Rockie Charles

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Rockie CharlesNew 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 Aaron Neville.Rockie Charles

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 river.Rockie Charles

"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."Rockie Charles

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."

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