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Remembering Little Charlie: My buddy Charles Baty the blues musician

by Apr 24, 2020Essays

Charles Baty At With JoJo The Gorilla In Squaw Valley

Blues guitar magician Charles Baty, my buddy and a writer for HI Travel Tales, passed away on March 6, 2020, at the age of 66, after suffering a heart attack while in the hospital for pneumonia.

In the car listening to a blues music show on the radio, the announcer cued up some music by my friend Charles Baty of “Little Charlie & The Nightcats” fame. Then he said, “Charles Baty WAS…”

That’s when I stopped hearing because there was this hot whoosh in my ears…. I turned over that word “was” in my head until I could pull over and do a search. I started to type in “Charles Baty,” and “Charles Baty obituary” popped up. It was April 18, and I was just learning that Charles Baty, better known as “Little Charlie” of blues, jazz and swing music fame, had died on March 6, 2020. He had succumbed to a sudden heart attack after being hospitalized for pneumonia. And, somehow, I hadn’t heard. OK, I had been traveling in Europe and then was in coronavirus quarantine once home, plus a few months often passed between swapping emails with Charlie, but still…

I sat dumbfounded in my car with hot fat tears welling in my eyes and looking to escape down my cheeks.

Charlie wasn’t only a musician to me. He was a buddy, somebody with whom I had shared a passion for languages and travel. For goodness sake, languages and travel, when most knew him as an internationally renowned blues and jazz musician. Sure, musicians travel. To shows. On tours. But he loved the traveling part immensely, enjoying walks around towns he was in, nosing out interesting sights to tell me about, sending some whacky photos he’d snapped out the tour van window. And a few years back, we found his insights and photos so interesting, we ran a series of monthly columns from him right here on HI Travel Tales. But I’m getting ahead of myself. How did I actually end up meeting blues legend Charlie for lunches or coffee to practice speaking French?

Charles Baty Laying Down Some Mean Licks

How I met Charles Baty

After a couple of decades away from French language studies, I signed up for a class in Sacramento, Calif., at the Alliance Française in 2009. Très nervous is an understatement. The small group had been together for a few semesters already: a long-time Francophile who painstakingly worked her way through exacting sentences, a doctor who I suspected studied French because he longed to meet a French girl, a woman who was a bit quiet but friendly and welcoming along with her husband who had an evil sense of humor … and “Charles” (“Sharls” with a French accent please), who also liked a joke or two. My kinda people.

When I commit myself to a language, then I belly-flop right in, meaning I bumble through the language as soon as I walk in the door and not only when the teacher is around. Charles did the same. He and I clicked. (The sense of humor didn’t hurt of course.) Turns out this class began soon after his alleged retirement from being a touring blues musician. Within a year or so, we started emailing a bit, comparing notes, arranging to meet-up for dinner prior to class, or for a coffee if I were going to be in the area. And we always spoke French – that was the requirement. Yeah, we stumbled about, but we helped each other, too. He was at that time much more diligent that I was; he had in fact subscribed to a French TV station and told me he spent an hour each day watching shows or otherwise studying French.

“I really think that you’d profit from watching tons of movies and TV as often as you can and processing little sayings and expressions in a random manner. Lately they’ve been showing some Truffaut movies on TV 5 Monde that I hadn’t seen before from the ’60s…. Let me know if you want to get together pour passer une bonne soiree ou prendre un pot en parlant le francais.  A bientot!” – email from Charlie Sept, 26, 2011

A year or so later, however, after a couple of week-long intensive French programs in France, I found that the hour-plus weekly drive to class was too much. That was about the same time that Charlie couldn’t help himself and headed out again as “a hired hand” musician, as he called it once, and started playing and touring more.

“I’m not going to stay any extra time (in Europe), but I have a few days off after the first gig so I’m going to spend 4 days in Brussels. I thought about traveling to Paris on the off days, but my next gig is close to Brussels and I don’t want to have to worry about getting caught in some strike and missing a gig…. I’ve been working more, with a lot of stuff coming up, and I’m probably letting the French slide a bit, but life is good for me. I hope you can make it back on the 30th.  That will be my last class for the spring.” – email from Charlie April 20, 2012

By 2014, we just stayed in touch via email, trading barbs and jokes occasionally because that’s what we did. I was traveling a lot, too, so I kept missing his area shows, but whenever I could, I’d find one to drop into – and Charlie and I would try our hand at a little French again, as he would whenever he had the chance.

“I haven’t been overseas for a while – we were supposed to go last October, but the money was going to be low and the band leader decided to cancel at the last minute ….   I originally signed on to this band in order to go to Europe, not to go to Des Moines. Anyway, at least it is a source of some money in retirement and so I’m not burning through savings yet. I will be playing a Bastille Day party coming up on July 12th or so (in order to be on the weekend) for a bunch of Frenchies in Winters, Calif.  I’m hoping for a few broken sentences tout en francais with that bunch.” – email from Charlie June 21, 2015

Just a week later came my confirmation about his alleged retirement:

“I hope to actually retire in the next couple of years, but maybe I will never be able to – music is in my blood. The guy that I play with the most is Mark Hummel…. If I am playing with him on a date, I’m listed as a special guest (Little Charlie on guitar)…. We start a national tour on July 25 and end it in mid-September. I probably have at least 40 gigs with him over the next few months. I rarely get a chance to speak French, but I always jump at it. Stay in touch and maybe someday we can try and get together and put a couple of sentences together. En Francais, bien sur!” – email from Charlie, June 29, 2015.

For his “retirement,” Charlie was stuffed in a van crisscrossing the United States, with stops in some great blues venues, with a few burgs here and there, too. He started writing a few notes about these on his Facebook page that were filled with fun photos and pretty insightful travel comments (like, “You don’t go to Tucson to eat pizza”). We started running monthly reports with Charles Baty’s wisdoms and insights – not to mention some of his great traveling photos, too, plus a few from his blues gigs (see a list of stories, below). We’d text back and forth to identify a place or a person in a photo as he was squished in a van somewhere in the Midwest trying to dodge traffic to get to a gig on time.

The piece “looks good. I might want to change some stuff in the bio for next week, but not while I am bouncing around in the van.” – email from Charlie, April 12, 2016

Although I’d heard Charlie play here and there, I got a few friends out to a summer evening concert in Squaw Valley in August 2016. To be honest, I think the friends may have been just humoring me — yeah, yeah, your friend Charlie, yeah, right, he’s good, uh-huh…. But then Charlie started playing, and they about fell out of their chairs. Charlie also really loved writing about his travels and offering up his little blues wisdoms, sometimes working pretty hard to get us photos and help me edit his essays.

“Getting ready for my last tour for possibly a long while. Do you want to cover it, or do you want to pass? Hope all is well with you.” — email from Charlie, Nov. 4, 2016

After the 2016 tours ended, he went back to his Gypsy Swing music and also hooked up with QuiQue Gomez from Madrid. We had the extreme pleasure to see the two of them play in a small Sierra foothills town in September 2018 to a relatively small audience (late notice and not a lot of it, but we were there!). The music was outstanding, and he and QuiQue were laying plans for more music together.

I also got to jab Charles in December 2018 about a young blues player in Switzerland gushing about him. “I don’t know him personally,” the guy told me through a friend, “but he’s a legend!” After that, some of my emails would start with “Dear Monsieur Legend,…” And I shared with him how one of the students in the first Alliance French class told me how she thought it was so weird when he joined the class and said he was “un peu fameux” (a little famous). And I got to tell her, he IS! “Anyway,” I wrote Charlie, “You’re just ‘Charlie’ to me, and I can tease you….”

“It was really difficult to transition from being a performer to a member of a French class. Self-imposed difficulties, trying to sort out who the new ‘me’ was.” – email from Charlie, Dec. 6, 2018

Remembering Little Charlie

Now, I am doing a search on my Messenger app and on email, finding messages we exchanged in 2019 while he was on tour in Germany and about how we tried to meetup there. Not too long after that he sought advice about getting to and visiting Lyon, France – always a traveler, he wanted to USE his time in Europe to really explore, not just play gigs and crash in a hotel. Our last messages were in November 2019.

Charles Baty At Bluesdays In Squaw Valley

And then there are his photos still on our website, and his words live on my screen. It somehow seems impossible that I can’t just drop him a note or trade a few French words. What a good, caring, real, human being. I am so glad I can look at our photos and read his words of traveling blues wisdom in the stories he wrote for us. It just brings him to life again.

Charlie, you most certainly are a legend. Forget that “WAS” stuff.

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Remembering Little Charlie

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Acknowledgements: Story by Therese Iknoian; Photographs more...