Songwriter who made fortunes for others lived like a recluse in a Louisiana bayou. I wanted to find out why.
Robert (Bobby) Charles Guidry died at age 71 in his home in Abbeville, Louisiana on January 14, 2010.
Why was the man who wrote so many hit songs for others living in the Cajun swamp west of New Orleans where he was born?
A songwriter and hit-maker for Fats Domino, Clarence Frogman Henry and friend of the Band, Charles was a recluse. The obituary notices left out that part of the story and I wanted to find out why his talent was virtually unknown outside the small world of musicians.
While he wrote hit songs for many famous artists and lived off his royalties most of his life, he was rarely seen in public performance.
Making it where rock and roll was born
Born in Cajun country Louisiana, Bobby Charles was a purveyor of that special brand of southern US rock called “swamp rock.” The Band were one of the more famous groups who made a career playing “swamp rock”, all the more ironic since all of The Band members were from Canada, excepting Levon Helm who hailed from Arkansas.
Bobby Charles is said to have heard Fats Domino when he was 15. He became determined to be a songwriter and have Fats Domino the New Orleans R&B singer record his song.
Swamp rock is the name given to the amalgam of Cajun, blues and Texas rhythm and blues that developed in the late 50s and early 60s. It is a mixture of black creole or zydeco and Cajun music that only the US South could produce in the swamps west of Lake Pontchartrain. Isolated by the lake and their language, the French and Acadian settlers from Atlantic Canada developed a unique culture and musical style that lasted centuries.
The cross-over to swamp rock from Cajun in the 50s meant accordions and fiddles were ditched for electric guitars, bass and drum. New Orleans jazz influences brought in horn sections, considered some of the best in the biz.
Despite electrification, the sensuous rhythms and shuffle beats of the Cajun tunes are still there. Some of the early songs were just updates of old Cajun classics. French names were Anglicized. Bobby Charles Guidry became Bobby Charles.
The Rolling Stones and The Beatles listened to Swamp Rock. So did country artists and one became a hit in the 70s. Freddy Fender’s Wasted Days and Wasted Nights is countrified swamp rock. Fender was really a Tex-Mex named Baldemar Huerta.
See You Later Alligator
After playing in teen bands in the Louisiana area, Charles got signed to Chess Records. He was said to be the first white singer Chess signed. Chess Records was the famous home of black R&B greats like Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry and Howlin’ Wolf. Chess thought Charles was black since he sang in that style.
Bobby Charles had written a novelty song called “See You Later Alligator” which became a big hit for Bill Haley and the Comets. The song has endured but Bill Haley has long been considered an historical artifact of rock and roll. The song was Bill Haley’s last million seller. The song has become a standard and preserved for all time a popular slang term of the early 50s.
Larry Benicewicz has written a good account of how Charles got his contract with Chess and some of the hilarious mix-ups. Chicago blues and R&B label Chess Records was scouring the south and looking for new artists. Lafayette, LA record story owner Charles “Dago” Redlich had heard Bobby Charles sing Alligator. Redlich had Bobby sing the song over the phone to Chess records in Chicago.
“Leonard Chess… had Bobby travel to New Orleans where it was to be taped at Cosimo Matassa’s first studio, J&M, at 838 N. Rampart in the French Quarter.
At the time, pianist Paul Gayten was Chess’s A&R (artists and repertoire) man in the Crescent City and Leonard Chess wanted Gayten to back Bobby with the Big Easy’s best session men, including baritone Alvin “Red” Tyler, tenors Lee Allen and Herb Hardesty, bassist Frank Fields, and drummer Charles “Hungry” Williams.
But Bobby balked at the request, insisting that the Cardinals play on the record or it was no deal. In short, Chess finally relented but did prevail upon Bobby to drop his surname, Guidry. “See You Later Alligator” debuted on Chess records in early 1956 and fared substantially well on the R&B surveys of the day so that it was noticed by the majors, including Decca, who had Bill Haley & his Comets “cover” the record (#29791) for the white pop market.
As far as collecting royalties was concerned, “Alligator” proved to be Chess records’ best cash cow to that date and they eagerly awaited a follow up from Gayten’s young protege and, in fact, invited Bobby to Chicago, rolling out the red carpet.
But the Chess brothers would be in for a big surprise. When Bobby landed in the Windy City, there were black DJs, black cheerleaders, and a black band to greet him. And one could imagine their astonishment as a white man emerged from the plane. The powers that be at Chess had already arranged a nationwide promotional tour on the “Chitlin’ Circuit” with Bobby as a headliner performing before all black audiences.
It wasn’t as if Bobby had deliberately deceived Chess with his smoky baritone of a voice; it was that no one bothered to inquire if he were Caucasian. And it was now too late and the Chess brothers had to make do with a bizarre situation.” Bobby Charles Blues ArtStudio
Charles continued to record for Chess until 1960, with some of the great blues men like Willie Dixon. Charles toured with Chess Record’s roster of black blues artists which created plenty of problems for the only white artist on the bill in a segregated South.
It was probably one of the reason’s he didn’t cross over to white rock and roll because he was associated with a “race” or black label. Charles claims that Chess records cheated him on royalties and added other writers to his name to dilute the amount he got.
“I never felt that I was compensated adequately for ‘Alligator, ’ considering how many copies were bought and every time I looked, someone else was sharing the writer credits with me,” he said, meaning especially Paul Gayten, who wanted and received a portion of the proverbial pie by conveniently affixing his name next to Bobby’s. “And it’s still haunting me.”
“When that movie came out [Miracle], I could only receive singer’s credit, when I actually composed the tune,” he added dejectedly.” (BluesArtStudio)
The labels routinely cheated artists of their royalties and are still doing it today. Adding names to the list of songwriters created a legal if not ethical way to split royalties away from the artist.
Elvis Presley’s name was added to plenty of songs he sang but didn’t write. Arthur “Big Boy” Cruddup was a popular black blues singer sometimes credited as the “The Father of Rock and Roll”. He wrote songs that Elvis made hits like “That’s All Right (Mama)”, So Glad You’re Mine,” and “My Baby Left Me.” He never received his royalties which was standard practice, especially for a white artist to steal music from a black artist.
See Allee Willis Female songwriter: a lifetime of being cheated by music biz
This is a long story. Next installment – Hitting the big time with Fats Domino
Thanks to all the fans who posted stories and especially to Larry Benicewicz. blues historian, for his detailed history of Bobby Charles.