Tracks on this list are by Bobby Charles unless otherwise stated (in brackets)
|Track||Album / Single|
|Later Alligator||Chess 1609|
|On Bended Knee||Chess 1609|
|Your Picture||See You Later, Alligator CD|
|Grow Too Old||Bobby Charles|
|Tennessee Blues||Bobby Charles|
|Last Train To Memphis||Last Train To Memphis|
|The Legend Of Jolie Blonde||Last Train To Memphis|
|Walking To New Orleans||Last Train To Memphis|
|These Lonely, Lonely Nights (Earl King)||Ace 509|
|You're On My Mind (Roy Perkins)||Meladee M 111|
Contributor: Dave Stephens
BOBBY CHARLES – AND A LITTLE ABOUT THE BEGINNING OF IT ALL (SWAMP POP #4)
It would have been nice to have given you the full history of swamp pop in a post that told you what begat what and tied up all the loose ends in the process. Nice, but well nigh impossible. Swamp pop didn’t have a history in the accepted sense of the word. Records appeared relatively at random and sometimes went off in unexpected directions. What I can do though is spend some time with the gent who’s generally perceived to have started it all record wise, even if he only laid down a relatively small number of swamp laments.
That man of course was Bobby Charles who died not so long ago (14th January, 2010) but left us a fascinating body of music. He was born, Robert Charles Guidry in February 1938 in Abbeville, Louisiana, deep in cajun country. Like most teenagers of the time he was influenced as much by the rhythm and blues and early rock’n’roll that he heard on the radio as he was by the traditional country and cajun music that he’d been hearing from his childhood. He began singing with a band called the Cardinals and so impressed a Crowley, LA, record store owner that he arranged a phone audition for Charles with Leonard Chess of Chess Records. The song that Bobby sang to Len that day was his own composition, Later Alligator. Len liked it and arranged for Bobby backed by the Cardinals to record the song at Cosimo Matassa’s Studios in New Orleans. The story goes that Chess assumed Charles was black and wasn’t disabused of this until Bobby visited the Chess Chicago studios. Whether that is true or not, it was Chess who shortened Robert Charles Guidry to the more catchy Bobby Charles.
While Later Alligator has a deserved claim to fame due to its cool jive talking style plus the novelty of a white man singing what was effectively a variant of New Orleans style rock’n’roll (and all this in 1955), what particularly concerns us here is the flip, On Bended Knee. It opens with a solitary guitar; then there’s Bobby wailing away followed with a bang by the whole caboodle, tripletty piano, riffing saxes and that thumping bass line.
Please forgive me if I cry
But my baby said goodbye
All I do is hope and pray
That she’ll come back home someday
The relatively few in number who bought this single in the UK – London American released it in early ’56 – must have wondered what this flip side was all about. We hadn’t heard any comparable Domino by this date and the first Presley rock-a-ballad to get UK release, I Was The One, actually came out (as a flip) in the same month as Alligator/Bended Knee. This was fully blown swamp pop had we but known it, though the label took decades to appear.
Later Alligator brought Charles some local fame but the song wasn’t to become a hit until Bill Haley covered it a year later. Further singles followed with some sides following the upbeat styling of Alligator, and others the more melancholic sound of On Bended Knee.
During the Chess period Charles recorded a song called Your Picture which didn’t see release at the time though it can be found on the relatively recent Bear Family set, See You Later Alligator. However, it was one that Bobby regularly played at dances and Johnnie Allan recorded it as a single. Although conforming to the usual swamp chordal pattern it does have a memorable riff which I’ve only heard on one other song.
Yup, it was the one on Little Richard’s Send Me Some Lovin’. Both records would have been recorded at Cosimo Matassa’s studio and my guess is that the Charles one was the earlier of the two, and, as soon as it was realised Your Picture wasn’t going to see release, the instantly recognisable riff got recycled. But I could be wrong.
In 1958, Bobby transferred to Imperial and while the songs didn’t change too much, the overall sound did – the producer was aiming for more of a pop styling on the premise that this might stand a better chance of making the charts.
During the next few years Bobby’s performing took rather a backseat in comparison to his song writing. He submitted several songs to his boyhood hero Fats Domino for consideration and the (not so) big fellow picked up his Walkin’ To New Orleans and made a hit of it in 1960 – whatever you think of rock’n’roll with strings you have to concede that this is one of the few occasions where the sheer charm of the record might win anyone over! Bobby also notched up another success when Clarence “Frogman” Henry took his (I Don’t Know Why I Love You) But I Do into the charts the following year.
Over later years Bobby Charles popped up on various small labels and his next appearance of any great significance was on Bearsville with a self-titled album produced by Rick Danko. The album picked up some critical acclaim but didn’t sell well. The Danko connection also led to an appearance with the Band in their concert film The Last Waltz in 1976.
Over the next few decades the occasional album came out from Charles and his reputation at a cult level certainly grew. However the overall position didn’t change. Minority interest didn’t translate to chart success and money in the bank. A couple of interesting compilations have come out relatively recently, the first covering his recordings for the Jewel and Paula labels in 1963 and ’64 which I haven’t sampled but which has been favourably reviewed by AllMusic, and the second, Last Train To Memphis, covering a wide range of music recorded between 1971 and 2004,
Bobby collapsed in his home near Abbeville and died on 14th January, 2010.
AllMusic described Bobby’s self-titled 1972 album as “a true hidden gem of blue-eyed soul, Southern R&B, and early ’70s roots rock (and early-’70s singer/songwriterism, for that matter).” I’ve also seen it referred to as the secret Band album. Two of my selections come from this set. Grow Too Old (also called Before I Grow Too Old) was one of those songs that Fats recorded and his version came out in single format in 1960:
Unusually sombre for the Fat Man but very effective.
I’m goin’ to go out dancin’ every night
And I’m gonna see all the city lights
And I’m gonna do everything that I’ve been told
But I’ve got to hurry up before I grow too old
Here’s Bobby from Bobby Charles. Like several of his better songs this was one he would return to over the years.
There are two later versions by other artists that I’m aware of: it was released on a single by Tommy McLain in 1975, and Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros included it as the final track on their last album Streetcore, released in 2003. I should point out, though, that the Joe Strummer version was given the alternative title Silver And Gold.
My second Bobby Charles pick is one that I’d describe as sublime – Tennessee Blues. This one got covered by a certain gent from San Antonio but, regardless how good that cover was, and it was, the original was better.
The melody and performance would have to have been exceptionally bad for me to have resisted the title track of the album Last Train To Memphis. They’re not and I haven’t. Sentiment maybe but Bobby makes it work. Sonny Landreth on slide and there’s Delbert McClinton reprising his Hey Baby role as a bonus.
The King is gone but he still lives on
In the heart of the people
That was the first track. On the second Bobby is right back with his cajun heritage on a retelling of the tale of a famous lady, The Legend Of Jolie Blonde. Accordion, fiddle (Rufus Thibodeaux) and guitar and Bobby means every word.
Jolie Blonde, you danced like an angel
Looked like a vision, a sweet dream come true
And I know you belong to another
Jolie Blonde, my heart aches for you
This is Louisiana waltztime performed by a master.
There’s only one way to close this section on Bobby Charles and that’s with his most famous song. And I’m not going for the version from Fats. Here’s Bobby:
But who’s that walking alongside Bobby during the fade? It’s only Antoine in his rightful place.
My opening para describes Bobby Charles as “the gent who’s generally perceived to have started it all record wise”. The record reference of course, was to On Bended Knee, released in 1955. But there were a few other records in that timeframe which show a distinct resemblance to swamp pop. Firstly, there was a single from then little known New Orleans blues man Earl King in 1954, entitled A Mother’s Love, which might have been labelled swamp pop if it had come out a few years later (and had come from a singer from Eunice or Lafayette say, rather than the Crescent City). That record was on Specialty and it’s possible that its main influence was Guitar Slim’s Things I Used To Do from the same label rather than anything swampy. King then moved to Ace Records (US) of Jackson, Mississippi. His first record for them in ’55 was arguably the benchmark for future swamp pop records. The song was Those Lonely, Lonely Nights and here it is:
Slow and mournful. Miserabilia lyrics. Piano triplets and horns playing slow boogie lines. And that chord sequence. And in later years it did get included in swamp artists’ live sets as if it was one of their own. The record, incidentally, hit #7 in the national R&B Chart so would have been heard by a lot of people. King moved in the direction of New Orleans rock’n’roll and later funk after this, so a potential longer-term relationship with swamp pop mythology was severed.
There was a rather more obscure record, a flip in fact, released in 1955 from a gent with the delightful name of Roy “Boogie Boy” Perkins. This was it:
I’ll pose the semi-rhetorical question: was You’re On My Mind swamp pop or not? In (slightly) later days it got covered by Rod Bernard himself. Roy’s A-side, Bye Bye Baby, was an up tempo stormer which was from that shady but delightful area of jump blues gradually turning into rock’n’roll.
Roy, real name Ernie Suarez, played piano and bass in several bands. Reportedly (John Broven) he got turned on to the R&B just oozing out of New Orleans when he heard the Fats Domino introduction and break on Lloyd Price’s Lawdy Miss Clawdy. He made a small handful of records, played with several bands in the sixties and then dropped out of music altogether.
1. There’s an attempt at a definition of Swamp Pop in the Rod Bernard Toppermost which I’ve informally titled Swamp Pop #1. This one is Swamp Pop #4.
2. I made a couple of references to John Broven – see Bibliography for his excellent “South To Louisiana”.
3. Unlike some of the other artists I picked as headliners for this swamp series, Bobby Charles was much more than a swamp pop man and his career, albeit largely out of the spotlight, spanned five decades, encompassing a range of material. At any one time though, much of his output has typically been out of print making it difficult for anyone other than the totally dedicated collector who purchases albums as soon as they come out, to build up a true picture of his oeuvre. I don’t quite count myself in that category but if such a collector is reading this I’d welcome any “fill in the gaps” observations in the Comments section.
4. For many years anyone wanting to get hold of the music that Bobby Charles recorded in the fifties was out of luck unless he/she was willing to pay high prices for the original singles. That situation was rectified in 2010 when two overlapping collections from that time frame came on the market. See You Later, Alligator from Bear Family contained the Chess singles plus outtakes, and, After A While, Crocodile from GVC held both the Chess and Imperial singles, but no outtakes.
“South To Louisiana: The Music Of The Cajun Bayous” by John Broven (1983). The book covers all types of Louisiana roots music not just swamp pop but it does it extremely well. Highly recommended.
Dave Stephens is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is available as an ebook and is described by one reviewer as ‘probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across’. “RocknRoll” contains further reflections on Swamp Pop in its 1,000+ pages. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” this year, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX.