An ethnic Cajun, Charles was born as Robert Charles Guidry in Abbeville, Louisiana and grew up listening to Cajun music and the country and western music of Hank Williams. At the age of 15, he heard a performance by Fats Domino, an event that "changed my life forever," he recalled.
Charles helped to pioneer the south Louisiana musical genre known as swamp pop. His compositions include the hits "See You Later, Alligator", which he initially recorded himself as "Later Alligator", but which is best known from the cover version by Bill Haley & His Comets; and "Walking to New Orleans", written for Fats Domino. His songwriting record in the UK charts reads 7 hits, 3 top tens with 75 weeks spent on the chart.
"(I Don't Know Why) But I Do" was a 1950s classic that Charles composed which Clarence "Frogman" Henry had a major hit with and which was on the soundtrack to the 1994 film Forrest Gump. His composition "Why Are People Like That?" was on the soundtrack to the 1998 film Home Fries.
Because of his south Louisiana-influenced rhythm and blues vocal style, Charles has often been thought to be black, when in fact he is white.
On November 26, 1976, Charles was invited to play with The Band at their farewell concert, The Last Waltz. Charles played "Down South in New Orleans", with the help of Dr. John and The Band. The performance was recorded and released as part of the triple-LP The Last Waltz boxed set. The performance was not captured on film however, and did not appear in the film based on the concert with Charles only appearing briefly in the concert's final song, "I Shall Be Released" (he is largely blocked from view during the song). That song, sung by Bob Dylan and pianist Richard Manuel, featured backup vocals from the entire ensemble, including Charles.
He co-wrote the song "Small Town Talk" with Rick Danko of The Band. "Promises, Promises (The Truth Will Set You Free)" was co-written with Willie Nelson.
Charles continued to compose and record (he was based out of Woodstock, New York for a time) and in the 1990s he recorded a duet of "Walking to New Orleans" with Domino.
In September 2007, The Louisiana Music Hall of Fame honored Charles for his contributions to Louisiana music with an induction.
Charles collapsed in his home near Abbeville and died January 14, 2010.
Ain't Got No Home
Bye Bye Baby
Don't You Know I Love You
Hey Good Looking
I'd Like To Know
I'll Turn Square For You
I'm A Fool To Care
No More (I Ain't Gonna Do It No More)
No Use Knocking
On Bended Knee
On Bended Knee (studio take w talk)
One Eyed Jack
Put Your Arms Around Me Honey
See you later, allligator
Take It Easy Greasy
Tell Me Baby
Time Will Tell
Watch It Sprocket
Why Can't You
Why Did You Leave
Yea Yea Baby
You Can Suit Yourself
You Know I Love You