“See you later, alligator” is an expression of which we don’t know the original author or point of origin, similar to a street joke. According to research, the first known recorded usage of the phrase was “published in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin (Honolulu, Hawaii) of 1st May 1952” in a column titled “Teenagers’ Slang Expressions Are Explained by Columnists.” So its usage as a catchphrase during a departure was already established by the time it made it into the Hawaiian newspaper.
Similarly, the song “See You Later, Alligator” seems like a folk song, emerging out of that massive and influential teenage community of the 1950s. With that in mind, the first time hearing The Band’s Robbie Robertson provide the following introduction of the singer Bobby Charles on The Last Waltz soundtrack came as quite a surprise:
“We’re going to bring out another friend of ours…Bobby Charles. Great, great songwriter. He wrote ‘See You Later, Alligator.’”
The Last Waltz was the 1976 Thanksgiving concert hosted by The Band as a celebration of their departure to life on the road. They took this opportunity to share the stage with their rock ‘n roll buddies as well as those who inspired them musically. So the guy that wrote “See You Later, Alligator” was not only a buddy of The Band’s, but he also sang a song? Who did they bring up next, the person who wrote “Happy Birthday”? The song that Bobby Charles sang with The Band alongside Dr. John was “Down South in New Orleans”; an absolute blast:
Driven by Rick Danko’s fiddle and accordion by Garth Hudson, the assembled group are summoning the best of Cajun music. Levon Helm is the dominant vocalist in the mix and is accompanied by Bobby Charles and Dr. John. The song steams along to the musical break featuring, at first, a blend of fiddle, piano, and guitar before there’s a quick accordion solo. Then, they hit the key verse, sung as a duet between Charles and Dr. John:
I want to get too loose, on Toulose Street,
I wanna kiss all the Creole girls I see.
Drink all day, dance all night.
Do it wrong, ’til I do it right.
It’s the perfect last line of a party song, celebrating the eternal celebration of New Orleans. All of this acts as a representation of the New Orleans influence on The Band, but it also serves as a spotlight for Bobby Charles. Who is this guy? He was born Robert Charles Guidry in 1938 in Abbeville, LA. According to one story, he became enamored by rock ‘n roll, played in a variety of bands, and eventually wrote what became the song “See You Later, Alligator.” He auditioned over the phone for famed record company owner Leonard Chess of Chess Records, known for releasing records by Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, among others. Chess signed Bobby Guidry “not knowing that he was a White Cajun” and shortened his professional name to Bobby Charles. Charles recorded “Later, Alligator” in November 1955:
The song has the classic sound of early rock ‘n roll from New Orleans. A thumping piano, a jaunty horn section, and the required second line drumming open the song and back up Charles throughout. Mid-song, a perfect rock ‘n roll saxophone solo breaks out. Charles’ vocals have a lazy quality to the delivery while still hitting the appropriate spots. It’s a great recording, one that could have been forgotten in the gold rush days of early rock ‘n roll when lots of acts and songs were lost to history.
Recognizing the song as a potential hit, Roy Hall, the co-writer of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” recorded the song as “See You Later, Alligator” only a few weeks after the release of Charles’ record:
Hall’s version was recorded in Nashville and has a rockabilly style. It doesn’t feature saxophone, but rather a lead guitar part. Hall’s vocals are all country. The potential for a hit was there, before Hall’s rendition was engulfed by a much larger wave, namely Bill Haley & His Comets:
The song starts off with lead guitarist Franny Beecher cooing the song’s title in a high-pitched, kids voice. This precedes David Seville’s experimentation with tape speeds in pop music by a few years, so can we blame Beecher for the popularity of songs such as “Witch Doctor” and “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)”? Regardless, after the child-like intro, Bill Haley and the rest of the band take over and propel the listener on a much more high-driving version of the song than Roy Hall. The song moves into outer space during the musical break when the saxophone and guitar take solos at the same time accompanied by what sounds like laser beams. Suddenly, this is no longer simply a rock ‘n roll song, but also an intergalactic battle straight out of Flash Gordon.
“See You Later, Alligator” was a hit for Bill Haley & His Comets, topping out at number six on the Billboard charts. It’s inclusion in the smash rock ‘n roll movie Rock Around the Clock, alongside Haley’s even bigger hit “Rock Around the Clock,” cemented the song in the early rock ‘n roll pantheon. Rock ‘n roll was relatively new for large portions of the music-listening population at this time, so the combination of sounds heard in “See You Later, Alligator” could almost be considered avant garde in the winter of 1956. The success of the movie and the release of Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” in early 1956 were large reasons that rock ‘n roll moved to the mainstream of popular culture. This also must be when the phrase “see you later, alligator” truly entered the lexicon.
Fast forward 11 years to 1967 and popular music and rock ‘n roll had changed significantly from the early Bill Haley days. The Beatles were wearing multi-colored uniforms on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. That album was played across the United States during the so-called “Summer of Love” of 1967. Meanwhile, Bob Dylan was holed up in the basement of a pink house outside of Woodstock, NY recording music with his buddies who would soon become The Band. This music would eventually become known as The Basement Tapes and was many time zones away from Sgt. Pepper’s. The recordings were made up of many new compositions by Dylan, but also attempts at old songs from sea chanteys to prison work songs to Johnny Cash hits. Robbie Robertson was asked about The Basement Tapes for the Biograph box set liner notes, and he said,
“The songs were mostly done in humor. They were either outrageous or comical.”
Robertson presents two different descriptions of Basement Tapes songs. When Dylan and company attempt “See You Later, Alligator,” it counts in both categories:
This snippet lets us in on the madness happening in the basement on this day. Dylan starts to play around with the sounds of the words in “See You Later, Alligator,” inventing the word “croc-a-gator.” This leads Richard Manuel to swap out the word “alligator” for “Allen Ginsberg,” an inspired switch referencing Dylan’s Beat poet running mate. This cracks Dylan up and everybody joins in on the laughter in the basement. As the recording progresses, we can hear that someone is playing on a penny whistle, and meanwhile, an amplifier is howling with feedback in the background. In his 1997 book The Old Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, writer Greil Marcus asked Robertson about one of the Basement Tapes songs and Robertson described it as “Reefer run amok.” But did you really need Robertson’s confirmation or could you listen to “See You Later, Allen Ginsberg” once and know that these guys were all really high in that basement?
The beginning of take two appears to be a somewhat straight Basement Tapes version of “See You Later, Alligator”:
Dylan plays the song on guitar with a chorus of sweet, falsetto voices answering his vocals. The howling of the amp starts again and Dylan realizes that he is losing the attention of his backup singers. So he brings Allen Ginsberg back into the song. Laughter overtakes them again as the song breaks down because of the howling amp sounding like a bad sound effect from a cheap 1950s science fiction movie.
Both of these takes are musical nonsense, the sound of people making music together and trying to crack each other up. That’s an age-old tradition that dates back to the beginning of rock ‘n roll bands. “See You Later, Alligator” is a song that they all know by heart as they were the teenagers going to the movie theaters to see Rock Around the Clock and falling in love with rock ‘n roll. Now, they are in a rock ‘n roll band themselves and have just finished a mind-bendingly crazy tour of the world. The process of fooling around with songs such as “See You Later, Alligator” will yield many complete original songs, including “Million Dollar Bash” and “Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)” as well as moments of brilliance such as “I’m Not There.”
A few years after The Basement Tapes, Bobby Charles, the writer of “See You Later, Alligator” moved to Woodstock, NY and befriended the members of The Band. No word whether they played him their version of his most well known hit. Charles continued songwriting after Haley went supernova with “See You, Later Alligator,” finding success with two songs in particular, “Walking to New Orleans” by Fats Domino and “(I Don’t Know Why) But I Do” by Clarence “Frogman” Henry. Those songs were legitimate hits in their time and still can be heard on movie soundtracks and oldie radio stations today.
In 1972, Charles wrote and recorded his first complete solo album, which was produced by Rick Danko of The Band. Charles shifted from the prototypical New Orleans rock ‘n roll sound that he started with to a more pastoral feel. This is reflective of the larger Woodstock community, which at that time not only included The Band, but also Van Morrison as well. For all of the updates to his music, Charles didn’t leave his lazy Louisiana vocal delivery in the South as heard in the song “All the Money”:
Starting with whispery Charles vocals accompanying an acoustic guitar playing blues licks, horns join the song during the intro before Charles sings the main vocal part. The vibe on the song is laid back and even sultry in its own lazy way, supported by a funky groove throughout. Charles proves to be a likable, personable singer on “All the Money” and the duration of Bobby Charles. In 2020, Dylan would include the song — retitled as “He’s Got All the Whiskey” — on the “whiskey” episode of his radio show, Theme Time Radio Hour.
Besides being buddies of members of The Band, Charles certainly deserves his spot on The Last Waltz stage because of his contribution to rock ‘n roll. Without him, the world would not have “See You Later, Alligator” as well as many other rock ‘n roll classics. In addition, we would have never had the opportunity to hear the stoned madness that is “See You Later, Allen Ginsberg.”
Image: Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons