Charles, a Louisiana Cajun whose real name was Robert Charles Guidry, died at his home in Abbeville, La., said his publicist, Karen Johnson. Though she did not know the cause of death, Johnson said Charles had diabetes and was in remission from kidney cancer.
His longtime friend and music collaborator, Dr. John, choked up Thursday as he spoke about working with Charles. "We were very close for 40, 50 years," said Dr. John, whose real name is Malcolm "Mac" Rebennack. "We started writing stuff together in the '70s. He was very easy to work with and a special guy."
In 2008, Charles released an album coproduced by Dr. John called "Homemade Songs." Dr. John said he and Charles had just wrapped up another album called "Timeless." Johnson said "Timeless," a collection dedicated to Domino that's mostly made up of new songs, will be released as scheduled Feb. 23. She called Charles' death a real loss to the music world.
"He is a classic American songwriter," she said. "His songs are real American songs." Like Domino, Charles was known for his reclusiveness, Johnson added. The songwriter was a reluctant performer who for several decades had stayed largely out of the public eye.
Kris Kristofferson and Gatemouth Brown covered Charles' "Tennessee Blues." In 2003, Charles and his manager, Jim Bateman, gathered recordings spanning 20 years for the double-CD "Last Train to Memphis." Guest musicians included Domino, Neil Young, Willie Nelson, McClinton and Maria Muldaur.
Bateman said Charles had a "spiritual" approach to his music. "He always said he didn't write songs, they came through him," Bateman said. "I wouldn't necessarily call it religious, but spiritual."
Charles is survived by four sons. Funeral arrangements were pending.