Sunday, September 7, 2014

# 54 Bobby Charles & Paul Butterfield


   Excellent songwriters are always in demand as a sub trade within the music industry. A singer may be a great interpreter of song, but a terrible songwriter, very few are good at both. History shows that most of the great singers from every generation use songwriters to create material for their own repertoire. Elvis, Sinatra, Muddy Waters, and Little Walter are only a few pre-sixties examples. 

   However, when Bob Dylan arrives on the mainstream pop scene in the early '60's, the role of the songwriter changes forever. Suddenly, the songwriters are center stage, and after Dylan, audiences expect their favourite singer to also perform songs their own material. 

    This new expectation is a very important development for popular music in the 60's. While it comes with new pressures for artists it also provides financial rewards for artists who are destined for brief careers as performers. The royalties generated from the recording of successful songs can, and often do, act as a pension plan for musicians. For example, one successful pop song can provide enough income for an artist to retire early from the grind of life on the road, and live a relatively comfortable lifestyle for their remaining  years.  

   Butterfield is a songwriter, but he isn't prolific, and none of his songs seem to capture the imagination of his audience, so he is a good candidate for a outside help. This is where his meeting of Bobby Charles proves to be so fortuitous. 

   Charles is born Robert Charles Guidry, grows up as a Cajun in AbbevilleLouisiana during the 40's. (Most of the Louisiana Cajuns are of French descent. During the 16 and 17 th century they settle in the Canadian maritime region, and live peaceful lives as Acadians. However, when the British take over the area in the 1700's they demand that the Acadians submit to their rule. When the Acadians refuse, they are executed or banished from Canada. This expulsion is an early example of ethnic cleansing in North American.The Band's performance of Robbie Robertson's song Acadian Driftwood is based on this experience) While the Acadians resettled in several different locations,  Louisiana is an important one. It is in this state that the word Acadian evolves into Cajun, their new culture flourishes. It is a brutal history of a people, and their culture, but one which gives birth to the artistry of Bobby Charles.

   So, as a Cajun, Charles grows listening to the music of his environment, but everything changes for him when, at 15, he hears Fats Domino for the first time. Years later he will recall that the experience changed my life forever. During the '50', he starts to write songs which are a combination of Cajun
and country music, the local industry even labels his work Swamp Pop. It is while working on his early career that he writes, and records songs like See You Later Alligator, Walkin' to New Orleans, Ain't Got No Home and But I Do, but unfortunately, none of his own recordings resonate with the mainstream audience. 

   However, in '56, Bill Haley and His Comets do have a hit with See You Later Alligator, and Charles' career as a songwriter is established. (Fat Domino will have success with another Charles song, Walkin' to New Orleans in '60, and then in '61, Clarence Frogman Henry will chart with the Charles composition But I Do).

   While Charles' success as a songwriter is growing by the late '50's, his career as a performer is not keeping stride, and so he leaves Louisiana to try his luck in L.A.. It is while in Los Angeles that a local record store owner hears his version of See You Later Alligator, and is so impressed with the young Cajun's work he contacts his friend Leonard Chess of Chess Records. The Chess Brothers  audition Charles over the phone, and immediately present him with a recording contract offer. However, after hearing Charles' vocal style; the Chess Brothers assume he is black, and are confounded when they finally meet the Cajun in the flesh. So, in an effort to repackage his public profile, the Chess Brothers decide to change his name from Robert Charles Guidry to Bobby Charles. Unfortunately, this does not help his career, his vocal interpretations do not resonate with the mainstream audience and so, he is released from contract by '57. He is disappointed, but regroups, and briefly records with the Imperial label, but that too ends in failure. The frustration leads Charles to retreat from the industry, and seek out other means of employment. 

   By 1972, Bobby Charles is living in New Mexico when he decides to move to the small town of Jeffersonville, New York. He isn't in their long before he decides that he doesn't like the vibes, and randomly chooses to move to Woodstock, New York. He is out of touch with the music business for a few years now, so according to him, he knows nothing about the Woodstock music scene. He isn't even aware that the Woodstock Music festival has made history. Charles also doesn't know that his move to Woodstock will change his life forever. 

   So, when he starts house hunting in Woodstock, he hires a real estate agent, and specifically instructs him to not show me any houses with the people living there because I don't want to take anyone's roof. However, the agent takes him to a house being occupied by Norman Smart 3rd, Jim Colgrove, and Paul Butterfield. (Charles, claims Butterfield is living in the back of the house.) He feels uncomfortable at first, but the mood changes when he sees the instruments set up in the house. The chance meeting sparks a conversation between the four musicians, and marks the beginning of a prosperous relationship for Charles, and Butterfield


  It is Butterfield who introduces Charles to industry giant Albert Grossman, and sets a new course for the songwriter. According to Charles, they all met at Grossman's restaurant, and then continued the evening at his Bearsville home. At the house party, Butterfield and Maria Muldaur are there to witness Grossman's first impressions, and the birth of Charles revived career. 


   The the new business relationship between Grossman, and Charles will prove to be significant for several singers in the 70's, but it is Butterfield's new band that reaps the initial rewards of the his talent. Charles will become an unofficial member of Better Days, and is often, according to Charles, inaccurately credited with giving them their name Better Days. He thinks that Butterfield already has the name, but concedes that it could come from a toast that he frequently uses, There ain't no love, where there ain't no wine, Better Days are coming. 

       Regardless of the speculation, Charles will either collaborate, or pen several songs for Butterfield's
new band. He writes Done A Lot of Wrong Things for the first Better Days album, and for the It All Comes Back release he contributes half of the material: Win or Lose, Take Your Pleasure Where You Find It , Small Town Talk, and the title track It All Comes BackHe also composes a song, Better Days for the band, but laments they busted up before they could record it. In addition, Butterfield will use Charles' He's Got All The Whiskey as part of his concert setlist. After Paul Butterfield's Better Days dissolves, Butterfield will use Charles song Here I Go Again on his first solo effort, Put It In Your Ear.

   Bobby Charles is one of those songwriters who is probably heard by millions, but too few know his name. His songs are interpreted by many of a generation's greatest singers. Artists such as: Joe CockerDelbert McClintonLou RawlsRay CharlesTom Jones, Kris KristoffersonRita CoolidgeEtta James, Junior Wells, Clarence Gatemouth BrownBo DiddleyDavid Allan CoeMuddy Waters, and UB40 all record and perform Charles material. 

                                                                                       
     However, in spite of his success as a songwriter his own vocals never seem to gain traction with a mainstream audience. Even his performance of Down South In New Orleans at the Band's farewell concert The Last Waltz ends up on the cutting room floor. After the 70's Charles will once again, retreat from music industry.

   It must be frustrating for frustrating and disappointing, but at least the royalties from his songs allow him to retire to a house back in Abbeville, Louisiana. It is here that he continues to write songs, periodically releasing them on his own label Rice 'n 'Gravy

   In his last decade, Bobby Charles experiences a string of really devastating events: his house burns down, and then, after rebuilding the second house, it blows away in a hurricane, then in the 2000s, he is diagnosed with cancer, and dies after collapsing in his new home in January 2010. 


   In spite of not attaining his initial goal of becoming a successful singer Bobby Charles leaves behind a really rich legacy of timeless pop songs which are still being recorded, and performed today. As a testament to this legacy, have a listen to Shannon McNally's tribute album, Small Town Talk: (Songs of Bobby Charles) (2013), you'll love it!

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