Thursday, February 11, 2010

Bobby Charles i.m.

Mick Hartley reports the death of Bobby Charles, the great Louisiana songwriter. “See You Later Alligator” – that was his. He was 14 when he wrote it. He also wrote “Small Town Talk” with Rick Danko (covered by Geoff Muldaur/Paul Butterfield), “But I Do (Clarence “Frogman” Henry”), “Walking to New Orleans” (Fats Domino), “He’s Got All the Whisky” (John Martyn), “The Jealous Kind” (Joe Cocker, Ray Charles, Etta James) and many, many more. You know his songs even if you don’t know his name. The Guardian obit is here, and his Proper Records profile is here.

Nick Bollinger remembers him in the current issue of the Listener (not online yet: should be by the end of the month). It’s a great piece, as always when Nick is given space, and there is the revelation that when he rang Charles out of the blue in 1995, Charles invited him to come and visit – and to stay. I thought I was pretty cool because I’d met Amos Garrett and bought him a drink or two, but this is a whole other league.

Like most musicians who love Charles’s wonderful 1972 album Bobby Charles (also released later as Small Town Talk), Nick seems surprised that it isn’t more famous: it has 10 great songs, loads of great players including Garrett, Dr John, David Sanborn and most of the Band – what more could you want? Listening to it again, I think I know. Several songs have the same structure, classic though that may be, and most of it sounds as though it was recorded live in the studio, on the wing: I like records like that but most people don’t. The songs with Garrett on guitar, though, are crisp and clearly rehearsed up the wazoo. I’ve no idea whether that is due to Garrett – he clearly doesn’t suffer fools gladly – or if it was just different sessions with different levels of booze’n’herbs. You know what musicians are like.

The 1995 album Wish You Were Here Right Now may be easier to find and is more polished: it features Willie Nelson’s band as well as cameos from Nelson, Neil Young and Fats Domino. But anything he did is worth hearing.

Mick Hartley laments that he couldn’t find any good performances from Charles (never a performer, so no great surprise) on YouTube. But here’s one with the Band in an outtake from The Last Waltz, performing his song “Down South in New Orleans”. Everyone in that concert got shoved aside on-stage by Robbie Robertson and on-camera by Martin Scorsese, and it’s sad to see the guy not knowing where to stand or whom to share a microphone with. But at least we get to see him. He must be in a good place now.

UPDATE: Mark Steyn on Bobby Charles. The best piece yet.

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