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More successful as a songwriter than a singer, Bobby Charles was nonetheless an important contributor to Louisiana music in both respects. He authored several hits for key artists in the early days of rock & roll (including Bill Haley and Fats Domino), and although he recorded mostly in obscurity, he emerged as one of the founding fathers of swamp pop.
Robert Charles Guidry was born February 21, 1938, in the Cajun-country town of Abbeville, LA, and grew up listening to traditional Cajun music. As a teenager, he discovered rock & roll and rhythm & blues, and began singing with a band called the Cardinals, who performed at local dances. During this period, he wrote a song called "See You Later, Alligator," which particularly impressed a Crowley, LA, record-store owner who happened to know Chess Records founder Leonard Chess. The young singer auditioned over the phone and was rewarded with a recording session at the legendary Cosimo's studio in New Orleans. After hearing the single version of "See You Later, Alligator," Chess signed Guidry (by some accounts, not realizing he was a white Cajun) and soon shortened his name to the less regional Bobby Charles. Chess released "See You Later, Alligator" as Charles' debut single in 1955, and he toured behind it after graduating from high school. While it connected with R&B audiences, the song didn't become a big pop hit until 1956, when Bill Haley covered it for a national best-seller. Charles scored another minor hit that year with "Time Will Tell," and stayed with Chess through 1957, recording R&B singles that even at this stage were already infused with a Cajun musical sensibility.
In 1958, Charles moved to Imperial and cut several more singles through the next year. Although he was silent for a few years after cutting a one-off cover of "Goodnight Irene" for Farie in 1959, Charles' reputation as a songwriter continued to grow. In 1960, Fats Domino took "Walking to New Orleans" into the Top Ten, and Clarence "Frogman" Henry did likewise early the following year with "(I Don't Know Why I Love You) But I Do." Charles subsequently recorded sides for Hub City (1963), Jewel (1964), and Paula (1965), by which time he was experimenting with country music.
With little commercial success of his own, Charles drifted away from the music business for a while. He returned in 1972 on the Bearsville label and cut a self-titled album (his first full-length) that was co-produced by the Band's Rick Danko. In fact, the majority of the Band appeared on the record as supporting musicians, as did Dr. John, David Sanborn, and Amos Garrett. In spite of considerable critical acclaim, Bobby Charles didn't sell very well, and after recording with Paul Butterfield in 1973, a disenchanted Charles again retreated from music. He appeared with the Band in their 1976 concert film The Last Waltz, joining them on-stage for one song of their final performance. The following year, he returned to Bearsville and recorded another album with Spooner Oldham on piano, but the project was never released.
Charles kept quiet for most of the next decade, returning in 1986 with a couple of singles on the Rice n' Gravy label, plus a European-only album called Clean Water in 1987. In the meantime, his songs had been recorded by numerous artists from the worlds of blues, rock, country, and soul; a partial list includes Joe Cocker, Delbert McClinton, Lou Rawls, Ray Charles, Tom Jones, Kris Kristofferson, Rita Coolidge, Etta James, Junior Wells, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Bo Diddley, David Allan Coe, and even UB40. In 1995, Charles signed with the Canadian blues and roots label Stony Plain and released a new album, Wish You Were Here Right Now, which consisted of sessions from 1992-1993 plus selections from a 1984 jam session at Willie Nelson's studio. In addition to Nelson, guests included Neil Young, Fats Domino, and slide ace Sonny Landreth. A follow-up, Secrets of the Heart, appeared in 1998, but Charles returned to rural Cajun country to live the quiet life, supported by his songwriting royalties; he also became a local environmental activist. His excellent Bobby Charles album has been reissued several times (including once in 1988 under the title Small Town Talk, its most famous composition). Finally, in 2008, Charles issued a new album, Homemade Songs. Early in 2010, however, he collapsed at his home in Abbeville, LA, and died.