Singer-songwriter Bobby Charles, who authored hits like Fats Domino’s “Walking to New Orleans” and Bill Haley & the Comets’ “See You Later Alligator” and recorded highly personalized swamp-pop in his own right, died Jan. 14 at his home in Abbeville, LA. He was 71.
The cause of death was unknown immediately, and a medical examination is pending, according to Charles’ spokeswoman.
Charles had suffered from numerous health problems in recent years, including back problems, a bout with cancer, diabetes and injuries suffered in a fall.
Born Robert Charles Guidry in Abbeville, he was a white Cajun performer who gravitated to rock ‘n’ roll and R&B as a teen. Signed to the Chicago blues and R&B label Chess, he cut “Later Alligator” in 1955. The single reached No. 14 on the R&B charts, but achieved prominence a year later when Haley turned the song into a No. 6 pop hit.
Charles moved to Imperial Records in 1958; his label mate Domino registered a No. 6 pop single with “Walking to New Orleans” two years later. Crescent City singer Clarence “Frogman” Henry took Charles’ “(I Don’t Know Why I Love You) But I Do” to No. 4 on Chess’ Argo subsidiary in 1961.
Never able to achieve more than minor success as a vocalist, Charles faded off the scene after cutting singles for Shreveport’s Jewel and Paula labels. However, his association with members of the Band led to a contract with Bearsville, the imprint run by the group’s manager Albert Grossman.
His self-titled release for the label, co-produced by the Band’s producer John Simon and bassist Rick Danko, was issued in 1972. The laid-back collection, which featured backing by members of the Band, guitarist Amos Garrett, Dr. John and saxophonist David Sanborn, received favorable reviews, but a falling out with Grossman scuttled its sales, and a second Bearsville album went unreleased.
Charles maintained his relationship with the Band, and appeared at their farewell concert, “The Last Waltz,” in San Francisco in 1976, performing “Down in New Orleans.” However, he is unseen in Martin Scorsese’s 1978 documentary about the event.
In later years, Charles was relatively reclusive. He issued the album “Wish You Were Here Right Now” on Canada’s Stony Plain Records in 1995. He also released singles on his own Rice ‘N’ Gravy imprint, which also dropped an album, “Homemade Songs,” in 2008. Another completed album awaits release.