Even if you don’t know the name Bobby Charles, odds are you’ve heard his music. The man born Robert Charles Guidry signed to legendary Chess Records as a teenager and penned massive hits for Bill Haley & the Comets (“See You Later, Alligator”), Clarence “Frogman” Henry and Joe Cocker. His most famous composition: Fats Domino’s signature tune “Walkin’ to New Orleans.”
Although best-known for his songwriting, Charles made a few albums of swampy country-pop under his own name, and his 1972 self-titled debut, recorded in Woodstock with The Band as his backing band, has become a crate-digger’s treasure.
McNally’s new album, Small Town Talk, is a collection of Charles’ tunes, ranging from the fairly popular (the frequently anthologized “Street People”) to the super-obscure (“Can’t Pin a Color”).
It’s a true New Orleans affair, with Dr. John and the Lower 911 backing McNally’s dusky vocals and the notorious New Orleans composer Wardell Quezerque providing string arrangements. But the focus remains squarely on the man himself, who passed away in 2010.
CMT Edge: How did you discover Bobby Charles?
McNally: My husband Wallace — who was not my husband at the time — gave me the Bobby Charles record about 13 years ago. I was a really big fan of The Band, and he said, “If you like The Band, you’ll love this guy.” He was right. I loved it.
What drew you to his music?
There’s a kind of songwriter, like Don Williams or J.J. Cale or Townes Van Zandt, who lets the production follow the songs. It’s not trying to be anything but in the moment and true to the song. “Lazy” is the wrong word. It’s just laid-back. But it has a real sense of humor, even if it’s not hardy-har-har. There’s just a warm sincerity and a dry wit that really appeals to me.
He had an enormous impact, but he isn’t the household name he should be.
He was what you would call a character. He was a well of knowledge about Louisiana music and rock ‘n’ roll. He was the first white guy signed to Chess Records in 1955. As a teenager, he was out there on the road with Chuck Berry and Fats Domino and Etta James and Little Richard. He and Dr. John were some of the very first musicians who crossed the color boundary in the 1950s. That was a big deal at the time, and that makes them so unique.
If people know who Bobby Charles is, they know him mainly through his music. What was he like in person?
Bobby was a purist in a way, but he spent a lot of time in rock ‘n’ roll, so he wasn’t an angel. But he was principled. Severely principled. His sense of right and wrong was very intense, and he was very conscious of the ecology of Louisiana — the basics of life. But he could be a cranky old fart sometimes, too. He was pretty reclusive. He had health problems that carried over from his rock ‘n’ roll days, but he was a textbook music business lifer. In that, he was wonderful.
At what point did you decide that you wanted to do a full album of his songs?
I had cut one of Bobby’s songs, “Tennessee Blues,” back in 2005 on a record of mine called Geronimo. I cut that record in Louisiana, and I got to be very good friends with Bobby. I talked to him a couple of times a month from that point on.
In 2007, Bobby was going to do a performance at [New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival], and they wanted a couple of people to sit in with him. They asked me to do “Tennessee Blues” and a couple of other songs with Marcia Ball and Dr. John and Sonny Landreth, who were going to be the house band.
At rehearsal, I mentioned to Bobby, “You know that record you did in Woodstock with The Band? I love it so much, and I’d love to recut it.” At the time, it was out of print. Bobby thought it was a great idea and wanted to recut it with me and Dr. John. They had been friends for 55 years. I mentioned it to Dr. John, and he thought it was a great idea.
Bobby Charles gave some input on the album before he passed away.
He was at all of the sessions. We cut the record in Maurice, La., and he lived only a few minutes up the road in Abbeville. I had powwowed with him and Dr. John leading up to those sessions to pick songs. They fed me a number of songs that they thought would be appropriate and that I never would have thought of. They all turned out to be complete gems. Bobby would make small comments on phrasings and lyrics, things like that. Otherwise, he was just there enjoying the sessions and just hanging out.
Was your mission with this album to introduce him to new listeners?
Not so much initially. I just wanted to sing these songs and hang out with him. It seemed so obvious to me that these are the greatest songs ever. They feel so comfortable, and I love them so much. But then when he passed away, it all got deeper, and the project became much more important to my heart. We’re all not here forever, and that generation is getting older. There are a few blows that are coming that are going to hurt.
So, yeah, I want people to know who Bobby Charles is. I want people to know what really good music sounds like. Everything is so overwritten and under-thought these days. But certain things just resonate when you hear them, and that stuff doesn’t go away. That’s what people talk about when they talk about soul.