BOBBY CHARLES – The King Of Swamp Rock

Dr. John: “I think of all of Bobby’s songs have something to offer at all times, for all people”

Delbert McClinton: “He’s Bobby Charles; there’s only one.”

Johnny Adams, Bonnie Bramlett, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Paul Butterfield, Ray Charles, Joe Cocker, Jackie DeShannon, Bo Diddley, Fats Domino, Etta James, Dr. John, Tom Jones, Kris Kristofferson, Delbert McClinton, Shannon McNally, Wilson Pickett, Lou Rawls, UB40, Jerry Jeff Walker, Muddy Waters, Junior Wells… What do all of these artists have in common? They all have, at one time or another,  recorded at least one Bobby Charles song. As a matter of fact, after forming a bond with Charles, Shannon McNally devoted an entire album to his songs. (Incidentally, “See You Later Alligator” – Charles’ initial claim to fame; more on the song later – to date has been covered an incredible 62 times!)

Such is the skill of Bobby Charles as a songwriter. And his songwriting expertise is even more remarkable when you consider that Bobby couldn’t read or write music or even play an instrument. That is, other than his own voice which was a more than serviceable in conveying varied emotions, and was all too rarely used. But singing isn’t where his interests lied; and it goes without saying that Charles was more successful as a songwriter than as a singer.

Robert Charles Guidry was born about 150 miles west of New Orleans in the Cajun Country town of Abbeyville LA., (population 9,300), on February 21, 1938. Growing up in a French speaking household, Charles was bit by the music bug early, listening to mostly traditional Cajun music on the radio. As a young teen he discovered Country and R&B, and cited his early idols as Hank Williams and Fats Domino.

It was also around this time, at the age of 13, that Charles started singing with a local group, The Clippers, at the Mount Carmel High School dances in Abbeyville where Charles was a student. The Clippers played primarily Country and Cajun material as was the fashion around Abbeyville. Charles also started dabbling in songwriting during his tenure with The Clippers, including his first fully realized composition “See You Later Alligator” that he penned at 14 years of age.

The writing of “Later Alligator” would prove to be a watershed moment in Charles’ young career. Things started rolling when Fats Domino played a show in Abbeyville, and Charles was able to speak to him after the show, taking the opportunity to offer “Later Alligator” to him to record. When the song was turned down by Domino, (who said he didn’t want to “sing any song about alligators”), through the connections of a local record shop proprietor, Charles, in turn, auditioned the song in a phone call to Leonard Chess, founder of Chess Records. Suitably impressed, Chess suggested a name change to simply “Bobby Charles” and arranged for Charles to record the song, (with The Clippers backing him), at Cosimo Matassa’s studio in New Orleans. Although the single was a hit locally, it didn’t fare well nationally – making just a token appearance at #14 on the R&B charts for one week.

All was not lost, however, because a major artist in the burgeoning genre of Rock & Roll, Bill Haley & The Comets, (who’s 1956 single  “Rock Around the Clock” would become, for a time, the biggest selling rock and roll single in the history of Rock & Roll), recorded the song and made it an International hit. (Not to mention the expression “see you later alligator” finding its’ way into the hipster lexicon of the day). “Later Alligator” would prove to be the start of a prosperous songwriting career for Charles.

Although “Later Alligator” had established Charles as a Chess recording artist, Leonard Chess didn’t meet Charles in person until 3 months after the release of the song. When introduced to Charles at the Chess offices in Chicago, Chess was, to say the least, surprised to find that Charles was white. He was especially confounded given that he had already set up a tour of mostly Black venues; including Charles along with Chuck Berry and other Chess artists. (Once audiences got over the initial shock of Charles being white he was well received).

Bobby, (the only white artist on the Chess label), would go on to record more singles, and be included in more package tours for Chess. After leaving Chess, Charles cut more singles on other labels like Imperial, Jewel, and Paula without much success. At the same time Charles admitted that he didn’t enjoy the touring required to support the singles and that he wasn’t enamoured with being a singer / frontman. Instead, Charles was more comfortable in the studio and writing songs. Coincidentally, his reputation as a songwriter was growing. Among other songs recorded by various artists, he wrote “Walkin’ To New Orleans” for Fats Domino and “(I Don’t Know Why I Love You) But I Do” for Clarence “Frogman” Henry. Those two songs provided a much needed jolt to his songwriting career, and put Charles on course as a pioneer of a musical genre known as “Swamp Rock”.

While Charles had success as a songwriter, he was growing increasingly disenchanted with the music business, and he drifted away while keeping a low profile working menial jobs in Texas and various parts of the Southwest. He did settle in Nashville for a short time, writing songs for John R at WLAC, but after being busted for pot possession he decided it was best to leave town and look for new horizons.

The story goes that, with no definite destination in mind, he came across Woodstock on a map and decided to make his way there. (Surprisingly, he apparently had never even heard of the famed Woodstock Festival). Once there he quickly acclimated to the laid back lifestyle and just as quickly made friends with some of the local musicians including members of The Band and Paul Butterfield’s Better Days. And in keeping with his low profile mindset, when questioned by one of the Woodstock musicians if he was that Bobby Charles of “See You Later Alligator” fame, Charles’ response was “don’t tell anybody”

But word got around and Charles eventually came to the attention of Albert Grossman, (the high powered manager of Bob Dylan, The Band, Paul Butterfield etc.), who signed him to his Bearsville label, and made the recording of his, (self-titled), first album possible. Backed by a star studded supporting cast including Amos Garrett, Dr. John, David Sanborn, and members of The Band among others; Charles cut more of a cult favourite than a commercially successful release. Co-produced by John Simon, (The Band’s producer), and Rick Danko of The Band, “Bobby Charles” is a swampy boozy mix of R&B, good time Rock & Roll, and Country that would fit well in a roots rocker’s or singer songwriter’s catalogue. Although the album didn’t sell well, it was well received by critics and contained 2 entries that came to be known as “Woodstock Songs”, continually performed by local musicians: “Small town Talk” and “He’s Got All The Whiskey”.

During Charles’ time in Woodstock, among other ventures, he became an unofficial member of Paul Butterfield’s Better Days, (as well as Butter’s running buddy), contributing songs and guesting on the band’s two studio releases. He made his presence felt on the second release writing the title track “It All Comes Back” in addition to 2 co-writes with Butter, and sharing vocals with him on one of them “Take Your Pleasure Where You Find It”. It’s also worthwhile noting that Charles wrote arguably the best song, (“Here I Go Again”), on Butterfield’s otherwise lacklustre solo album “Put It In Your Ear”.

Charles did make a couple of subsequent recordings while in Woodstock, although neither was released. The first was recorded with R&B / Soul songwriting legend Spooner Oldham while the second was a live effort with Charles backed by Butterfield and the NYC funk collective Stuff.

Charles’ stay in Woodstock wasn’t a long one as he became increasingly uncomfortable and decided to move back to Abbeyville. He did some sporadic recordings that found their way on various releases but for the most part Charles was content to be at home and live off his songwriting royalties. One of those recordings was “Down South In New Orleans” performed at The Band’s Last Waltz concert and captured on the soundtrack. (In keeping with his low profile mentality, in typical Bobby Charles fashion, he refused to be in the accompanying movie).

Bobby Charles resurfaced as a recording artist briefly in the 90’s, signing with Holger Petersen and Stony Plain Records, and releasing 2 CD’s. That was followed by 2 more on the Rice N’Gravy imprint. All four albums plus a number of subsequent compilations show that Charles’ songwriting skills remained intact, as he continued to entice various artists to cover his songs.

Despite his nature – that could be interpreted as passive – Bobby Charles was serious about his songwriting. Calling songs “the seeds of the music business”, Charles explained that he didn’t try to sit down and write a song but rather that songs are an inspiration that come from the heart. He went on to say that once inspired, he would usually finish a song in under a half an hour as “it’s like a release” that had to come out. (For instance, Charles wrote “Walkin’ To New Orleans” in 20 minutes).

Interestingly, to capture the creative moment – taking into account that Charles didn’t play an instrument – Charles would often sing the song onto his phone’s answering machine. From there he would “transmit” the song to the studio musicians, and, as was his custom, record the song in one take while it was “fresh”. (When recording the “Bobby Charles” album, Charles remembered laying down 5 or 6 of the 10 tracks in one session – all of them one take).

Bobby Charles, the “King Of Swamp Rock”, has taken on legendary status based on the simplicity, humour, and empathy displayed in his brand of Louisiana Rock & Roll and R&B. There’s no doubt that the world lost a real treasure with his passing on January 10, 2010 at the age of 71.

It’s only fitting that Bobby Charles was honoured by being inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall Of Fame in 2007.


  1. See You Later Alligator – Bobby Charles
  2. Walking To New Orleans – Fats Domino
  3. Street People – Bobby Charles
  4. Long Face – Bobby Charles
  5. Save Me Jesus – Bobby Charles
  6. Grow Too Old – Bobby Charles
  7. He’s Got All the Whiskey – Bobby Charles
  8. Small Town Talk – Paul Butterfield’s Better Days
  9. Tennessee Blues – Shannon McNally
  10.  Down South In New Orleans – Bobby Charles w / The Band
  11.  Take Your Pleasure Where You Find It – Paul Butterfield’s Better Days feat. Bobby Charles
  12.  Why Are People Like That – Muddy Waters
  13.  Jealous Kind – Etta James
  14.  Here I Go Again – Paul Butterfield
  15.  I Don’t Want to Know – Johnny Adams
  • RICO FERRARA, May 2021

4 thoughts on “BOBBY CHARLES – The King Of Swamp Rock

  1. Swamp Rock is unique genre. Charles’ story is another fascinating and informative bio. I particularly like the covers done by Etta James (“Jealous Kind”) and Johnny Adams (“I Don’t Want To Know”), both sung from the heart and very “clean”. I can’t recall “See You Later Alligator”, but am sure it was part of the household in the early 50s.

    Liked by 1 person

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