The rock’n’roll classics See You Later, Alligator and Walking to New Orleans are among the compositions of the Louisiana-born singer-songwriter Bobby Charles, who has died aged 71. The son of a gas company truck-driver, he was born Robert Charles Guidry in the small town of Abbeville, Louisiana. He recalled that his life “changed for ever” when he retuned his parents’ radio set from a local Cajun station to one playing records by Fats Domino. He led a local group, the Cardinals, for whom he wrote a song called Hey Alligator at the age of 14. The song was inspired by an incident at a roadside diner, when his parting shot to a friend – “See you later, alligator” – inspired another customer to respond with: “In a while, crocodile.”
The popularity of the song led a local record-store owner to recommend Guidry to Leonard Chess of the Chicago-based Chess Records label. After Bobby had sung it over the phone, Chess signed him up. He travelled to New Orleans to record the song and several others under the name Bobby Charles. On his first visit to Chicago, he shocked the label’s owners, who had been expecting to meet a young black singer and had arranged a promotional tour of the “chitlin’ circuit” of African-American venues.
Chess issued Charles’s Later Alligator in January 1956, but it was soon recorded as See You Later, Alligator by Bill Haley & His Comets, whose version sold 1m copies in America (coincidentally, publicity photos of Charles at this time showed him with a Haley-style kiss curl). Although Charles performed alongside big names such as Little Richard, the Platters and Chuck Berry on tours in the late 1950s, his own records for Chess, Imperial and Jewel did not sell that well. Nevertheless, he enjoyed songwriting royalties from hit versions of songs he had co-written, such as Walking to New Orleans, recorded by Fats Domino in 1960, and But I Do, recorded by Clarence “Frogman” Henry in 1961.
Charles’s laidback, drawling vocal style was also a formative influence on a style of music made by white and black Louisiana teenagers that came to be called swamp pop – primarily slow, rolling two-chord ballads drawing from all the musical traditions of south Louisiana, such as country, soul and Cajun. The genre’s biggest national hits were Rod Bernard’s This Should Go On Forever and Joe Barry’s I’m a Fool to Care.
Charles disappeared from the music scene in the mid-1960s but returned in 1972 with a self-titled album on which he was accompanied by Rick Danko and several members of Danko’s group, the Band. The album’s most remarkable tracks were Before I Grow Too Old and the languorous Small Town Talk. The radio DJ and historian Charlie Gillett summed up that song’s appeal: “It was precisely the uneventful nature of the music that made it so alluring. Alongside the Band’s rhythm section, Dr John slipped in behind the organ to play an instantly addictive melody that is still in my blood.”
Although the album was not a commercial success, Charles appeared on later recordings by Paul Butterfield and made a rare live appearance as a guest singer at The Last Waltz, the 1976 farewell concert of the Band, although his contribution was cut from Martin Scorsese’s film of the event.
His songs continued to attract other singers. Joe Cocker recorded The Jealous Kind (in 1976), as did Ray Charles and Etta James. Kris Kristofferson was among several singers to record the wistful Tennessee Blues. Charles returned to the studio rarely in later years, recording Wish You Were Here Right Now (1995) and Secrets of the Heart (1998). The 2004 double CD Last Train to Memphis was a retrospective of his compositions, with guest appearances by Neil Young, Willie Nelson and Fats Domino. In 2008, his friend and collaborator Dr John co-produced the album Homemade Songs, and late last year Charles had completed another CD, Timeless. Dedicated to Domino, it is scheduled for release at the end of February.
Charles lived for some years in quiet seclusion at Holly Beach on the Gulf of Mexico. After his house was destroyed by Hurricane Rita in 2005, he returned to Abbeville. His contribution to the music of his home state was recognised when he was inducted into the Louisiana music hall of fame in 2007. He had been in poor health recently with diabetes and was in remission from kidney cancer.
Charles was divorced and is survived by four sons.
This LP contains 18 tracks, Bobby Chales recorded for Chess Records between 1955 and 1957.
And The Paul Gayton band provides sizzling backup on these raw and raucous R&B numbers. A good way to remember one of the true pioneers of rock and roll.
01. Watch It, Sprocket (Guidry) 2.06
02. Yeah, Yeah (McDaniel) 2.30
03. You Know I Love You (Guidry) 2.30
04. Good Loving (Guidry) 2.05
05. I’d Like To Know (Guidry) 2.27
06. Ain’t Got No Home (Guidry) 2.37
07. Time Will Tell (Gayton) 2.02
08. Take It Easy, Greasy (Guidry) 2.14
09. You Can Suit Yourself (Guidry) 1.59
10. See You Later, Alligator (Guidry) 3.45
11. On Bended Knee (Guidry) 2.14
12. I’ll Turn Square For You (Guidry) 2.15
13. I Ain’t Gonna Do It No More (Guidry) 2.33
14. Put Your Arms Around Me, Honey (v.Tilzer/McCree) 2.39
15. Lonely Street (Bisco) 2.30
16. Mr. Moon (Guidry) 2.06
17. One-Eyed Jack (Guidry/Gayton) 2.11
18. Hey, Good Looking (Williams) 2.07