Bobby Charles: Songwriter who composed 'See You Later, Alligator'

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The Independent Online

Although Bobby Charles could neither read nor write music, nor play an instrument, he was a fine songwriter, writing the hit songs "See You Later, Alligator" (Bill Haley), "Walking to New Orleans" (Fats Domino) and "(I Don't Know Why) But I Do" (Clarence "Frogman" Henry). Keen to live in seclusion around the Louisiana swamps, he never promoted his own career, but a highly regarded album, Bobby Charles, with Dr. John and members of the Band, was released in 1972. His attitude to songwriting was simple: "When they come, they come."

Robert Charles Guidry was born, the son of a truck driver, in the small town of Abbeville, Louisiana on 21 February 1938. He grew up with a love of Cajun music and the new sounds of rock'n'roll. He would say goodbye to his friends with, "See you later, alligator" and when one of them replied, "After a while, crocodile", he had the basis for a novelty song, which he worked out with a local band, the Cardinals.

Based in Chicago, the Chess label was looking for new blues artists and after Leonard Chess heard the song over the telephone, he booked a session at Cosimo Matassa's studio in New Orleans. Although only 17, Charles insisted on recording it with the Cardinals rather than session musicians. "See You Later, Alligator" was released in 1955 and became a small rhythm and blues hit. However, it was picked up by Bill Haley and his Comets, who turned the song into a million-seller.

When Charles was summoned to meet Chess in Chicago, the label owner was astonished to find that Charles was white. He was a good-looking boy who had a kiss curl in honour of Haley. Chess had booked him on some black shows with Chuck Berry and, in Birmingham, Alabama, the other musicians had to save Charles from being beaten up by angry customers.

Charles recorded seven singles for Chess but none matched "See You Later, Alligator", although he did attempt to emulate it with "Take It Easy, Greasy". He left the label in 1957 after non-payment of royalties. He also found that other names were being attributed to songs he had written.

During the next decade, Charles recorded for several labels, including Imperial, Jewel and Paula, but his successes came as a songwriter. In 1960 he wrote "Walking to New Orleans" for Fats Domino, a song that has become anthemic since the floods and has been revived by Neil Young. Domino also recorded "It Keeps Rainin'" and "Before I Grow Too Old".

In 1961, Clarence "Frogman" Henry had an international success with "(I Don't Know Why) But I Do", which sounded like Fats Domino singing a standard, but wasn't. Henry also made the charts with "Why Can't You".

In 1972 he recorded the marvellous Bobby Charles for Bearsville. His voice had mellowed to a low-key growl, which was perfect for "Small Town Talk", written with Rick Danko from the Band.

He appeared in the film The Last Waltz (1978), with the Band, although he can only been seen in the chorus. In 1976, Joe Cocker recorded "The Jealous Kind", which Charles had written after an argument with his wife. He was divorced and lived in a succession of weather-beaten shacks. One burned down as a result of faulty wiring and in 2005, when his home in Holly Beach, Louisiana was destroyed by Hurricane Rita, he returned to Abbeville.

In later years, Charles recorded Clean Water (1987), Wish You Were Here Right Now (1995) and Secrets of the Heart (1998), but the most intriguing release was the 34-track double-CD of vintage sessions, Last Train to Memphis (2004), which included guest appearances from Domino, Henry, Willie Nelson and Neil Young. The title song was a tribute to Elvis Presley. A new album, Homemade Songs, was co-produced with Dr John in 2008.

Spencer Leigh

Robert Charles Guidry (Bobby Charles), singer and songwriter: born Abbeville, Louisiana 21 February 1938; married (four sons); died Abbeville, Louisiana 14 January 2010.