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Rockie Charles - Born for You (REVIEW - OffBeat)

(Orleans Records)

For those who love American popular music, there is no event more exciting than the discovery of a true, grassroots original, the sort of talent that sparked the rock inventions of the 1950s, the folk renaissance of the 1960s and even the punk rebellion of the late 1970s - the Elvis Presleys, Little Richards, Muddy Waters and even Joey Ramones of the American landscape. For more than a decade, though, corporate greed has appeared to have sucked that particular well dry. Now, count Captain Rockie Charles among the most amazing discoveries of the decade and easily the most refreshing talent of the year.

Following a marginal career in R&B in the 1960s, Charles retired to his second love, tug boating Mississippi barges in the port of New Orleans, but never gave up singing and playing. Enter Carlo Ditta, a New Orleans native and previous Santa Cruz resident in the process of refining his chops as producer and small-label owner. (Count among Ditta's previous successes former Dr. John vocalist Roland Stone, a 1995 discovery highly praised by Rolling Stone.) Charles and Ditta hooked up last year through happenstance, and have now produced old-time, rhythm-and-blues magic.

Born for You sounds like what might happen if the ghost of Otis Redding sauntered into a Mississippi juke joint one night with a sheaf of half-finished songs in hand. Charles' uniquely affecting vocals obviously reflect the polished surfaces of Al Green or Pops Staples, but the improvised drive that prevails in them is pure Stax ballad riffing. And the musical behind them is pure sympathetic genius. Blended with Charles smooth-and-chunky rhythm guitar licks are perfect amounts of coarsely ground organ fills, unrefined horn charts and the sweetness of an angelic country-church choir.

The songs themselves derive mostly from the depths of romantic love but contain enough wit to include both the silly and the sublime. "Festus Believes in Justice," a meta sensical paean to the "Gunsmoke" deputy, might have been covered by NRBQ in its prime, while "I Like to Make Love When It's Pouring Down Rain" pays tribute to a moment of privately revered passion. Throughout the music is an uncalculated, one-of-a-kind conception-lyrical guitar solos skidding across organ fills, lights-down-low vocals drilled way into the backbeat, the whole of the concoction full-bodied and mesmerizing, all of it seemingly improvised and avoiding even the slightest trace of slickness.

Born for You presents an unassuming and bewildering talent, gently preaching, quietly testifying and, finally, joyfully paying tribute to the resilience of the human spirit. In the process, Rockie Charles also manages to encapsulate the exposition of R&B as a native art form and demonstrate the wealth of resources yet to be tapped in the wellsprings of American popular culture, neither a small accomplishment.

Praise the Lord, and play it again, Captain.

---Roger Hahn


Originally published in OffBeat (February 1997), Vol. 10, No. 2


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