Call him "True Blue Bill" Charlebois. Bill's an Escanaba gentleman with considerable experience in the field of music.
He learned guitar at 14, and has recorded two compact discs-- a total of 33 songs-- since last fall. He performs, too, singing old country songs every Tuesday at 8th Street Coffee House.
And to top it off, Bill celebrated his 95th birthday on April 10. Yes, that's 95 years old. His family and friends marked the occasion during a surprise party at Rosy's Diner, 1313 Ludington St. Mayor Judi Schwalbach presented Bill with the key to the city and a proclamation from State Rep. Tom Casperson.
Bill and his wife Marieda get breakfast at Rosy's nearly every morning, walking to the restaurant from their southside home. Standing tall with a ready smile, Bill greets the diner's regulars.
But, many don't know about Bill's music career.
Guitar in hand, Bill appears at the coffee house most Tuesday evenings. On March 28, he donned a black cowboy hat and performed "True Blue Bill" and another song in French, no less. That saga details a bachelor's decision regarding which girl he should ask to marry him; a blond, a brunette, an Irish lass or a Canadian.
He was warmly received by the packed house which appreciated the clever humor presented in Bill's songs. A large entourage of the Charlebois family attended the show, watching Bill perform like a troubadour. The Charlebois' family, by the way, includes five daughters, two sons, 24 grandchildren and 44 great-grandchildren..
Born in 1911, Bill grew up in a French-speaking family in the Flat Rock area. In 1925, he took a correspondence course and taught himself to read music and play guitar. Bill said he "had a lot of fun playing as a teenager," and had a band in the 1930s called the Hay Shakers.
In his younger days, Bill played at townhall dances, church functions and house parties. He also performed with a lot of "old guys" many of whom played violin.
Bill fondly remembers a WPA (Works Progress Administration) Federal Music Project teacher sent here during the Great Depression. While Bill already knew how to play by this time the teacher taught many kids to play instruments and started a lot of bands.
Married in 1939, Bill and Marieda will celebrate their 67th wedding anniversary on June 10. He worked for Birds Eye Veneer Co. for 30 years, retiring when the local plant closed in 1972.
Bill remembers old songs from his youth and has performed songs by Gene Autry, Jim Reeves and Eddy Arnold. Ask where his songs come from and Bill points and says, "They're in my head."
Bill's daughter Vickie Elie arranged for her father to record some of those songs at Wailin' Wayne Nault's recording studio. During sessions held last October and on Jan. 8, Bill recorded "Old Country Songs" Vol. 1 & 2.
Produced by Nault, Bill's discs feature his charming vocals and and guitar accompaniment on many rarely heard old country gems such as "Can I Sleep in Your Barn Tonight," "They Cut Down the Old Pine Tree," and "Lamp Lighting Time in the Valley."
The 95-year-old musician even gets a personal name-check in "True Blue Bill," a song who's author is unknown. In this comical ditty, the singer makes some outrageous claims and then adds in the chorus: "Oh, I'm a truthful fellow, they call me True Blue Bill. I have never told a falsehood, and I bet I never will."
Son-in-law Larry Elie first met Bill when his future father-in-law was performing at a country jamboree in the early 1950s on Escanaba radio station WDBC sponsored by local business Wise Brothers Jewelry. Larry later met and married Bill's daughter Vickie.
For a copy of Bill's compact discs, call Vickie at 789-9366.
By the way, Happy Birthday, Bill. And, best wishes with your musical career.