By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
Robert Charles Guidry doesn't show up in the history books, not even as a footnote. Were it not for a couple of hits--for other people, most notably Fats Domino's "Walking to New Orleans"--he'd have dissipated with the stale juke-joint smoke a long time ago. As it is, the man's a recluse (he never tours or even performs in front of a crowd) with famous friends and a deal with a tiny record label. The sticker on the CD case advertises him as a "Legendary Louisiana Songwriter," which is warning enough: You have never heard of Bobby Charles. And that's a damned shame.
Charles, on only his second album under his own name since he was booted from the legendary Chess Records label in 1971, writes and sings like a poor man's Randy Newman had Newman spent most of his life in his native New Orleans instead of Los Angeles. Charles, like Newman, sounds so bleary and battered when he opens his mouth, like a gravel-voiced lovesick drunk after a hard life spent on the town with no home to return to. And he embodies the New Orleans tradition--boogie-woogie blended with country, the rock and roll drenched in blues, a marching band's beat behind it all--with a sound so swamp and Southern it's humid.
But where Newman's ambitions were grand--orchestral even when accompanied by sparse piano, universal even when autobiographical--Charles' are quite small-scale and simple. Backed by two separate bands--one that includes Willie Nelson, Neil Young, and most of Willie's band; the other featuring guitarist Sonny Landreth--his are love songs sad and sweet, almost naive; where even Newman's sappiest ballads are performed through a cynic's disbelieving smirk, Charles often peers through the tears of a man overwhelmed by emotion. And so he's "The Jealous Kind" treating his woman so bad because he knows it can be so good, the unabashed romantic begging to be the one she wakes up next to every morning, the lonely man left only with happy memories that make him sad.
Wish You Were Here was recorded over a period of nine years, beginning in 1984 at Willie Nelson's Pedernales Studios back before Willie handed the keys over to the government, winding up in 1993 at a Baton Rouge studio with a band of unknowns behind the unknown legend. Sometimes it approaches the greatness of the best Newman; often, it falls short ("Promises, Promises," co-written with Nelson, makes obvious and predictable the social commentary Newman did so slyly).
But Nelson and Young and Fats Domino (who barely lends his voice to a revised take on "Walking to New Orleans") are relegated to back-up roles here--way back, it seems, so far and indistinguishable are they in the mix. Which is only appropriate, since this is Charles' chance to shine for the first time in a 40-year career spent toiling in obscurity, where he no doubt will stay.