TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Bobby Charles was one of those rock n' roll figures whose work you're almost certainly familiar with, even though you've probably never heard of him. He lived in isolation, recorded very little, never performed, and died in 2010. Rock historian Ed Ward tells us about the memorable body of work he left behind.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHY ARE PEOPLE LIKE THAT?")
BOBBY CHARLES: (Singing) They'll take your love and your money. They'll take your sugar and your honey. They'll take you skinny or fat. Why are people like that? They'll take your child and your home.
ED WARD, BYLINE: When he was around 13, Robert Charles Guidry began singing with a band around his home town of Abbeville, Louisiana, deep in the Cajun swamps. The band played Cajun music and country music, and, after he passed through town and played a show, Fats Domino's music. It was a life-changing experience for the young man, and he found himself with a new ambition: to write a song for Fats.
One night as he left a gig, he said to his friends: See ya later, alligator. And one of them yelled back: in a while, crocodile. Bobby stopped in his tracks. What did you say? he asked. The friend repeated it. At that moment, as would happen countless times in the future, the song came to him, fully formed.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEE YOU LATER, ALLIGATOR")
CHARLES: (Singing) Well, I saw my baby walking with another man today. Well, I saw my baby walking with another man today. When I asked her what's the matter, this is what I heard her say: See you later, alligator. After a while, crocodile. See you later, alligator. After a while, crocodile. Can't you see you're in my way now? Don't you know you cramp my style? When I thought of what she told me...
WARD: Fats didn't want the song, and he told the young man he didn't want to sing about alligators. Somehow, though, the kid wound up singing the song over the phone to Leonard Chess, whose Chess Records in Chicago was the hottest blues label in town. Chess didn't hesitate. He sent the kid a ticket, and when Bobby showed up at his office, Chess said something I can't say on the air. The sentence ended with the word "white" and a question mark, though.
Chess recorded him and put the song out, changing Guidry's name to Bobby Charles, and almost immediately Bill Haley grabbed it for himself. Haley's record was one of the best sellers of 1956, and both Chess and Bobby made some decent money from it. Bobby recorded for Chess until 1958, but his records only sold locally. Along the way, though, he seemed to have pioneered a genre called swamp pop.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T GOT NO HOME")
CHARLES: (Singing) Ain't got no home. Ain't got no place to go. Since my baby been gone, things ain't the same no more. She used to hold my hand.
WARD: He also got to realize a dream. One evening, Fats Domino played Abbeville, and Fats invited Bobby to a show in New Orleans. Bobby said he had no way to get there. Well, the fat man said, you'd better start walking. And sure enough, a song popped into Bobby's head.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALKING TO NEW ORLEANS")
FATS DOMINO: (Singing) This time, I'm walking to New Orleans. I'm walking to New Orleans. I'm going to need to parachute when I get through walking these blues when I get back to New Orleans.
WARD: Bobby signed with Imperial, Fats' label, but again, nothing hit. He admitted freely that he was part of the problem. He didn't enjoy touring, and he had a jealous wife who didn't like him leaving town. He continued writing and selling songs, and recorded for some local Louisiana labels.
He and his wife parted company, and then, in 1971, he got busted for pot in Nashville. Rather than risk jail, he disappeared. He wound up in Upstate New York, and saw the name Woodstock on a map. He'd never even heard of the famous festival, but the name appealed to him.
Arriving in town, he asked a real estate agent about a place to rent, and wound up in a house shared with two other musicians. They introduced him around, and Albert Grossman - who'd managed Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and many others - got interested. The next thing he knew, Bobby was back in the studio with members of The Band, Dr. John and lots of other Woodstock musicians. The resulting album had some truly memorable moments.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SMALL TOWN TALK")
CHARLES: (Singing) It's all small town talk. You know how people are. They can't stand to see someone else doing what they like to. It's all small town talk. You mustn't pay no mind. Don't believe a word. They'll try to do it every time. You can't believe everything you hear, and only half of what you see. And if you're going to believe in anyone, you've got to believe in me. It's all small town talk.
WARD: It didn't sell, though. Bobby focused on songwriting, but he wasn't comfortable in Woodstock, and in the end, he went back to Abbeville, where he disappeared from public view for an entire decade. He had a good income from his songs, but a run of bad luck: His house burned down, and then his next house blew away in a hurricane.
He kept writing songs, and he entertained visitors who came to Abbeville to meet him, people like Bob Dylan and Neil Young and Willie Nelson. His record label, Rice 'N' Gravy, put out several homemade albums which mixed his old and new songs.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "(I DON'T KNOW WHY I LOVE YOU) BUT I DO")
CHARLES: (Singing) I don't know why I love you, but I do. I don't know why I cry so, but I do. I only know I'm lonely, and that I want you only. I don't know why I love you, but I do.
WARD: At the age of 70, Bobby Charles was diagnosed with cancer, and he died in January, 2010, unknown to most of the world he'd enriched with his songs.
GROSS: Ed Ward lives and writes in France. You can download podcasts of our show on our website freshair.npr.org, and you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.