It's a sad day in the swamps of South Louisiana as Bobby Charles, a founder of the musical genre known as swamp pop and one of the most under-rated songwriters of his time, has passed away at 71. Originally from rural Abbeville, Charles rose to fame on the very cusp of the birth of rock and roll when he penned and recorded "See You Later Alligator," which became a hit for Bill Haley & His Comets shortly thereafter. Charles also wrote the Fats Domino standard "Walkin' To New Orleans," and hit early rock and roll gold when Clarence "Frogman" Henry recorded "I Don't Know Why I Love You (But I Do)."
Charles' most significant sides were recorded for the legendary Chess record label. He also recorded on both the Jewel and Paula labels in 1964 and '65. These rare recordings have been collected on
Local "Blues in Hi-Fi" disc jockey Clint Broussard said he found a Japanese import of all of Charles' Chess material in a New Orleans record store last year. Cajun legend Johnny Allan, who cut several of Charles's songs, told Broussard in an interview that Charles didn't play an instrument or know much about music at all. According to Broussard, Allan said Charles didn't even know how to tell the band what key to play in, "he was just a great songwriter and performer." Allan recorded Charles's "Your Picture" and "Somebody Else."
An enigmatic recluse, Charles had largely been out of the public eye since his brief appearance at The Band's
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in 1976. Charles's segment, where he sang "Down South In New Orleans," was not used in Martin Scorcese's final cut of the 1978 film, and Charles can only be seen momentarily in the final scene as one of the gaggle of backup singers. The song appears on the expanded reissue of the film's soundtrack, released in 2004. Charles was listed as a performer on the 2004 bill for the Ponderosa Stomp, but cancelled at the last moment, citing health issues He had a bout with cancer and also was known to have recurring denture problems.
Existing essentially off the public radar, Charles was held in high esteem by virtually everyone in the Louisiana music scene. His band at New Orleans' 2007 Jazz Fest included Sonny Landreth and Mac "Dr. John" Rebennack.