Orleans soul guitarist and vocalist Rockie Charles, the
"President of Soul," died Friday, March 12 after a bout with cancer. He was
67 years old.
Born Charles Merrick on November 14, 1942 in Boothville, Louisiana, Charles
picked up the guitar from his father, Earlington, a bluesman who played
Plaquemines Parish juke joints. At age 13, Charles moved to New Orleans' 9th
Ward and studied at Houston's School of Music on North Claiborne Avenue,
where he learned to read and write music. As a teen, Charles frequently
entered talent contests at Lincoln Beach, the African-American amusement
park that operated on the shores of Lake Ponchartrain during segregation,
sharing the stage with the likes of Ernie K-Doe and
Charles played in a neighborhood R&B band, the Eagles, while attending
Caffin High School, but dropped out of school in 10th grade to work as a
deckhand in Venice, Louisiana. While in Venice, he was inspired by seeing
the flamboyant R&B player Guitar Slim, and after returning to New Orleans at
age 18, he formed a new group - the Gadges Soulful Band - which played
Tulane fraternity parties, plus clubs and dances in nearby towns. Blues
guitarist Guitar Lightnin' Lee worked with Charles both musically and on the
"We go back over 50 years," Lee said. "He was a captain, and I was a
deckhand. We had a lot of good times together playing music. And he helped
me with the business - he was the one who told me to get my own publishing.
He was just a good guy."
Still in his teens, Charles became one of the youngest African-Americans to
captain a tugboat on the Mississippi River, but still found time to pursue
music. Turned down by Dave Bartholomew at Imperial Records and Allen
Toussaint at Instant and Minit, he signed with Senator Jones' Black Patch
Records in the mid-60's and released the highly collectible classic records
"Mr. Rickashay" and "Sinking Like A Ship."
In the late 60's, the Gadges played package tours on the chitlin circuit,
opening up for the likes of O.V. Wright, Percy
Sledge, and Otis Redding. In the early
70's, Charles started his own label and released "The President of Soul,"
the song that would give him his lifelong nickname. He also cut the socially
conscious "Show My People Around The Curve," a soulful political anthem that
dealt with the many issues facing black America after the turbulent early
years of the civil rights movement.
According to an interview Charles gave to the music writer Jeff Hannusch for
his 2001 book "The Soul of New Orleans," the rise of disco limited available
gigs for live bands in the 70's.
"I'd moved to the West Bank and withdrew from gigging," he told Hannusch. "I
began working the river again on tugboats. I kept playing, but being gone 14
days at a time, it was kind of hard keeping a gig."
In the late 90's, Charles' career had a local resurgence when he placed an
ad in Offbeat magazine's Louisiana Music Directory. Singer-songwriter Carlo
Ditta answered the ad, and put out Charles' "Born For You" album in 1996 on
his Orleans Records label.
After the turn of the 21st century, Charles became a regular attraction for
the annual Ponderosa Stomp roots music event, performing at nearly all of
the eight Stomp festivals to date.
Ponderosa Stomp producer Ira "Dr. Ike" Padnos befriended Charles and was a
frequent visitor to his home.
"He had built a boat that he had out in front of his house," Padnos
remembered. "We called it his ark, and we joked that it would be there when
the hurricane came." Unfortunately, Charles had to move before Katrina hit.
After losing a son to cancer, Charles and his wife took in their
grandchildren and raised them as their own. "If Rockie had had the right
push, the right breaks, he really could have done something great, because
he had the talent," said Padnos. "He was a first-class, stand-up guy. I
loved him for that." Charles was scheduled to perform at Jazz Fest this
spring, and had just completed a new album, "I Want First Class."