January 7, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
When it gets cold, profanely cold, anesthetically cold, I like to put on humid music. It doesn’t cut the wind chill, but it helps. In a pinch, one could depend on Dick Dale or calypso; in dire straits, even a Key West bromide like Jimmy Buffett’s “Boat Drinks” gives off enough balm to suffice. But while such songs have heat, they lack humidity. At the risk of sounding like a sleazy bandleader: if you really want to thaw out, you’ve got to sweat.
Bobby Charles’s eponymous album, soon to be reissued on vinyl for possibly the first time since its 1972 release, is perfect for the job: it has the languor and stickiness of an August day in New Orleans. Battered but amiable, Charles, a Louisiana native who died in 2010, sings with the slightest of rasps through ten tracks of rhythm and blues, alternately bustling and lumbering. He strikes me as a man who knew how to take his time. His is the sort of music people like to describe as “homegrown” or “country-fried,” though both adjectives feel too tinged with condescension to apply here. In deepest winter, the mere sight of Bobby Charles’s cover is a salve. It has a brown-and-green palette both earthy and eye-popping. What felonies wouldn’t you commit to be that man, or that dog, reclining in such tauntingly verdant swampland?
Charles is known mostly for the jovial “See You Later, Alligator”—yes, that was him—which he wrote and recorded in 1955, though his rendition was promptly eclipsed by that of Bill Haley & His Comets. Ever the understudy, Charles continued to sell songs to Chess Records, whose founder reputedly could not believe he was white.
After the tumult of the sixties, Charles, as many a working musician, set about reinventing himself: down with the hair, out with the beard. He swapped the jaunty, twelve-bar constrictions of the honky-tonk “swamp pop” he’d helped invent for downtempo, country-inflected R&B. More importantly, he ditched the South, where he’d been arrested for marijuana possession, and maundered up to Woodstock, where he soon found himself recording at Albert Grossman’s Bearsville Studios, backed by more laureled contemporaries such as Dr. John and the Band.
The result is Bobby Charles, which marries the gloss of production to some other, deeper grease. Like Tony Joe White, Johnny Adams, and Bobbie Gentry, all of whom appear with him on 2012’s excellent Country Funk compilation, Charles was making accessible rock music and then letting it get a bit damp—it’s an obvious bid for FM airplay, but not, somehow, a cop-out. (A similar accomplishment is Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection, which came two years earlier and still sounds authentic enough to make you forget he’s an Englishman.) Urbane and Podunk, freewheeling but laced with anomie, it is, as Country Funk’s liner notes say, “both studio slick and barroom raw,” a more commercial take on the Southern Gothic themes that drive the work of, say, Barry Hannah and Robert Penn Warren. Staring intently at the cover of Bobby Charles, in fact, brought to mind some lines from Warren’s “Penological Society: Southern Exposure”:
… let all, all,
Slide whitely down the sliding darkness
That the river is, and stars
Dip dawnward down the un-owled air, and sweat
Dry on the sheet.
I’m sure it’ll be easy to sing a different song when August comes, but at the moment, a sweaty sheet sounds like a fine idea.