In a lot of ways, singer-songwriter Bobby Charles had it all, or at least had everything he wanted. His 1972 “comeback,” powered by his stunning self-titled LP, wasn’t something he sought; it wasn’t a calculated attempt to reach a new audience and reintroduce himself in a new era. It just sort of happened. But whether he asked for it or not, it made him a legend.
Charles came to fame in the early ‘60s, penning R&B hits such as “See You Later Alligator” and the Fats Domino staple “Walking to New Orleans,” among others. Equipped with a rich bayou drawl, Charles also cut some of his own sides, most notably for Chess, where he toured with many of the label’s biggest names. By all accounts a supremely relaxed fellow, Charles was content to ride out the remainder of a tumultuous decade behind the scenes as a writer. He moved to Nashville, but was eventually forced out of town to avoid the consequences of a trumped-up pot bust (this, of course, isn’t to say that Charles didn’t imbibe). He landed in Woodstock, which in the early ‘70s was crawling with not only like-minded musician types, but most beneficial for Charles, like-minded musician types who worshipped him. At the urging of Dylan’s infamous manager Albert Grossman, and with a little help from some famous friends, including Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack and members of the mighty Band, Charles entered Grossman’s Bearsville studio and cut what would become Bobby Charles.
What Charles recorded on this 1972 full-length, finally reissued in late 2011 in deluxe form by Rhino Handmade, is in many ways quite simple. The songs are almost dangerously mellow — languid roots workouts that stretch the standard pop-song length by sometimes more than double. Rebennack and Garth Hudson take their unmistakable piano and organ lines for a stroll, guitar glides gently in and out, and Rick Danko kind of pokes folks in the ribs from time to time with his bass lines to keep everybody moving forward. The mood is wistful and almost melancholy. Charles’s voice drips with the swamps of his youth, and, on tracks such as “I Must Be in a Good Place Now,” clearly longs for home. On the other hand, twangy funk numbers like “Street People,” “He Got All the Money,” and “Save Me Jesus” have a quiet defiance to them. They offer recognition of the intransigence of the status quo, such that the best form of resistance is probably noble withdrawal, to a recording studio in the mountains as it were, as opposed to direct confrontation.
Interestingly, as a songwriter, Charles was very much in the belly of the beast as far as the music industry as institution goes. He both fully engaged the business while subverting its standard expectations. According to one of the more entertaining anecdotes in Brian Barr’s excellent liner notes, Charles refused to tour the record (he don’t need the hassle, ya know?). He eventually agreed, however, to go on tour with friend Paul Butterfield as a sideman on the condition that he could sell songs to the other musicians on the tour. And all of this on Albert Grossman’s dime no less. Folks, that’s how you stick it to the man.
In the end, what makes this album and the Handmade package as a whole — which notably contains almost two discs worth of extra tracks, almost all of which are as good anything on the original 10-track LP — so special, is Charles himself. It’s become commonplace to hear musicians dance around a description of their music, as if to simply call yourself a rock band or a blues musician somehow cheapens what you play. Everyone wants to claim some sort of broad, transcendent synthesis of styles, but more often than not the music simply is what it is. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s just a banal reality. Charles, a French Cajun born and raised in Louisiana swamp country who died in 2010, knew precisely who and what he was. And was more than happy with the truth. He never had to strive for his amalgam of blues, gospel, country and R&B. No individual style overwhelms here and everything works in perfect accord. For guys like Charles and Dr. John, those musical connections are their reality and it’s far from banal.