Hiding out from the law, songwriter Bobby Charles gets another shot at success in the music business
One would think being there at the start of rock and roll, writing three of its biggest hits would have set Cajun songwriter Bobby Charles on the road to success. Life and the cut-throat music business conspired to keep Charles from his royalties from the late 50s and early 60′s. By 1970 he has been busted for drugs and was looking for a safe place to hideout from the cops. As I dug deeper past the standard 50 word obituaries a different picture of Bobby Charles began to emerge.
In Woodstock 1972, life was good for musicians. Bob Dylan had been there since 1967. The Band and Dylan had jammed with The Basement Tapes sessions. Their joint creativity spawned Music from Big Pink and John Wesley Harding. Dylan skipped out of town for the big Woodstock Festival but he was still around.
Besides being a bucolic farming community, Woodstock was an NYC artists retreat complete with a serious drug culture brought including heroin.
Bobby Charles met and hung out with Paul Butterfield the renowned blues singer, harp player and leader of The Butterfield Blues Band. It was his band, sans Butterfield, who backed Dylan at the game-changing Bob Dylan 1965 Newport Folk Festival. The lead guitarist from Butterfield’s band Mike Bloomfield was the guy who made recent history when backed Bob Dylan on the folk rock classic Highway 61 Revisited.
Albert Grossman, manager to Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Peter Paul and Mary and Simon and Garfunkel had made a fortune promoting first folk music then rock groups. He moved to Woodstock and set up Bearsville Studios, to record his growing roster of artists. In 1970 Dylan and Grossman had split. Dylan figured out that Grossman was making 75% of the royalties and Dylan was getting a paltry 25%. They ended up in court and Dylan settled with Grossman’s widow Sally after Grossman died in 1986.
It was Bobby Charles move to Woodstock that led to the recording at Bearsville Studio, which was owned by Albert Grossman. Grossman specialized in contracts that made the musicians famous and himself rich, which was standard in the music business. Young musicians eager for a recording contract could easily be influenced to sign away their futures.
While Bobby Charles had been burned before by managers, he gradually put his trust in Grossman who knew he had something in Charles. Bobby signed one of Grossman’s famous contracts that gave Grossman royalties on the songs and recordings. At least this time Bobby Charles stood a chance to get something if his records sold. Grossman also promised to look after the drug charge.
Grossman pulled out the stops to record Bobby Charles giving him The Band, Dr. John and other luminaries for accompaniment. The album, Bobby Charles, was well received by critics but sold poorly. The 1972 album was re-released in 1999 and you can find it on Amazon.com from time to time.
Co-produced by Rick Danko and John Simon, Bobby Charles was the perfect marriage between the good-time Danko side of the Band and Bobby Charles Guidry’s own swampy cajun roots. On the opening “Street People”, Bobby sounded like a Bowery version of Randy Newman; on “Long Face”, he was a bayou Lee Dorsey. Behind him Rick put together a wonderfully loose sound somewhere between the Muscle Shoals Swampers and the band Allen Toussaint had used for his great Minit productions in the ’60s. With guest appearances by Garth, Levon, and Richard, as well as Mac Rebennack and Woodstock guitar maestro Amos Garret, it was certainly a far more enjoyable record than Cahoots. Across the Great Divide
Charles hung out at Bearsville since his legal troubles were over his head and he was hanging with friends and musicians.
Perhaps buoyed by the popular acceptance of Bobby’s first album for Bearsville, Albert Grossman gave Bobby the green light in 1975 or so for a second, which featured songwriter (“I’m Your Puppet,” “Cry Like a Baby,” etc.) and Muscle Shoals, AL Stalwart, Spooner Oldham on piano. But, as events transpired, this worthy labor of love was never to see the light of day.
Taking advantage of his role as mediator in Bobby’s still-precarious legal position, Grossman conveniently rearranged the wording in the original contract papers, assuming that his client would acquiesce. “However, in his haste to redraw the document,” recalled Bobby, “Grossman omitted a crucial detail in the option clause.” And Bobby seized the moment to escape the covenant through a loophole. Now eager to get out of Dodge as they say, Bobby remembered vividly his parting words to the record mogul: “I can’t say that it was good doing business with you, so I’ll just say adios, m—f—r!”
Bobby, by that time, a sadder but wiser man, had finally had it with the music industry and returned to Louisiana where he would lie low for many years. But it would be just a matter of time before his musical muse beckoned. But in this instance, when he did reappear, he vowed to do things differently – completely on his own terms. Bobby Charles Blues ArtStudio
Charles kept a friendship with Rick Danko and other band members that lasted decades.
In 1976, Bobby Charles was invited to perform Way Down South in New Orleans in the movie The Last Waltz. The movie by Martin Scorsese came about when The Band needed one more album to fulfill their Warner Music contract. The Band had gone downhill with alcohol and drug abuse and their muse had left them by 1974. Guitarist Robbie Robertson’s new business relationship and friendship with hot-shot director Scorsese got the picture going after Bill Graham agreed to host the concert.
Conceived as one big party at Bill Graham’s famous Fillmore Theater, The Band brought together their friends and musical influences like Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. The movie and record are a who’s-who of 50s through 70s rock artists – excepting the out of place Neil Diamond, a bow to Robbie’s production of Diamond’s latest album.
Included in the group were New Orleans swamp rockers Mac Rebenneck AKA Dr. John and Bobby Charles. Dr. John’s Such a Night made the movie but Bobby Charles performance of Way Down South in New Orleans was left on the cutting room floor. You can find the audio on the Rhino 4-CD The Band The Last Waltz. Bobby Charles does appear briefly in the sing-along We Shall Be Released but like all of his performances you have to hunt for him.
Charles sings along with Rick Danko, Dr. John and Levon Helm. Dr. John plays guitar, Garth Hudson plays the accordion solo, Robbie on lead guitar (singing!) and Richard Manuel and Levon play drums.
According to Bobby Charles, it was Rick Danko who invited him to be in the movie. “They were always bringing me on tour,” said Charles. “I didn’t do any performing – Rick said I was good vibes for them. This last concert – I didn’t know what the whole thing was gonna be. Rick just asked me if I’d like to be a part of it. I said ‘Sure man. whatever you want.’” (from liner notes to The Last Waltz Rhino)
We found a black and white outtake of the song that was dropped from the movie and did some creative editing. It’s one of the rare Bobby Charles videos.
Down South in New Orleans, The Band and Bobby Charles
Next – Bobby Charles hits it big again.