Shannon McNally met Bobby Charles in 2002.
Charles, the late, reclusive singer-songwriter from Abbeville, wrote Bill Haley’s 1956 hit, “See You Later, Alligator,” Fats Domino’s 1960 classic, “Walking to New Orleans,” and Clarence “Frogman” Henry’s 1961 hit, “(I Don’t Know Why I Love You) But I Do.”
McNally, a singer and recording artist originally from New York, recorded one of Charles’ song, “Tennessee Blues,” at Dockside Studio in Maurice for her 2005 album, Geronimo. He liked her version of the song and they became friends who talked as often as once a month.
After Charles asked McNally to sing at a 2007 Bobby Charles tribute at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, she expressed her desire to re-record the self-titled album he released in 1972 through Bearsville Records.
“Bobby liked the idea,” north Mississippi resident McNally said from Memphis. “I said, ‘Why don’t you, me and Mac (Dr. John) re-cut that record?’ It was out of print then, a lost treasure, and I just wanted to sing all those songs.”
At the rehearsal for the Charles tribute at Jazz Fest, McNally asked Dr. John if he’d be part of the project.
“To my amazement he went for it,” she recalled.
With Charles’ blessing, McNally and a core group consisting of Dr. John and his Lower 911 Band assembled at Dockside Studio in December 2007 to record an album that became more of a sampling of Charles’ catalog of songs than a remake of his Bearsville album. Charles drove to Dockside every day for the sessions. He as well as Dr. John and McNally picked the songs.
Small Town Talk: The Songs of Bobby Charles got its longtime-coming release April 16. It includes string arrangements by the late New Orleans maestro Wardell Quezergue and contributions from Vince Gill, Luther Dickinson and Derek Trucks.
A music business in decline and life in general, including the birth of McNally’s daughter, hindered the album’s release, she said. And in the years between the album’s production and its release, Charles, Quezergue and Dr. John’s drummer for decades, Herman Ernest III, all passed away.
“Things didn’t line up for the project,” McNally said. “I just kept it back until I could do it right. Because this is an important record. Everybody involved in it is so special. And after Bobby passed, some healing and some time had to pass.”
Shannon’s grateful that the world can finally hear the album.
“The whole time it wasn’t out, it gnawed at me because I knew what it was, how good it sounded,” she said. “So I’m relieved and happy that it’s finally out. And now I can talk about all my friends and enjoy them again.”
Charles, McNally recalled, was a complicated artist who could be a difficult man. He was also a mad scientist of music. Through the years, his songs were recorded by Ray Charles, Etta James, Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, Bo Diddley, Lou Rawls, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Joe Cocker, Kris Kristofferson, Tom Jones, Marcia Ball, BeauSoleil and Charles’ close friend, Dr. John.
“Character is the No. 1 descriptive word,” McNally said of Charles. “He was passionate about right and wrong. He passionately loved music and it was always on in his head. New songs were always coming in. And he had great instincts. He and Mac both, the secret to them, their brilliance, is that they always take something standard and twist it just enough to make it interesting. That’s their whole thing. Strong melody, strong hooks. Tweak it so it’s just right.”