Sunday, March 9, 2008

Doug Sahm Covers Louisiana Legend Bobby Charles "On Bended Knee"

I'll let Doug Sahm introduce this one, "Here's a song by a Louisiana legend, a great compadre of ours, from Lafayette, Louisiana, Mr. Bobby Charles."

Oh, what to say about Bobby Charles? The accolades roll in from other artists, from Fats Domino to the Band to Paul Butterfield to Ray Charles to just about every local Southwest Louisiana swamp popper. Bobby first burst on the scene with his 1955 hit "See You Later Alligator," a song that local record shop owner Charles "Dago" Redlich had sent up to Leonard Chess (who, as was his habit, was traveling through Louisiana a couple of years prior and asked record store owners to send him anything with promise). Chess signed him, thinking he had found another unknown Delta black artist. Well, he thought that until Bobby got off a plane in Chicago and finally met Leonard face to face. Leonard introduced him to a different catch phrase, one that starts with "mother."

Well, despite that initial reaction, "See You Later Alligator" with the flip side "On Bended Knee" did real well locally and nationally, then took off when Bill Haley and his Comets recorded a version. This is where the story gets interesting, as Bobby was, according to John Broven in his essential South to Louisiana: The Music of the Cajun Bayous, "in a musical no-man's land--a white artist singing an R&B type song on a black label." Matter of fact, he was the only white artist with Chess at the time. After putting out a few more sides for Chess with less success (with titles trying to build on his initial success, like "Watch It Sprocket" and "Take It Easy Greasy," collected on the currently unavailable Chess Masters CD), he could have just faded away like many of the one-hit songsters of the teenage R&B days. But Bobby's talents as a songwriter, and the fertile airs of Louisiana music world just wouldn't let that happen. And we're all happy for that!

In the early 1960s, Bobby began working with one his idols, Fats Domino, penning a few tunes for him, including the one included in the show, "Walking to New Orleans." As quoted by Shane K. Bernard, "That was a real rush for me, to write a song for someone that was an inspiration to me, like Fats Domino." His friendship and talent led to more singles on the Jewel and Paula labels,
and an
extended stay in Woodstock led to an album with members of the Band and Dr. John for Albert Grossman's fledgling label Bearsville in 1972, alternately called "Bobby Charles" or "Small Town Talk." He also makes an appearance and sings on "The Last Waltz." After a brief retirement in the late 1970s back in Louisiana, his talent again brought out the stars for an (unreleased) album with Neil Young and Willie Nelson in 1984. Since then he has written written more songs, recorded one retrospective album (with a couple of the Young/Nelson songs) called "Last Train to Memphis," but lives off his royalties in retirement in Louisiana near the Gulf of Mexico. I'm sure we'll here from him again and it'll be great. (Although, don't go seeking him out).

But that's the national story, with big names and covers from national artists, the local story is still being written. The list of great Swamp Pop musicians who have done Bobby Charles songs is too long to type and continues to grow.

A brief aside about Swamp Pop definitions: the origins of the phrase are murky (pun intended) and Shane K. Bernard does a nice job in his great Swamp Pop: Cajun and Creole Rhythm and Blues tracing them to some English music critics, not to the people who made the music or the people who danced to it. Most of them just referred to it simply as "Southern Louisiana Music," since there is no need to separate Fats Domino, Cookie and the Cupcakes, Slim Harpo, Belton Richard, Guitar Gable, Clifton Chenier, Earl King, Warren Storm, and on and on. It's just academic. As Bobby told Bernard, "Somebody told me I was a swamp pop musician, I said, 'Oh really?' I mean, I didn't know what the hell they were talking about . . . . If you've got to name your children, I guess you've got to give it a name too!" I like to refer to it (to myself that is), as Southern Louisiana Juke Box Music. In my mind's eye, I envision it as the music you and your date play on the juke box or go to a club and see--all for the dancing, both to the uptempo shakers and the slow ballads. As Harry Simoneaux told John Broven, "It is common today for partygoers who dance to Johnnie Allan's music on a Saturday night to go to the Triangle Club in Scott on Sunday afternoon and dance to French Cajun music only. Fans who like one type of music will generally like the other too. One thing about the swamp-pop style is that there are few musicians that every play it right if they are not born in raise in South or Southwestern Louisiana."

Anyway, that brings us back to today's opening number: a live version of "On Bended Knee" performed in 1998 by Doug Sahm, with Augie Meyers and the Gourds backing him up. Even though Doug is from West (and not East) Texas, he still plays it the right way. While the story of Doug and his various exploits, influences, and great, great music are a subject for another show and post, one thing I'll mention here in brief: Doug Sahm's music encompasses all the descriptions of this show over there on the right under the Digs: Country, R&B, West Texas Shuffle, Texas Border stepping, California Hippie Rock, Heavy White Guy narratives, East Texas Blues, and of course Swamp Pop (matter of fact, he recorded a whole album of Swamp Pop tunes called, appropriately enough, "Juke Box Music.") While most of the writing on Doug focusses on the hippie days and the cosmic cowboy and the collaboration with Dylan, there is just so much more to his story that I'll leave for another day. What I want to point out though is, no matter what he's covering from Freddy Fender to T. Bone Walker to Dale Hawkins to Bob Wills to Porter/Hayes, he does it with no pretense and a reverence that shows his love for all of Texas music. As far as I can tell, this is the only recorded version of Doug doing a Bobby Charles song and I love it.

This is the type of Bobby Charles (and swamp pop in general) song that appeals to me the most: the gutsy ballad. It's all in the first line: "Please forgive me if I cry." It's so bold and vulnerable at the same time. And it's that signature first line that gets everyone in the dance hall to recognize the song. Doug pushes the tempo up a bit from the original version of the tune, but that's just the beauty of the Swamp Pop
repertoire. Since everyone knows the songs, it takes a lot of courage to get up there are sing the standards for a discerning audience. Unfortunately, Doug's audience probably wasn't well versed in South Louisiana music, but he does a great job none the less, especially on "I got to pray to God above, send me back the gir-hurl I lo-ove," with Augie banging out those Louisiana triplets the whole time. He truly is begging for that. Another line from Harry Simoneaux, " None of the singers had the quality voice--that is, with vibrato. None of them had formal training. However, they made up for this by singing what they knew about, and what they lived through . . . " I can't describe it for Doug or Bobby any better than that.

Here's the Playlist:

Linda Rondstat; Dark End of the Street; s/t; Capitol

Doug Sahm and the Texas Tornados; On Bended Knee; S.D.Q. '98; Watermelon
Clarence Henry; Why Can't You; Argo 5395
Muddy Waters; Why Are People Like That; The Woodstock Album; Chess
Paul Butterfield; Done A Lot of Wrong Things; Better Days; Bearsville
Joe Cocker; The Jealous Kind; Stingray; A&M
Fats Domino; Walking to New Orleans; Best of; UA
Bobby Charles; Everyone's Laughing; Jewel 728 (Walking to New Orleans; Westside)

Roy Head; She's About a Mover; Crazy Cajun (Introduction to; Fuel)
Joe Medwick; Get Soulful; Crazy Cajun Recordings; Edsel
Helene Smith; What's In the Lovin'; Deep City (Eccentric Soul: The Outskirts of Deep City)
James & Bobby Purify; Shake a Tail Feather; Bell 669
Gene Chandler; Cowboys to Girls; There Was a Time; Brunswick

Hannibal & the Headhunters; Land of 1000 Dances; Rampart 642
Waylon Jennings; Jole Blonde; Brunswick 9-55130 (Phase One; Hip-O)
Jerry Lee Lewis; Mathilda; Memphis Beat; Smash
Cookie & the Cupcakes; Breaking Up Is Hard To Do; (Kings of Swamp Pop; Ace)
Clint West; Sweet Susanna; Swamp Pop Hits; JIN

Percy Sledge; Feed the Flame; Take Time To Know Her; Atlantic
The Five Royales; Don't Let It Be in Vein; K-10147 (Roots of Soul; Charley)
Oscar Toney, Jr.; Any Day Now; For Your Precious Love; Bell (Rev-Ola)
Carla Thomas; I've Got No Time To Lose; Atlantic 2238
Ernest Tubb; The Way You're Living; Thanks a Lot; Decca

Wilson Pickett; Time Is On Your Side; The Wicked Pickett; Atlantic
Johnny Copeland; On Bended Knee; (Down and Out;
O. V. Wright; You're Gonna Make Me Cry; Backbeat 548

Dale Hawkins; La-la La-la; L.A., Memphis, & Tyler Texas; Bell

ment of Appreciation: Thanks to my good friend Gene for introducing me to Bobby Charles. If he ever makes good on his threat to write the Bobby Charles biography, I'll be first in line to buy one.

Department of Favors: Sign this petition!

Department of the Future: The first set focuses on some of the bigger names covering Bobby Charles, at some point in the future I'll play the Rod Bernard and Warren Storm and other Southern Louisiana versions of his tunes.

Department of Corrections: Gene pointed out to me that Doug Sahm also did Bobby Charles's "Tennessee Blues" (another great song) for his second Atlantic LP: Texas Tornado. He also pointed me to this good article on the latter days of Bobby's career. Thanks again!

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