Bobby Charles, the reclusive, genius songwriter from southwest Louisiana, died this morning after collapsing at his home in Abbeville, LA. He was 71.
I had the pleasure of chatting with Charles (whose real name was Robert Charles Guidry) a few years back for the Oxford American’s 10th Annual Music Issue. Today, all I can hear is all the sweetness and gentleness and soulfulness that positively oozed from his mouth when speaking. My tape-recorder broke that day, so I was forced to handwrite everything he said. Luckily, his ethnic Cajun blood prohibited him from hurrying, so I had no trouble keeping up. Listening to his self-titled album now, it’s funny what little difference there was between his singing voice and speaking voice. The man was incapable being anything but laid-back and soulful.
Early in his life, he crafted hit songs for Frogman Henry (“I Don’t Know Why I Love You) But I Do”), Bill Haley & The Comets (“See You Later Alligator”), and Fats Domino (“Walkin’ to New Orleans”). He counted Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Willie Nelson as friends, as well as the pedal steel great Ben Keith and fellow Louisianan Sonny Landreth. Living in Woodstock, NY, in the early 70s, Charles made what was inarguably his masterpiece, Bobby Charles, with a backing ensemble that included members of The Band, David Sanborn and Dr. John among other roots-music heavies. Possibly the only truly laid-back album ever made, Bobby Charles was released by Albert Grossman’s Bearsville label in 1972 and that was about it. No promotion, no tour, nothing. Instead, Charles spent the remainder of his life hiding out in the Louisiana woods, quietly releasing the occasional album when he felt like it. Throughout, he dealt with a slew of disasters, from house fires to Hurricane Rita washing his home away to cancer. As he told me, “Oh, I seen fire and I seen rain, boy!”
He kept a death-grip on his privacy and spent his last years in a two-bedroom trailer “with a wide deck on it” outside Abbeville. He told me there was a seafood restaurant he frequented near his home where the waitress would already be mixing his Grey Goose martini before he’d even finished parking his car. He ate alone and he lived alone. I felt for him, but when he told me these things, the ease in his voice conveyed that it was just the way he wanted it. No pressure, few hassles, and little of the bullshit required in daily living. He was in a good place then, but he’s in a better place now.