BOBBY CHARLES - Bobby Charles (1972) [Deluxe Edition, 2011] & Last Train To Memphis (2004)
Bobby Charles was a unique musical talent. The Louisiana native with Cajun roots brought all the swampy sounds and deep culture of his home to his music, but Charles’s songs also took a village to raise. Charles himself was a pure songwriter, one that operated more on intuition than musical ability. He didn’t really play instruments, but when he was a teenager he wrote hits like “See You Later, Alligator” and “Walking to New Orleans” that are classics to this day. Charles was a songwriting prodigy, a guy who worked out the words and some sort of melody in his head, and then enlisted friends to flesh them out with twangy, lush instrumentation.
Charles only released one album in the ‘70s, 1972’s Bobby Charles, but it is an undeniable classic, one of the great pop records the decade offered. At a time where singer-songwriters were everywhere - the 1970-‘74 bin at the record store is still an endless source of inspiration for modern folk and pop acts - Charles released a record that stood above the rest. Since four out of five members of the Band play on the record and it sure sounds like a Band record (albeit a more shuffling version of one), some have called this an unofficial part of that group’s catalogue. But while to do so may be a decent descriptor, it is also dismissive of Charles’s singular talents and charm.
Digitally remastered and expanded 3-CD Deluxe Edition of this 1972 album housed in a cardboard replica of a wooden box.
Includes a remastered version of the original album with a wealth of unreleased material recorded during those sessions and others recorded at Bearsville Studios throughout 1974. The set closes with a newly unearthed, 30-minute interview Charles did that was recorded shortly before the Bobby Charles album was released in August 1972. Released by Rhino Handmade 2011.
Not quite a new album and not quite a compilation, Bobby Charles' 2004 release Last Train to Memphis is closer to a clearing-house for little-heard recordings than a proper album. Billed as a single-disc release paired with a bonus disc, the two-CD set contains a total of 34 songs, and since there is no distinct difference between the two discs, it only seems appropriate to treat it all as a sprawling double album. Jim Bateman says in his perfunctory, largely biographical liner notes that this album "fills in the years between his critically acclaimed 1972 Bearsville release and today," which is certainly true, since all 34 songs on the two discs were recorded sometime between 1971 and 2001. The liners do detail the individual recording dates and lineups for the tracks, but it's hard to tell when and where - or even if - these songs came out prior to this release. This is particularly true because not only does the sequencing make no chronological sense - the first disc hopscotches from 1999 to 1979 back to 1975 then leaps ahead to 1997 before going back to 1984 - but because Charles' music is so consistent in both tone and quality it's hard to tell when these recordings are from, based on the production or performance. Of course, there's a certain charm to that. Very few artists could have such a patchwork assembled and make it sound cohesive, which this certainly does. This all flows from his brilliant eponymous 1972 album for Bearsville, which blended his signature spin on New Orleans R&B with an Americana bent borrowed from his friends in the Band. Overall, it's a little slicker and smoother than the loose-limbed, rustic Bobby Charles - plus, its sprawling nature means it's not nearly the compulsive listen as that underappreciated gem - but it's consistently satisfying, filled with satisfyingly modest new Charles originals and friendly, engaging reworkings of warhorses like "See You Later Alligator." So, even if Last Train to Memphis is frustrating when closely inspected, if it's taken as just a collection of 34 fine Bobby Charles recordings, it's very pleasurable, and not in the least because there are so few Charles recordings that it only seems right to savor every one.