excuse?' "I told him, 'You don't know what real pain is.'"

Maintaining his health is another reason Charles loves living near the Gulf of Mexico. "Just looking out at the water, hearing the water, and taking a walk out there is the best possible therapy," he says. "I want to keep breathing day by day, that's my main object."

And when evening comes and he's alone again, he can open his blinds and look out as the sun sets in the Gulf. "When a song comes, I'll write it down," he says. "And I thank God every time."

click to enlarge   - TERRI FENSEL
click to enlarge Bobby Charles understood early on that he had a gift for - writing memorable melodies, phrases and choruses. As a - teenager, he watched Bill Haley & the Comets take "See - You Later Alligator" to the top of the charts. - BOBBY CHARLES
  • Bobby Charles
  • Bobby Charles understood early on that he had a gift for writing memorable melodies, phrases and choruses. As a teenager, he watched Bill Haley & the Comets take "See You Later Alligator" to the top of the charts.
click to enlarge Neither the business nor the stage felt right, but during - Charles' time with Chess Records, he wrote such catchy - songs as the New Orleans R&B-informed "Take it Easy - Greasy."
  • Neither the business nor the stage felt right, but during Charles' time with Chess Records, he wrote such catchy songs as the New Orleans R&B-informed "Take it Easy Greasy."
click to enlarge Robbie Robertson, Bobby Charles, Paul Butterfield and - Rick Danko, circa 1976. Charles says a real estate agent's - error led to his first meeting with Butterfield in - Woodstock, N.Y. - BOBBY CHARLES
  • Bobby Charles
  • Robbie Robertson, Bobby Charles, Paul Butterfield and Rick Danko, circa 1976. Charles says a real estate agent's error led to his first meeting with Butterfield in Woodstock, N.Y.

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