Bobby Charles (February 21, 1938 – January 14, 2010) was an American singer-songwriter.
An ethnic Cajun, Charles was born as Robert Charles Guidry in Abbeville, Louisiana and grew up listening to Cajun music and the country and western music of Hank Williams. At the age of 15, he heard a performance by Fats Domino, an event that "changed my life forever," he recalled.
He led a local group, the Cardinals, for whom he wrote a song called Hey Alligator at the age of 14. The song was inspired by an incident at a roadside diner, when his parting shot to a friend – "See you later, alligator" – inspired another customer to respond with: "In a while, crocodile."
The popularity of the song led a local record-store owner to recommend Guidry to Leonard Chess of the Chicago-based Chess Records label. After Bobby had sung it over the phone, Chess signed him up. He travelled to New Orleans to record the song and several others under the name Bobby Charles. On his first visit to Chicago, he shocked the label's owners, who had been expecting to meet a young black singer and had arranged a promotional tour of the "chitlin' circuit" of African-American venues.
Chess issued Charles's Later Alligator in January 1956, but it was soon recorded as See You Later, Alligator by Bill Haley & His Comets, whose version sold 1m copies in America (coincidentally, publicity photos of Charles at this time showed him with a Haley-style kiss curl).
Although Charles performed alongside big names such as Little Richard, the Platters and Chuck Berry on tours in the late 1950s, his own records for Chess, Imperial and Jewel did not sell that well. Nevertheless, he enjoyed songwriting royalties from hit versions of songs he had co-written, such as Walking to New Orleans, recorded by Fats Domino in 1960, and But I Do, recorded by Clarence "Frogman" Henry in 1961.
Charles's laidback, drawling vocal style was also a formative influence on a style of music made by
white and black Louisiana teenagers that came to be called swamp pop – primarily slow, rolling two-chord ballads drawing from all the musical traditions of south Louisiana, such as country, soul and Cajun. The genre's biggest national hits were Rod Bernard's This Should Go On Forever and Joe Barry's I'm a Fool to Care.
Charles disappeared from the music scene in the mid-1960s but returned in 1972 with a self-titled album on which he was accompanied by Rick Danko and several members of Danko's group, the Band. The album's most remarkable tracks were Before I Grow Too Old and the languorous Small Town Talk. The radio DJ and historian Charlie Gillett summed up that song's appeal: "It was precisely the uneventful nature of the music that made it so alluring. Alongside the Band's rhythm section, Dr John slipped in behind the organ to play an instantly addictive melody that is still in my blood."
Charles continued to compose and record (he was based out of Woodstock, New York for a time) and in the 1990s he recorded a duet of "Walking to New Orleans" with Domino.
Charles lived for some years in quiet seclusion at Holly Beach on the Gulf of Mexico. After his house was destroyed by Hurricane Rita in 2005, he returned to Abbeville. His contribution to the music of his home state was recognised when he was inducted into the Louisiana music hall of fame in 2007. He had been in poor health with diabetes and was in remission from kidney cancer. He collapsed in his home and died January 14, 2010. (Info edited mainly from Guardian)