Bobby Charles was a unique musical talent. The Louisiana native with Cajun roots brought all the swampy sounds and deep culture of his home to his music, but Charles’s songs also took a village to raise. Charles himself was a pure songwriter, one that operated more on intuition than musical ability. He didn’t really play instruments, but when he was a teenager he wrote hits like “See You Later, Alligator” and “Walking to New Orleans” that are classics to this day. Charles was a songwriting prodigy, a guy who worked out the words and some sort of melody in his head, and then enlisted friends to flesh them out with twangy, lush instrumentation.
Charles only released one album in the ‘70s, 1972’s Bobby Charles, but it is an undeniable classic, one of the great pop records the decade offered. At a time where singer-songwriters were everywhere – the 1970-‘74 bin at the record store is still an endless source of inspiration for modern folk and pop acts – Charles released a record that stood above the rest. Since four out of five members of the Band play on the record and it sure sounds like a Band record (albeit a more shuffling version of one), some have called this an unofficial part of that group’s catalogue. But while to do so may be a decent descriptor, it is also dismissive of Charles’s singular talents and charm.
The new Deluxe Edition of Bobby Charles – released as part of Rhino’s Handmade series and now available through Light in the Attic – pays a perfect tribute to Charles’s impressive songwriting. The album proper – 10 nearly perfect songs – is remastered to sound exactly as it should: clean but ragged at the edges, as laid back, languid and coated in sweat as a late-summer afternoon. Charles had a knack for selling the role of outlier without romanticizing melancholy. “Street People” has Charles down and out, but he’d rather be there. He’s not scraping by, he’s living life “moving from town to town”. It’s not that he’s poor or lost; it’s that he’s free. Charles spends the record operating outside of big, troubling structures. Whether it’s the sad gossip mill of “Small Town Talk” or the country-at-war mentality of “Save Me Jesus”, Charles shakes his head at the state of things, but never lets them drag him down. Even on “He’s Got All the Whiskey”, one of the great haves-versus-have-nots songs of all time, Charles is mad at his subject but never bitter. After all, the “He” in the title does have it all – whiskey, money, power, women – and he won’t share any with Charles or anyone else. It’s not so much a timely Occupy-era song as a tragically timeless one, but through it all Charles still seems playful, both wanting those things he doesn’t have and pitying the Other’s reliance on them.
The music behind Charles is just as playful and carefree as his performance. Charles could break your heart, and he was not shy on schmaltz – check the excellent, plainly in love “I Must Be In a Good Place Now” – but he was also a brilliant counterpoint to more maudlin performers like Mickey Newbury and his ilk. The guys behind Charles – and the production by Rick Danko and John Simon – kept these songs lively and loose. Levon Helm’s drumming was the perfect blend of propulsion and Southern-slack, while Dr. John’s keys and Garth Hudson’s organ provide a brilliant back and forth throughout the record. Bobby Charles, even 40 years later, can still surprise. The songs hit with immediate hooks and Charles’s swampland troubadour charisma, but there are little holes and swells that will keep you coming back, revisiting these songs over and over again.
This new Deluxe Edition, though, proves that – while Charles only put out the one album in the ‘70s – he was not short on brilliant material. Of the 25 rare and unreleased songs here, there isn’t a single misstep. Extra versions of “He’s Got All the Whiskey” – both the first take of the song and a longer version – feel as fresh and exciting as the album cut. Plus, there are non-album tracks, like “New Mexico” and “Homemade Songs”, that rank among Charles’ best material – and really some of the best stuff to come out of the early-‘70s period. The second disc is full of songs recorded later, in 1974 at Bearsville Studios, and standouts like “Why Are People Like That” and “Jealous Kind” add a fully fleshed-out, funky new vibe to Charles’s Bayou-pop sound.
The entire set of songs here is not just worth owning, but essential, and not just for Bobby Charles fans. Bobby Charles has long been one of those musician’s records, one that slipped through the cracks for a larger crowd. But now we can revisit this album – and Charles’s impressive body of work in the ‘70s in general – and give it the due it rightly deserves. “Homemade Songs”, in two great versions included here, partially explains who Bobby Charles was, his love of a good song, his simple approach. “I think I’m gonna stay right here, ‘cause here’s where I belong,” he sings. “Staying stoned and playing homemade songs.” It’s a fine, typically laid back sentiment for Charles, but it also undersells just how good he is at what he does, just how far those songs can reach, no matter how close to home they stayed in his heart. Nearly two years after his death, and 40 years after this album, these songs are still reaching out to us. It’s high time we took more notice.