By Larry Kaufmann
Probably no greatly popular American singer had less desire to be a superstar than Charlie Rich. Private, modest and unassuming, he shunned the limelight and sometimes literally wished he could be fishing rather than on stage. Wanted or not, though, fame would come, with more than two-dozen songs on the country and pop charts in the 1970s, making Charlie Rich the biggest country music crossover star of his time.
The ultimate irony is that success came as country’s “Silver Fox,” since Charlie Rich could rock like Elvis, swing like Ella, croon like Sinatra, and plumb soulful depths second only to the Queen of Soul herself. He was the musical twin of Ray Charles, at home in multiple genres and bringing a uniquely soulful fusion of musical styles to everything he sang or played.
Very little of this was known by country music fans back in the day, and it’s almost completely forgotten now. In fact, if Charlie Rich is remembered at all, it is almost as a punch line to the mawkish and clichéd hit song “Behind Closed Doors.” That is more than a shame, because the Silver Fox left behind a complex and deeply felt (although uneven) body of work, and the story of how he did it is worth retelling.
Charlie Rich was born in 1932 in the tiny town of Colt, on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi Delta. He came from a family of Missionary Baptists whose no-nonsense faith defined nearly every aspect of his early life. Drinking and dancing were forbidden, but both parents were musical and were members of a gospel quartet. Charlie originally wanted to be a Baptist preacher, and the gospel roots he absorbed as a child are (as with Elvis) clearly evident in his later singing.
By high school, however, Rich became such a jazz fanatic that he was known to his classmates as Charlie Kenton, after the jazz pianist Stan Kenton. Even in the late 1940s, when jazz was at its zenith, this was a little exotic for rural Arkansas. Reportedly, only two people in his graduating high school class subscribed to the jazz bible down beat: Charlie and a pretty black-haired girl named Margaret Ann Greene—whom he married the year after both graduated.
The next stop was the University of Arkansas, where Charlie studied musical theory for a year, before dropping out and joining the Air Force. He and Margaret Ann moved back to Benton, Arkansas in 1955 and lived there for most of the rest of their lives. Charlie borrowed some money from a relative, bought a small farm, and, on the weekends, played piano across the river in Memphis with a jazz band called The Velvetones.
If he had been left to his own devices, that would probably be the end of the Charlie Rich story. But Margaret Ann had other ideas.
Memphis was a hive of musical activity in the mid-’50s, centered of course around Sun Studios. Sam Phillips opened Sun after World War II and began recording local blues greats such as B. B. King and Howlin’ Wolf before striking gold with Elvis in 1954. In short order, Sun signed and recorded Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Roy Orbison. Margaret Ann thought her husband could out-sing them all, and one day in late 1957 she drove to the studio with several tapes of Charlie that had been recorded in their living room.
Sam Phillips was impressed, but he thought Rich’s style was a little too jazzy and sophisticated for the mass market. Charlie was therefore hired as a musician and songwriter while Phillips set about transforming him into a new Elvis. As Charlie later said, “Sam knew what he liked … [and] he changed me from so much of a jazz feel to a feel of rock’n’roll. It was due to the type of material we did and the type of writing he wanted at that time.”
The makeover was only a moderate success. In late 1959, there was a top 30 hit with “Lonely Weekends,” but it was not supported by a national tour or effective promotion, and Rich’s follow-ups fizzled.
Part of the problem was timing. By the time Sam Phillips let Charlie record, Sun’s best days were already over, with its big stars either gone to major labels (Elvis, Johnny Cash) or disgraced (Jerry Lee Lewis). Worst of all, Sam Phillips was losing interest in the music business, since he was a major investor in the start-up Holiday Inn chain and spent most of his time focusing on its growth.
After Rich’s death, Sam Phillips would say, “I never knew a more talented musician, or a more beautiful human being, than Charlie Rich,” but at the time he did little to discover or nurture his unique talent.
Charlie stayed at Sun until 1962, when the label essentially folded. His music there definitely showcased his rich and expressive baritone, but some of it aped Elvis too deliberately. (In fact, both sound so alike in music from this period that it can be difficult to tell them apart.) Much of the material that he didn’t write himself was weak. His best songs from the Sun years were “Lonely Weekends” and “Who Will the Next Fool Be?” (also a blues hit for Bobby Blue Bland), both of which he wrote.
After leaving Sun, Charlie bounced between three Memphis- or Nashville-based labels (Groove, Smash, and Hi) in the next five years. This was an especially fertile period creatively, with far more songs that explored his gospel, blues, and (to a lesser extent) jazz roots. His best records during these years were for the Smash label, which Charlie later recalled as the time when he was given the most artistic freedom.
His first song for Smash was “Mohair Sam” in 1965, and it turned out to be his second top 40 hit, more than five years after “Lonely Weekends.” Other standout tracks from the Smash years include the bluesy “I Washed My Hands in Muddy Waters,” the soul ballad “A Field of Yellow Daisies,” and the sly, rocking “That’s My Way.”
Many of his best songs during this time were written by Margaret Ann, including “A Field of Yellow Daisies.” However, the eclecticism of his music during these years was probably a barrier to commercial success. There were no follow-up hits to “Mohair Sam,” and Rich was gaining a reputation as being too diverse and versatile to fit into any musical category. He was released from Hi Records in December 1967 and might have been finished commercially if not for one man, who remembered him from the Sun years.
That man was Billy Sherrill, the head of A&R for Epic Records in Nashville. As the force behind the “countrypolitan” sound that was then overtaking country music, Sherrill was already well on his way to being a legendary producer. He worked with Charlie when he was head of Sun Studio’s Nashville operations, and he considered him a major and unique talent.
Evidently his superiors at Epic (part of CBS/Columbia) were skeptical, however, since Rich had been in the business for a decade with scant success, and Sherrill apparently had to lobby hard to get him signed. One reason it was a hard sell was that Sherrill was a country producer and, until that time, Charlie Rich had recorded essentially no country music and showed little interest in it.
Luckily Sherrill prevailed and, over the next three years, he produced a trio of albums (Set Me Free, The Fabulous Charlie Rich, and Boss Man) that showcased Rich’s versatility while also planting his style more firmly in country. Lush orchestration and strings were prominent, but they did not overwhelm the vocals or the depth of feeling Rich brought to nearly every song.
A signature tune from this period is “Life Has its Little Ups and Downs,” a semiautobiographical tune that Margaret Ann wrote about their lives together. Commercially, things were also improving, but sales were still apparently below what was expected. Rich was again in danger of being released from a record label. Sherrill was given one last chance to produce a hit.
That last-chance album was titled Behind Closed Doors. It was released in late 1972, and it was a monster. Both the title track and “The Most Beautiful Girl” went to number one on the country charts, and “The Most Beautiful Girl” was a number one pop hit as well.
“Behind Closed Doors” was an odd breakout hit, since it was not at all representative of the soul- and gospel-inflected ballads that show Rich at his best. Truth be told, the lyrics about a woman who is prim, proper, and ladylike in public but becomes a dynamo in the bedroom are kind of hackneyed, and if sung by a lesser talent the song might be downright embarrassing in the manner of, say, Paul Anka’s “Having My Baby”. And although it’s not his best work, Rich’s smooth and understated vocals make the song at least tolerable.
And after fifteen years, it was the song that transformed Charlie Rich into an overnight sensation. He was suddenly rich, famous, in demand—and completely unprepared. Success nearly destroyed him, although not for the usual “behind the music” reasons. Rich had always been a heavy drinker, in part to battle insecurities and an occasional aversion to public performing. His drinking did become heavier after Behind Closed Doors, but not as part of an excess-laden, megastar lifestyle. Instead it was a release from the demands on his time, the constant public attention, and the lack of privacy.
As the money and awards piled up, everything else fell apart, including, for a brief time, a previously unthinkable separation from his wife and lifelong musical partner. Rich also felt boxed in musically. After years of being able to explore his eclectic musical tastes, he was now pigeonholed as a country performer.
When the crackup finally came, it was spectacular. Rich was voted country music entertainer of the year in 1974, and the following year was asked to present the same award at the Country Music Awards. After opening the envelope with the winner’s name, he didn’t simply announce the name but rather took a cigarette lighter and set the paper on fire, dropped the still-flaming sheet to the ground, and said “My friend, John Denver.”
It would have probably played better on MTV (Courtney Love might appreciate the gesture) but in 1975, country music fans—and record executives—were scandalized by such a blatant repudiation of their taste. Although Rich did eventually make amends and continued to post respectable record sales for the remainder of the decade, things were never the same for him commercially. Artistically there were some successes (such as his beautiful, countrypolitan take on the standard “Since I Fell For You”), but many believed his records became less inspired as they were increasingly buried under Sherrill’s slick production.
Still, Rich had made a small fortune, and by the early ’80s, he largely retired from making or recording music.
With one important exception: from the beginning, Rich’s one, true musical love had been jazz, but he had never recorded a straight-up jazz album. He finally got the chance in 1992, and the result was the brilliant, blues-inflected Pictures and Paintings. After thirty-five years of recording, making this album had to be an incredibly emotional experience, especially since his good friend and musical journalist Peter Guralnick helped to produce it.
This feeling comes across throughout, especially in the title track, the remake of Rich’s own “Don’t Put No Headstone on My Grave,” and the closing number, “Feel Like Going Home.” The last song was directly inspired by Guralnick’s book of the same name, which includes a brutally honest chapter (written in 1970, before he hit the big time) on Rich as an artist of extraordinary depth and passion who is temperamentally unsuited for fame.
The lyrics Rich wrote for this song, after all of his success, are incredibly poignant and revealing:
I feel like going home.
I tried and I failed.
I’m tired and weary.
Everything I’ve done is wrong.
Lord, I feel like going home.
The album must have felt like a homecoming for all involved, although one senses great poignancy when Rich sings, in “Pictures and Paintings,” “It might have been, but it never was.”
Rich died fifteen years ago today, and there’s no time like the present to discover his abundant musical legacy. The best comprehensive overview is the two-CD Feel Like Going Home: The Essential Charlie Rich. A superb collection of his mid-’60s work is The Complete Smash Sessions, and Pictures and Paintings is also essential.
If you want to get an idea of the breadth of his music before buying, Youtube has a decent sampling of his work. A good rocking/bluesy number is “I Washed My Hands in Muddy Water,” although the sound quality of this video clip is not the best:
For a straight country song, I recommend “Since I Fell For You”:
For jazz, here is an in an interesting live TV performance of “Pictures and Paintings”:
And there is both a heartfelt tribute to the man himself and his entire career in his acoustic version of “Feel Like Going Home”:
Larry Kaufmann is an economic consultant and policy adviser to The Heartland Institute who contributes to Yeah Right, a pop culture blog.