Everybody knows Bobby Charles through his songs. Charles wrote such instantly recognizable hits as “See You Later Alligator,” “Walking to New Orleans” and “But I Do,” but the reclusive singer/songwriter, who passed away in 2010, is relatively unknown for his own recordings.
The vocalist Shannon McNally, along with New Orleans musical legend Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack have made a new LP to try and shine a spotlight on Charles’ body of work. Small Town Talk is an album of songs by the great but under-appreciated American songwriter Bobby Charles, which features guest performances by Derek Trucks, Will Sexton, Luther Dickinson, and Vince Gill.
Charles’ story is an extraordinary one.
Small Town Talk is a labor of love that was recorded with Charles’ approval and input before his death, offering a posthumous tribute to this wonderful artist’s career. McNally and Dr. John consulted with Charles before choosing a group of songs that give us a broad overview of Charles’ work. McNally’s dark, probing vocals explore by turns the passion, deep soul and sparkling wit of this material, while Dr. John frames the structures with sure-handed arrangements augmented by the brilliant Wardell Quezergue and played enthusiastically by Mac’s New Orleans-based band, the Lower 911.
The inspiration for Small Town Talk came from the self titled album Charles recorded in Woodstock with members of The Band, and released by Bearsville Records in tk. McNally’s love for that record led her to tell Charles she wanted to revisit it.
“Those songs oriented me musically,” says McNally. “I had so devoured everything that The Band did that finding Bobby was almost a relief. That crowd of musicians had a way of making music that got under my skin in a nagging kind of way.”
“I initiated the project when I sat in for Bobby in 2007 at Jazz Fest on the Lagniappe stage. That was the first time I played with Mac. I had mentioned revisiting that Bearsville album with Mac to Bobby the day before at rehearsal and he thought that was a great idea. At the time the album was unavailable, which seemed an utter sin to me. Bobby didn’t make it to the Jazz Fest show but Mac was there, we did the set and it went exceptionally well. I mentioned my concept of reinterpreting the Bobby Charles album to Mac, and to my amazement he went for the idea. That was in April. We made it into the studio that following December.”
The project turned into more than just a remake of the Bobby Charles album as McNally worked closely with Charles and Dr. John on the material. “I got together with Bobby every day talking about songs and picking out the right ones to include,” says McNally. “We ended up selecting five songs from the Bobby Charles record. ‘Long Face,’ ‘Small Town Talk,’ ‘Street People,’ ‘Good Place Now’ and ‘Save Me Jesus.’ ‘Save Me Jesus’ isn’t on the final CD or LP but will be a bonus track. We did those songs, then we did songs that Mac and Bobby suggested that were more obscure. As it turned out, this album is something more of a retrospective of Bobby’s catalog of songs, than a record focused solely on the record Bobby made with The Band, as I had originally envisioned.”
McNally and Dr. John unearthed some little known gems that Charles had written over the course of the latter’s career. “We ended up doing ‘But I Do,’ which was a big hit for Frogman Henry in 1961. We cut ‘I Don’t Want To Know,’ which I knew from Lil’ Band o’ Gold, a later Bobby album. Then Bobby suggested a song called ‘String ofHearts’, also from one of his later records, which Vince Gill sang on.” Finally, Dr. John also gave Shannon a cassette of a rare recording of Joe Cocker singing ‘Smile’ [‘I’m So Glad You Came Along’]. “I’m not sure what year Cocker did it, but he still had that Mad Dogs And Englishmen growl and I thought it was hip. For some ridiculous reason it never got released and so no one’s ever heard it.”
“Bobby was there every day, and really enjoyed it. He and Mac have been friends forever, and Bobby and I had gotten to be pretty good buddies as well. We talked a lot about all the songs as we were going along, and he’d make comments and suggestions. He lived nearby the studio so it was easy to visit. He was a tremendous character. With him and Mac together in a room the stories were endless and all of them pretty great if you like rock and roll behind the scenes history lessons, as I do. It took us about a week to record about 15 songs.” In the studio with McNally, Dr. John and Charles were the members of the Lower 911 band — guitarist John Fohl, bassist David Barard and drummer Herman Ernest.
McNally was amazed at how effortless the whole session felt.
“We would cut live with Mac and the lower 911 band,” McNally recalls. “We would cut one of Mac’s songs, then we would call whatever Bobby song we decided on, listen to whatever version we had, and we’d just come up with an arrangement on the spot. Mac is a genius. People use that word loosely but musically speaking he’s brilliant. Whatever he does, it just comes out rich and melodic. What’s so remarkable about the record is how comfortable it was to make, how easy. At the time I felt like these songs had been written for me personally.”
“I was over the moon about working with Mac, just walking on air. That piano sound… that classic approach… the level of authority that he brings to a song. Add to that the history of these songs, and the sessions just felt magical. I couldn’t have been happier or more excited to get to do this.”
Mac decided to bring in Wardell Quezergue, to embellish the arrangements. Quezergue, was an American music arranger, producer and bandleader, known among New Orleans musicians as the “Creole Beethoven”. Known for his work on classic tracks like King Floyd’s “Groove Me”, Jean Knight’s “Mr Big Stuff” and on recordings by legendary New Orleans artists like Professor Longhair and Fats Domino.
Wardell’s touch is evident in Charley Miller’s beautiful flute part on “I Must Be in a Good Place Now,” the horn chart on “Street People” and the gorgeous string arrangement on “String of Hearts.”
“Mac brought Wardell in at the end to do the strings and horns,” McNally recalls. He was 80 years old, had been in New Orleans his whole life. There was nothing he didn’t know about music. That he respected me as a vocalist cemented something for me inside.”
“That was one of Wardell’s last projects,” Mac adds. “I loved what he did, especially with the strings on ‘String of Hearts.’ Listen, Wardell was beyond great. He wasn’t any one kind of arranger; he could do anything. If he was arranging for strings, he was a string arranger. If he was doing big band arrangements he was a big band arranger.”
The record has taken its sweet time coming out, but the project has been completed with the blessings of the Charles estate. A few final touches brought the addition of special guests Derek Trucks, who plays the glorious guitar solo on “Cowboys and Indians,” Will Sexton, who joins McNally on guitar for “Homemade Songs,” Luther Dickinson, who adds a guitar part to “Can’t Pin a Color and an achingly gorgeous vocal duet with Vince Gill on “String Of Hearts.”
“The day Bobby died I spoke to him on the phone. I was excited because I was opening for Willie Nelson in New Orleans that night and told him I’d come see him as soon as I could get there. Mac called me the next morning to let me know that he was gone. What a character he was. I can say with certainty that there will never be another one like him. I’ll miss him.”