One of the true enigmas of rock and roll music has his posthumous album released on his own label, a label with an uncertain future I am guessing, so you may have to spend a little time hunting this release down. Please do, though (and quickly as I am not sure how long it will be in print) as it is one of the mostg poignant musical statements I have heard in quite a while. There no secret Charles was hurting while making this final disc, and perhaps he knew it would be his last musical statement, one can never tell. What one can tell, however, is that no matter how much he was hurting, how much the pretty much constant health problems over the past decade or so were wearing him down, Charles kept his humor and his sense of humanty intact. It’s in his songs, the little homespun homilies and the musical parables he recorded pretty much through his career and scattered on his much-too-infrequent albums. And what a career!
Charles has one of the most intertesting backgrounds in rock music. Born in 1938 in a small town in Lousiana, Charles’ exposure to music for the first ten or so years of his life was traditional cajun music. It wasn’t until he became a teenager that Charles first started listening to rock and roll music and soon rock and roll had an unbreakable hold on Charles to the point where he started singing with a local combo who played dances around his area. Figuring he should write material for the band instead of just doing covers like other combos in the area, Charles penned a song entitled See You Later, Alligator. The song was heard by a record store owner who happened to know Leonard Chess, owner of the fabled Chess Records, and soon Chess invested in a arecording of the song and decided to sign Charles to a contract.There has been some conjecture that Chess did not even know Charles was a white Cajun when he signed Charles. Chess released a single of Charles doing the song but the song didn’t become a huge hit until covered by Bill Haley and the Comets a year later in 1956. Though never a hitmaker, Charles was thought by Chess to be great as a songwriter for other artists, and he kept Charles on staff for another year before Charles moved to Imperial until 1959. Though he would record sporadically for some small New Orleans-based labels, for the most part Charles put his career on hold for close to fifteen years. Oddly, during this hiatus, he became recognized as a great songwriter due to artists such as Fats Domino and Clarence “Frogman” Henry (among others) recording many of his compositions. At the dawn of the ’70’s, Charles decided to get back into music but had a hard time working in New Orleans due to some personal problems. Moving to the upstate New York area to allow the heat to die down and to think about his next move, Charles ran into some members of The Band, who were living in the area at the time (at Big Pink, their communal home, to be exact). The members encouraged their manager and Bearsville label owner Albert Grossman to help extricate Charles from his legal troubles, in exchange for which Charles agreed to record an album for Bearsville. With The Band’s backing, Charles recorded a classic album produced by Rick Danko (keyboardist for The Band) which was actually Charles’ album debut, only about 16 years aftre Charles recorded his first single. Due to a later falling-out with Grossman, the follow-up he recorded was never released and aside from an appearance in The Band’s The Last Waltz, he went back into semi-retirement and didn’t make another album until the latter part of the ’80’s. After 1987’s Clean Water, Charles would only release an album sporadically, with the late ’90’s seeing the release of two albums in quick succession with those albums released so quickly due to being mostly collections of tracks recorded over a span of twenty years previous to their release.
Thankfully, Charles never really left his music career behind, as this new album attests.
The title of Charles new album is more than fitting as his music, and especially his songs, are polished little musical jewels which will no doubt stand the test of time like the rest of Charles’ songs. By not succumbing to any fads, and sticking to the overflowing grist that is the human condition, Charles always managed to capture what was special around him and do it such a sly, sharp way as to make the listener feel as if he was talking about their lives, about their experiences. Thus, his songs have always been universal and can be appreciated, listened to, and sung by anyone and still convey their power due to Charles’ simple but direct way with words which still manage to cut right to the heart of the situation. His sharp notice of detail and his tendency to keep his phrases short and simple, to cut to the bone of what his point was and just nail it, is what sets him apart from most songwriters who tend to overwrite, writing circles around themselves until their basic premise is lost. Being a simple man from Lousiana, Charles always knew the best tack was to say it understandably as possible and get out of the way – make your point and move on. That he had a sly wit and could do so with grace and aplomb makes his songs special, and on this CD there isn;t a dud in the best, nor did I expect there to be. What I didn;t expect is the group of all-stars Charles gathered together to help him with his work. When you see Charles can get a band together that features Dr. John, Jon Cleary, and Fats Domino himself (the first song is dedicated to Fats Domino, in part due to uplift Domino’s spirits after Domino’s house was lost due to Hurricane Katrina) on keyboards, Sonny Landreth and Derek Trucks on guitars, and a host of other ringers, you realize how beloved Charles and his songs were to his peers. In fact, good as this album is (and it is) I am hoping there are more tracks floating around out there yet to be released. Charles music is a treasure, and even though he is gone, there are hopefully some great songs in the can that have not been heard yet. I can hope, can’t I?
Ever since I got my hands on a CD of Charles’ Bearsville album with the song “Small Town Talk” on it, I have been hooked on Charles’ work and have tried to obtain everything he has released. Though never a showy vocalist, Charles has a pleasant, expressive voice with a lot of warmth and has always specialized in creating a mood similar to country singer Charlie Rich, in that every word that comes out of his mouth is sung so low-key it is almost spoken and the vocals are recorded in a way that makes you think Charles is speaking directly to you, as if he was sitting across from you and there was a conversation going on. In other words, this is not a CD to put on while you’re getting ready to go to the club, nor is it a CD that will sound great while driving. This CD is for those reflective moments, to listen to when the pressures of the day have taken their toll and you need to relax and regroup. This CD is for when you are needing some joy. Charles never seemed to have a problem conveying it. I just wish he were more prolific. Thank God I have his CDs and I am only to glad to add this great one to my collection. I hope you decide to buy it also.