Search This Blog

Thursday, May 15, 2008

R.I.P. Champagne Charlie a.k.a. Thom Roberts

Thomas Charles Roberts a.k.a. Champagne Charlie, Canadian Jazz, Blues, and Ragtime guitarist and singer, born in Ottawa on January 5th, 1945, passed away in Guelph Ontario on April 4th, 2008. Thom was a good friend, and important musical mentor to me.

"Champagne Charlie is my name
Champagne Charlie is my name,
Champagne Charlie is my name by golly,
and roguein' an' stealin' is my game"
- Blind (Arthur) Blake



Sketch of Champagne Charlie in concert
(copyright Eli Marcus 1977)


I first met Thom in the personage of Champagne Charlie, Ragtime guitarist extraordinaire, at the Fingerboard Cafe in downtown Toronto. It was a Wednesday night , March 16, 1977, and a young Colin Linden (almost 17) and also Dave McClean were on hand to make it the perfect evening of Blues music at the small Folk-club in the basement of the 519 Church St community center. I was very impressed with all three performers, but Champagne Charlie, with his chimney-sweep black moustache that covered his mouth, a dark cap of some kind and a nice black dinner jacket impressed me the most. Thom also had a distinctive guitar - a Martin 000-28 which is slightly more compact than a standard full sized guitar, yet has a much fuller and rounder tone.

The blue Martin hardshell case that carried his guitar also had a large Donald Duck decal on the back, so you could spot Thom a mile away just by his guitar case.
That night at the Fingerboard I befriended Thom, and over the next few months he and I would hang out at different clubs where he or Colin were playing. Thom had many colorful stories about his history in music and life in general, and even if they didn't all ring true, it was fascinating to hear him tell them. He definitely had a distinctive style to his voice whether he was singing or speaking, as well as a very unique and hearty laugh.

One late summer night, close to midnight, Thom and I were walking through the streets of downtown Toronto, when we came upon a nice chair that was put out on the corner for garbage. Now, you must understand that a nice chair with a good padded seat, no arm rests, and just the right height is something of value to an acoustic guitarist to be able to sit comfortably when you play guitar - so Thom gave me his guitar case to carry, and he loaded that chair on his shoulder, and off we went.


We stopped off at the co-op student rooming house where I lived at the time,
went into a vacant room with a wooden floor, Thom sat on his newly acquired chair, and I sat on a guitar case. It was sometime around midnight, the proverbial bewitching hour when Blues musicians sell their souls to the devil to acquire more musical prowess... Thom showed me a few Ragtime style chords and progressions to a Reverend Gary Davis tune (probably "Death Don't Have No Mercy"), and to a tune called "The Beat From Ramparts Street". That is how Thom became my musical mentor.

A friend of mine from the University had just opened up a little cafe on Brunswick Ave. and Thom and I spent hours playing music and just taking it easy there (the food was pretty good too!).
Later that summer, I had to leave the Innis College co-op residence, and I had no idea where I would find a place to live. Thom told me there was a little one room "bachelorette" apartment next to him up at 159 Walmer Rd. - I ended up living there for the next two years. During that time, Thom and I became great friends, and Thom had decided to study a bit of formal Jazz guitar, and he would pass on tips and songs to me, and sometimes we'd accompany each other on old Duke Ellington tunes and others he was learning at the time, the doors to our rooms were always open when we were home, and for a while Thom was like the older brother I never had...

I'll leave you with a song - one of Thom's favorite tunes at the time was a number written by Duke Ellington and Bob Russell, and covered by singers like Billie Holiday and Nat King Cole. Thom would sing it out loud and put special emphasis on the very last line:

"Do Nothing 'Till You Hear From me"

Do nothing till you hear from me
Pay no attention to what's said
Why one should tear the seam of anyone's dream
Is over my head

Do nothing till you hear from me
At least consider our romance
If you should take the word of others you've heard
I haven't a chance

True, I've been seen with someone new
But does that mean that I'm untrue?
While we're apart, the words in my heart
Reveal how I feel about you

Some kiss may cloud my memory
And other arms may hold a thrill
But please do nothing till you hear it from me
And you never will!